Horror is a well-established genre within the indie gaming community. It could even be argued that it was one of the first genres where indie developers really made their mark in the gaming industry, with early cult successes like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Vanish.
The cult following enjoyed by the horror genre makes it a popular choice for many indie developers looking to get noticed and break into the industry. But here’s the problem: in so saturated a genre, it is hard to stand out. It is even harder when you stop and think about what players are expecting out of horror games: thrill and fear. The more horror games a person has played, the more difficult it becomes to scare them, to impress them, and to stand out on the long list of games they’ve played when they are recommending titles to their friends.
So, with all of those challenges in mind, how on earth did indie developer Scott Cawthon manage to build so massive a cult following around the Five Nights and Freddy’s franchise? Some people will say it’s because of the mystery and the lore of the game, and while that is definitely a huge factor in why people stuck around, those elements did not even get introduced until the second game, long after the first game had already achieved massive success. Others will tell you he just got lucky, but what good does that do you when trying to replicate his success for your own games?
In reality, the secret to the immediate cult success of Five Nights at Freddy’s is simple: it changed the rules. Most indie horror games are what I call haunted house simulators. They drop players in creepy places with a monster lurking in the shadows and say, “walk.” The fear comes from being forced to venture into the unknown and the anticipation that something could find you at any time. Five Nights at Freddy’s flips everything players thought they knew about horror games on its head. Instead of making players walk towards something waiting to jump out at them, Five Nights at Freddy’s forces players to sit and wait for the monsters to come to them.
This simple switch in game mechanics changes the player experience entirely. Haunted house sims are mainly about avoiding the monsters around the corner while physically walking through the predetermined storyline. Players are able to stop and breathe before moving forward when they get scared, and they are often given some level of control over whether or not they run into the monster stalking them through the shadows. Five Nights at Freddy’s, however, takes the power of avoidance out of players’ hands entirely; the monsters are coming for you and all you can do is sit, watching the cameras in horror as the animatronics get closer and closer to your doors.
Instead of giving players the option to avoid the animatronics, Five Nights at Freddy’s forces players to actively confront them, meaning that while your heart is racing over the anticipation, you still have to keep your wits about you. Where haunted house sims passively guide players through the game, Five Nights at Freddy’s puts complete control of survival in player hands. You have to shut the doors in order to keep the animatronics out, but you cannot give into your fear and merely keep the doors shut constantly without running out of power, which means certain death. There is a strategy to the game that players must learn through practice, and every time they fail they are punished with a jump scare. This creates a terrifying and wholly unique horror experience. You always know that every death and every jump scare could have been avoided if only you had been paying closer attention. But that’s easier said than done when you’re already scared out of your mind.
Five Nights at Freddy’s took everything players thought they knew about horror games and chucked it out the window. By making a simple change to the typical horror game mechanics and forcing players to remain stationary while the monsters came to them, the game created a type of anticipation and fear that players had never experienced before. As a result, it was able to thrill and terrify even longtime horror fans who had become largely desensitized to the typical scare tactics of the genre. It did not blend into the genre. It didn’t remind players of previous games. It was something entirely new.
Whether you make horror games, adventure RPGs, or strategy games, you can and should take a page out of Scott Cawthon’s developer playbook. Stop and think about the typical mechanics of your genre and what players usually expect out of those games. And then ask yourself, “what would happen if we did this instead?”