The story happens every few years. A parent attempts to sue some family establishment (like a theme park or a restaurant) because a child was traumatized when he saw a wandering mascot not wearing its massive cartoon head. Those kids are lucky. At least there's an actual, live, profusely sweaty human under Mickey's cool exterior. But imagine if there weren't. Imagine that underneath Mickey Mouse's exterior was nothing but a soulless, poorly programmed automaton, and that it might toss the first person it sees into an empty cartoon suit full of grinding metal and gears.
Now imagine your job is to watch over those creepy mascots at night. Five nights, in fact. And instead of having all of Disney's power and money to shut down any attempted Electric Parade uprisings posthaste, you're working at a second-rate Chuck E. Cheese called Freddy Fazbear's that has just enough electrical power to keep the desklight and the security cameras running between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. (And that's if you decide you're safe enough to keep open the metal doors that you can lock down if you detect any threats.) This is Five Nights At Freddy's in a nutshell, but even that explanation doesn't begin to express just how nerve-wracking an experience it is.
It's nerve-wracking even before the real terror starts. The game is well aware of just how unsettling the bright multicolored fantasy objects we hoist onto children on a regular basis are in the right light, and your first look around at Freddy Fazbear's Funtime Palace--empty, dimly lit, and derelict--is a little chilling. Before anything out of the ordinary even happens, every synapse in your brain is sending the message that you do not want to be here. But for a few minutes, all is well, thanks to a recorded message left for you each night by your predecessor, a guy with a business-casual midwestern lilt who gives you a basic rundown on your duties and the morbid history of the place. And even then, this man's reasonable tone when talking about people being stuffed into the metal suits, or when describing a disturbing incident called "The Bite of '87," puts you on edge.
But then his message is over, and the real game begins. Your job is to flit back and forth between the security cameras, ensuring all the wacky animatronic characters are where they're supposed to be, which is in the back room. When they're not--and the fear instinct that comes with realizing that will serve you well here--your job is simply self-preservation. Close the doors, turn on the lights outside your office, and wait for Freddy or one of the others to wander away. The trick of it all is the battery bar at the bottom of the screen. Every action you take drains it, and drains it quickly, so keeping the lights on or the doors closed for half of your shift means the power to the whole place gets killed about 20 seconds before you do, in one of the most sudden and terrifying jump scares ever executed in any medium. Survival is a matter of conservation, observation, and timing.
Five Nights at Freddy's may not seem like much of a game, and indeed, aside from the appearance of Foxy, the animatronic beast that awakens on night three, there are no real surprises once you've mastered the particulars and have died frequently enough. Only one of the animatronics actually moves while you are directly watching it, telling when you need to be on the ball, and hitting the lights or doors is easy until the later chapters. But the devil is in the details. Five Nights At Freddy's works its terrible magic because of contrasts. The part pizzeria's daytime atmosphere is replaced with desolate, looming shadows at night, rending the happiness with an ominous pallor. There's no music outside of the main menu, so anytime the oppressive silence is broken by footsteps, or random humming, or a sudden sting when one of the animatronics is right outside your door, is cause for sheer panic. In addition, while most of the story is imparted by the nightly phone call, if you're observant, you might notice how a particular sign you see changes its message from time to time. It starts with a warning against running or pooping in the pizzeria, but later morphs into a newspaper clip reporting on dead children. The print is so small that you have to squint to see it, which means ignoring your actual duties. And hello, you're dead. Being observant might save your life in Five Nights at Freddy's, but being too observant will get you killed.
The real miracle here is that the game communicates its gut-wrenching horror without a single drop of blood, yet still belongs in the upper echelon of horror games. You could describe Five Nights at Freddy's as consisting of mostly still pictures, but it's that stillness that causes you to sit there, hands shaking, with less than five-percent power left, praying the clock ticks over to 6 a.m.