I’m pretty interested in Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender. Both are low-budget indie horror games that have, in the last few years, reached incredible levels of viral success. The two titles are very different: Freddy’s is about a security guard who must survive the night in a department store full of killer animatronic animals, and Slender is a game about finding notes in a forest while avoiding the infamous Slenderman.
Despite the obvious differences both of these titles have enjoyed significant success, particularly with teenagers. The extent of the impact these games have had on American teens wasn’t clear to me until Mike, the Art Director at Robot Invader, told me about his daughter. Apparently she and her friends like to get together and play a game called “Slenderman.” The setup, as described to Mike by his daughter, is very similar to the design of Slender, only this game isn’t played with a computer: one kid gets to be Slenderman and she chases the others around outside. In fact, most of these kids have never played Slender. The game has wormed its way out of the computer monitor into their consciousness without direct contact. Freddy’s is even a bigger sensation, apparently. Here’s a family counselor explaining Five Nights at Freddy’s to worried parents. Both of these games are simple to play and pretty scary, and have managed to capture a large audience of kids.
Though Slender and Freddy’s are very different games, they share a number of similar traits. Perhaps it is these traits that make both titles so accessible to younger audiences.
Both Slender and Freddy’s go out of their way to obscure key parts of their game design. In Slender, the speed and movement pattern of the Slenderman is unpredictable. You never see him move, but when you turn your back on him he gets closer. In Freddy’s, the movement of the monster animals is also unclear, as is the amount of power consumed by each of the actions you can perform. By making key rules unclear, the authors of these games make it harder for you to treat the experience as a logic puzzle. There’s no comfort to be found in understanding the rule set and exploiting its weaknesses because the rule set itself is hard to pin down.
Both Slender and Freddy’s force you to look away from the thing that is trying to kill you. This is a pretty powerful mechanic. In the case of Freddy’s, you can’t spend all of your time on the monitors or you won’t have enough power for the doors. In Slender, looking at Slenderman actually hurts you, and you have no choice but to turn away from him and run. This mechanic induces tension quickly because you must actively deprive yourself of incisive information to win.
Pop-Out Scare Failure Event
Neither Freddy’s nor Slender rely on a series of pop-out scares, but both use them to make failing a level dramatic. Rather than pop some hideous creature out of a dark corner every few minutes, these titles build tension with the threat of a pop-out scare, which doesn’t actually occur until the player fails and reaches the game over state. These games are designed for replay, and once you’ve failed once the weight of the impending pop-out scare serves to dramatically increase your level of stress. This is a very smart way to use pop-outs, I think, because it gives the player no release; rather than employ the common pattern of building tension to a pop-out, then easing off, the pop-out-at-the-end approach only relinquishes its grip when the game is over (or the level completed). The actual pop-out effect is almost inconsequential. Tension is built by the impending scare that you know is coming if you fail.
The design of Freddy’s and Slender is good, but I think their virality amongst kids has to do with them being tests of mettle. These games are a safe way to prove your courage, both to yourself and your classmates. Like Candyman, Bloody Mary, or Hanako-in-the-Toilet, Slender and Freddy’s provide easy-to-reproduce fear challenges that kids can perform without involving adults. The challenges are equitable and accessible: anybody who has a mirror can try to summon Bloody Mary, and Five Nights at Freddy’s can be played on just about every PC, smartphone, or tablet platform under the sun. Children use these challenges to test their mettle and then boast about the results to their peers. This social, competitive aspect of these games is probably what drives them to be as widespread and popular as they are. But of course, they would have never become tests of teenage fortitude if they had not been well-designed and extremely accessible to begin with.
Slender and Five Nights at Freddy’s are good games, and are worth playing if you want to study interactive horror. But more interesting is the way that these titles have gripped a segment of the audience not usually considered by horror game designers. The appeal of these games to teenagers is, to me, the most fascinating part of their success.