Like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Eight Pages before it, Five Nights at Freddy’s exploded in popularity thanks to Let’s Plays and viral exposure. After seeing the AAA horror genre fall into bloated disrepair, this straight-forward approach to horror has become refreshing. Five Nights at Freddy’s is packed with jumpscares, and that funhouse accessibility makes it ripe for entertainment (mostly at the expense of your friends). Barely three months after launching the first game on Steam, creator Scott Cawthon stealth launched Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, removing safety doors and adding new enemies in their place. The sequel was a financial success, again thanks to the Let’s Play crowd, but it was met with a somewhat lukewarm reception. Already a third game is in the works, less than six months after the first game launched. How many nights are too many?
As far as indie horror villains go, only Slender Man is more iconic than Freddy Fazbear. Perhaps it’s the straightforward, tense gameplay that’s driven designer Scott Cawthon’s success. Perhaps it’s an ingrained fear of the Chuck E. Cheese animatronics that traumatized us as kids. Perhaps it’s the lore behind Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, which has kept fans speculating for months now. Whatever it is, Five Nights at Freddy’s has quickly earned a spot in the horror gaming pantheon.
There was little doubt we’d see a sequel, but Five Nights 2 came so quickly on the heels of the first game that Cawthon only had time to make minor improvements. More characters and items are introduced to change things up (and feed the lorehounds), but many of the first game’s issues persist and are exacerbated by even more obtuse design and a higher difficulty. The new tweaks add a bit of depth to the proceedings, but not enough to keep the game from feeling repetitive. The increasingly complex, creepypasta-caliber story behind Freddy’s Fazbear’s Pizza seems to have been given the most attention at the expense of an opportunity to really improve the gameplay. It’s a textbook example of style over substance.
That trend seems to be continuing. Less than two months after the sequel’s launch, a cryptic teaser introduced us to Five Nights at Freddy’s 3. A single animatronic stalks the building, which is now a funhouse attraction instead of a pizza place. In the trailer, all the jumpscares and loud noises are intact, with only cosmetic details signaling any significant difference. Many gamers have yet to finish Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, so putting out a third show feels rushed. You could argue this for the second as well, though in that case the series still had an appealing mystique. Each sequel dilutes that, though. A longer lead time between entries in the series would give Cawthon more time to improve the games and aid in building hype.
Five Nights at Freddy’s still has a lot of potential as an IP, but much of the potential is being wasted in favor of running through the series’ goofy backstory. The mechanics have yet to evolve much beyond the basic surveillance that was established from the start, and the mystery that’s supposed to draw us in is already beginning to unravel. Though the idea of being chased a single animatronic is kind of unique, it doesn’t do much to address the criticisms that have been leveled at the game’s design. The franchise continues to build itself up at an alarming rate without taking time to tighten the bolts. At this rate, it could collapse at any moment.