Of all of the valid criticism that people could make about the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, the one I never understood was the complaints about it coming out too frequently. I totally understand having enmity for games that  fail to innovate year after year (hello Assassin’s Creed), but that doesn’t really describe what happened with Five Nights at Freddy’s.

There was something a little different going on with Five Nights at Freddy’s, something that I think a lot of people didn’t quite notice in the shuffle. With its short development cycles, low price point, and short length, I believe that, though it was never really acknowledged as such, Five Nights at Freddy’s is one of the best implementations of an episodic model of gaming that you can find outside of Telltale Games. More than just a game split into parts, Five Nights is a ‘true’ episodic series of games; a series that makes use of a staggered release schedule in order to increase the overall effectiveness of the game.

Five Nights at Freddy’s, whether you liked it or not, made design decisions that interacted with its episodic format in ways that fundamentally enhanced the experience. Because of those choices, I think it’s worth examining just what made Five Nights at Freddy’s such a great example of episodic formatting.

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The Story

For all the praise I am about to heap on this series’s plot, I have never actually been all that much of a fan. I always thought that Five Nights’ plot was something of a disappointing mess that failed to neatly resolve itself. Negativity aside, as the Five Night’s at Freddy’s series ran, it did one thing really well; building a mystery. Five Nights at Freddy’s got people asking questions with its haunted location, sparse plot, intriguingly designed villains, and menacing atmosphere.

Why was the pizzeria haunted? Who is Golden Freddy? Who is the phone guy? Who is the player character? During the height of Five Nights at Freddy’s initial hype, I saw discussion about this all over internet forums and in the youtube-sphere. FNAF gets the audience asking questions and, even if these questions don’t have satisfying answers, this gets people thinking and talking. That’s fantastic for building communities and buzz around a game. In the wake of each of the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, people forums forums, comments sections, and related video lists with speculation and theories about what was actually happening in that benighted pizza emporium.

This is where Five Night’s episodic format becomes a unique advantage; it lets the developer control when new details are given to a fandom eager for information on the plot. Any game can end and leave a bunch of mysteries unsolved. That doesn’t matter. People will talk about the mysteries for a while and then promptly forget about them before the next game comes out. Five Nights’ mystery didn’t have this problem because it was able to release a new episode just as the discussion started to die down to reignite the conversation.

This kind of fan interaction is a unique thing to episodic media because it relies on the intermissions in the story imposed by the episodic format to build this tension and get people talking while also relying on the short development time to keep the audience tantalized without frustrating them.

 

The Mechanics

Discussions of episodic gaming focus on the story, development cycle, and assets of the game in question and often leave out one frequently unconsidered aspect of what might make for a good episodic game: the interaction between the mechanics of the game and the downtime the player gets between episodes.

I recently tried getting back into Dark Souls 2 this week and, though I’d managed to get quite good at the game in the past, I found that all of my hard won skills and muscle memory for the game had fallen into disuse. This made me realize one big thing; a game with Dark Souls style mechanics would be freaking miserable to play as an episodic experience. Imagine how dismal it would be to get into the groove of such a game, to memorize its complicated mechanics, its opponents’ moves, and all of the other minutiae and then to be dropped from the experience and have to wait for the next chunk of the game.

There are some games that only mechanically work when you are able to play through it in one complete package; Five Nights at Freddy’s does not have that problem. By focusing on simple mechanics and making minor changes between games, Five Nights creates a game that doesn’t suffer from having breaks between its chapters. By having simple, shallow mechanics, the game restricts the mechanical investment a player can make into the game and prevents them from feeling robbed by downtime.

On the other end of the mechanical spectrum, mechanics that could be far too shallow for a 20+ hour game, can absolutely hold together a one or two hour experience. Five Nights at Freddy’s has fantastic mechanics for an episodic game precisely because it has mechanics that would be terrible for a 10-20+ hour horror romp. Jump scares are a thing that stop being effective in a hurry when they’re used too much and Five Nights at Freddy’s is a game that uses them constantly. However, there’s a little secret about jump scares; if you take a long break from jump scares and then go back to them, they start working again.

That’s the brilliance of the interaction between Five Nights’ mechanics and episodic format. The time between entries, ideally, brings players back to a state of mind where jump scares become effective again. Of course, Five Nights at Freddy’s wasn’t perfect at this. I’m not going to say that episodic games need to reinvent the wheel between each entry, but Five Nights at Freddy’s would definitely have benefited from making some slightly more substantive changes to its gameplay as the series progressed to keep it a touch fresher and keep its jump scares from becoming boring or alienating for its audience.

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What’s the lesson to take from FNAF then?

Five Nights at Freddy’s is a game that anybody who has any interest in dipping their toes into episodic gaming needs to pay serious attention to. In some ways the game is a towering achievement in what episodic gaming can achieve while also being a cautionary parable about the pitfalls of stretching your game premise too thin over too many entries. Regardless, it has a lot to teach designers and players about how episodic games should be made.

The main thing about Five Nights at Freddy’s that I will crow about until the cows come home is just how it shows that there is a lot more to making an episodic game than slicing a full sized experience into pieces and selling them. An episodic format directly interacts with a game’s story, community, and even mechanics and is not something that game developers or publishers should ever dive into without considering just how dividing a game means more than just turning it into smaller chunks.

About The Author

Contributor

Niko Berry was summoned to this plane by nerd-diabolists eons ago. In spite of the dark omens of his arrival, he mostly just writes about video games on the internet.

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