Tim Newsome-Ward & Darren Flowers Interview (Desktop Daydreams)

The Corridor
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Life after Kickstarter: Catching up with The Corridor

Around this time last year, I happened across a rather interesting indie horror game called The Corridor: On Behalf of the Dead. Developed by Bradford-based indie studio Desktop Daydreams, it’s a 3D first-person horror game coming to PC and Xbox One, and, if I may say so myself, I think it looks pretty damn cool.

You haven’t heard of it? Allow me to bring you up to speed. The game places you in the shoes of Ri Anderson, a Custodian (think a neurological Sherlock Holmes mixed with equal parts Judge Dredd and Inception‘s Dom Cobb and you’re on the right lines) who has to enter the mind of a suspected murderer and navigate through their various memories to get to the truth of a (probably rather grisly) murder case. This process of entering minds and poking about with their memories is facilitated with the use of a special program called The Corridor (think The Matrix‘s VR program, only with less gun-blasting lobby scenes and designer sunglasses and more creepy monsters and mind-bending madness). As the name might suggest, the program displays the suspect’s mind to the Custodian as a virtual corridor, which acts as a hub area from which the player accesses the various scattered memories of the subject. I say scattered, because the order in which they are accessed is randomised each playthrough. The player has to navigate their way through mysterious mental echoes to find important clues, avoid creatures and gradually build up a case of evidence in order to make a final judgement on the suspect at the climax of the game.

Sounds neat right? Intrigued by the game and its curious cognitive concepts, I previously spoke to the game’s Designer, Tim Newsome-Ward, on the eve of the game’s August 2014 Kickstarter campaign to find out more. Although the game generated positive media coverage, was selected for Steam Greenlight and picked up plenty of new fans along the way, in the end the project sadly didn’t reach its minimum funding goal. Since then we haven’t heard much from the Desktop Daydreamers, and to an outsider, it looked like the lights might have ultimately been switched off on The Corridor for good.

Thankfully, I can tell you right now that this is definitely not the case. I once again met with Tim and his colleague Darren Flowers, Desktop Daydream’s Creative Director, to talk about what’s new with The Corridor, and it sounds like things are very much full scream (sorry) ahead.

Pig Head

“It’s a been a tough road,” laughs Tim good-naturedly as he nurses a hot cup of coffee, “We’re still going strong even though we’ve had a rollercoaster ride at the beginning of this year.” It’s a bright sunny Bradford morning when I meet Tim and Darren, and in contrast to their pleasant and cheery company, the nice weather and the plush furnishings of Waterstones’ cafe, I’m about to learn just how dark and tough this rollercoaster ride through the harsh reality of indie development has been for the tiny two-person studio. I kick things off with a rather unsophisticated opening question; what happened next after the Kickstarter failed?

“We had to think positively,” Tim recalls. “Steam have given us the okay, so we thought look, let’s keep working on the game keep pushing as far as we can.” Their resolve to keep going in the face of adversity is even more impressive when it’s revealed that the team’s programmer left the project at the end of last year. “We got to Christmas, and then our coder Chris left, so we lost our technical side. As a designer I’m part technical and part arty, and Daz is full art on the creative side of things, so we just thought oh shit!” he laughs. “We’ve known Chris since university, and we mean no disrespect to him; he had other things to do and his own financial concerns to deal with. He had to move on. We still talk to him and he’s still interested in working with us at some point, but basically he couldn’t dedicate the time that we needed and that’s fair enough.”

Chris’ departure inexorably forced the team into the unenviable position of having to find a new programmer – fast. “Everything we’d done up to that point was just a prototype, there were no solid or fixed frameworks; everything was hashed together to get a playable idea down. What we really needed was someone who could come in and tackle the engineering side of things. Someone to come in, take the reins and tell us what we need to do from a tech standpoint. We were humming and hawing for ages, but eventually we just turned to the community to see if there was anyone who liked the idea. We set up a post on the Unity forums at the beginning of this year which contained a few screenshots and the basic premise of the game.”

Little did they know however, that their programming soulmate was just around the digital corner. “We got tons of replies from coders, so it took a while to sift through all these applications. Eventually, we contacted Tony Li from Pixel Crushers in the States – he’s been fantastic as he bought into the whole idea and just gets what we’re going for completely. There was just something about Tony that made you know he was going to deliver; he was very much to the point and he came across with a lot of confidence. He was really good because he just knew what we needed and was totally professional. We sent Tony the GDD (Game Design Document) and he read through it and said what would work and what wouldn’t. We actually ended up ripping out more or less everything we’d started with and started again from scratch.”

On top of the personnel setbacks, another big concern from a technical standpoint was the game’s engine. Up to this point, The Corridor had been developed using Unity 4, but the release of the shiny new Unity 5 engine in March 2015 posed an enticing, but costly temptation for Desktop Daydreams. “Unity 5 had just launched and we thought wow, that looks nice! We’d already built a lot of the game in Unity 4 by this point – we had about five or six full levels finished and looking nice with the physically based shading kit, so we set these up in another test project and started converting them over to Unity 5.”

The decision to move things over to the newly announced Unity 5 was a particularly agonising choice for Darren. “I went kicking and screaming into Unity 5!” he laughs. “I didn’t want to do it at all, because there’s only two of us tackling this side of the game, so to completely changeover from Unity 4 to 5 would be a lot of work. We’d both put so much time into the game already, but were at a point with Unity 4 where I think we’d pushed it to its limits.”

Nevertheless, as Darren explains to me their visual aims for the game, it certainly sounds like all the extra work that went into migrating the project over to Unity 5 was well worth the trouble. “The main thing we had to be sure of was that it would be visually acceptable. We’ve set ourselves quite a high mantle – we’re not skimping anywhere, and if there’s something that doesn’t look right then we do it again. At first, when opening what we’d already made in Unity 4 in the new engine, it didn’t quite have that ‘wow’ factor, despite all the new shaders, lighting and textures in there. Now though, there’s nothing of the original game left – we’ve rebuilt everything, and it all just looks totally different and so much better now. We’ve worked on levels where we’ve completed everything, and then decided it’s not good enough, so we scrap everything and start again. It can be quite tearful binning something that you’ve spent the past six months working on, but we’ve had to do it because we want the game to look and feel the best that it possibly can.”

Basically, we started the whole game again, and reassessed everything,” Tim adds.With the new lighting, everything has this new realistic look to it because of the new physically based shaders and stuff, it works really well. It feels a lot more in line with other games that are already out there, but it’s going to take more time yet. We’re getting to a point where in the next few days we’ll be at the Alpha stage, all the in-game systems and mechanics are present and working. We’ve still got to do a lot of work in terms of getting levels and memories working, and getting the actual gameplay of those levels up to scratch, but because all the base frameworks are in place that will be a lot easier now. Looking back, we’ve done the right thing moving to Unity 5 because we think that we’ve got a much better game now as a result.”

With a new programmer in place, and the migration from Unity 4 to 5 well underway, Desktop Daydreams’ next move was to seek out potential publishers. Tim and Darren reached out to Microsoft, specifically their ID@Xbox program, who were quick to help step in and support the game. “We thought about what we needed to do next and decided to approach Xbox One and the ID@Xbox team. Having been Greenlit on Steam gave us a bit of leverage, and Xbox shipped us through the ID@Xbox onboarding process really quickly. We’ve got the XDKs, they sent the kit out really fast. It was really surprising and nice because they wanted to see a bit of the game, some screenshots and what figures we’d got from Steam. They were really good and supportive – it was like wow, we’ve got some kit from Xbox, even though we haven’t really got anything solid to show yet! I think they just saw the idea, thought that it was good and decided to get us onboard.”

Understandably in light of the tumultuous events, the game’s release window has now been delayed to Spring 2016. “Originally, we were aiming to have the game out by Christmas of this year, but with all the setbacks with losing staff and upgrading to Unity 5, it’s pushed us over into next year. I think towards the first quarter of next year, around April-ish hopefully. It’s going to be another few months before we get to Beta, but once we’ve signed off on the Alpha and we’re happy with everything, the Beta will progress pretty quickly as it’ll just be a case of building levels, building the gameplay in those levels, getting the story working and then testing it all. Testing is a big phase though, so we’re thinking of trying a closed Beta. We would like to do an open Beta, but with the game being so story-focused, we don’t want the narrative to get out there and onto YouTube before the finished thing is actually out and ruin it for people. We might release some specific playthrough videos or small slices of trailer footage, but it’s tricky because of course we want people to play it, but we also don’t want to give away the story. When you’ve only really got two people working full-time on a game and you’re going for top quality on all parts of it, then it does take time. It’s all part of the cycle of development; it’s been hard work, but we’re getting there.”

“We’ve been working on this for so long, and we’ve had such a knockback with the changeover to Unity 5 – all those events have put us back at least six months or so at least – that we don’t want all the people who helped us get through Steam Greenlight to forget that we’re still bringing this game out,” Darren earnestly attests. “Hopefully the game will have matured a lot, and it’s now just about giving us the time to get the finished thing out. But hey, these things happen when you’re making your own game with basically just two people and no budget!”

Without a central office for the team to work out of, there’s also a pressing need to keep morale levels up amongst everyone on the team. As well as Tony, Tim and Darren also regularly collaborate with animator Andreea Lintaru, but due to both geographic and chronological concerns, it’s hard to find time when everybody is free to touch base. “I think for a team to successfully work virtually without an office, everyone needs to be self-disciplined and have that drive to get up and do what you need to do,” says Tim. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose motivation and it’s just not going to work. Thankfully though, the DIY attitude of indie development certainly seems to have focused the team’s ongoing efforts, and kept them a close-knit group. “We’ve been working on the game for over two years now. We’re such a small team for a project of this scope and we’ve got to do everything ourselves. It’s an exciting process, but in terms of finance we’re running on fumes really. It can be a strain at times, but that’s also part of the fun of it all; you can only rely on yourself to get everything done. Daz tackles the creative side of things and I do the design, Tony writes the code and Andy animates. It’s how it is, you’ve got to learn what you need to do and just get things done.”

Spider Man

With the main pieces of Desktop Daydreams’ story over the last year in place, our conversation moves onto more specific details about the state of The Corridor itself. As a story-heavy singleplayer horror game with a mixture of linear and non-linear parts, I’m keen to hear how they still plan to get these potentially conflicting narrative elements working together cohesively. “We want it to be different to your typical linear video game story even though you’ll play it linearly with junction points where you’ll be able to choose your path,” Tim tells me.

“We had an idea first that when the player moves through these memory booths, you’d end up in a completely random level, but we decided that to get it right it just wouldn’t be a practical thing for a team of our size to do. So instead we decided to come up with a set amount of levels and really, really polish them.”

Interestingly, Tim explains how they have looked to real world brain psychology for inspiration when designing the structure of these in-game memories. “How would you access the memories in somebody else’s mind? Would you randomly access these memories, or would they come to you in some sort of structure? Could you travel back through that mind again and go to a different memory? Thinking in terms of the science behind real life memory engrams, we don’t really know how they work or how they are stored in the brain, so we built that idea into the in-game science and lore of The Corridor. The game might give you two hatches to go through, each taking you different ways – so that concept plays into how this virtual mental corridor is structured. We came up with the idea to have these branching points where you have to make a choice, and then once you’ve played through a memory, you’ll go back to the main path.”

“As you choose your own path through the game, you might do or see something in a memory that might influence how you perceive the story, and your decision process might be completely different if you went another way. You are going into these different memories at various branching points, and although it might feel disjointed along the way, when you get to the end you’ll be able to look back and piece it all together.”

While we’re on the topic of jumping into people’s minds and rooting through their memories and whatnot, I ask how the process of integrating Oculus Rift support is going. Unfortunately, although the whole premise of The Corridor makes it an ideal fit for VR, sadly it sounds like things are still at an early stage here. We haven’t got any of the Oculus kits at the moment,” admits Tim, “but we’ve also not really been at the stage where we felt like we needed one just yet. It’s still something we really want to do though, because I think it adds to that feeling of immersion we want. We’ve been building the levels with a 60fps target in mind, so things have already been optimised a lot for VR. It’s a time consuming process, but we’re getting there.”

Aside from the general narrative concerns, another big challenge for the two developers is designing a horror game around the personal and mutable tastes of its players. “We’re trying to scare people – that’s our main aim really, but it’s such a subjective thing. What do you do exactly?” Darren muses.

“Creating a universal fear is a very hard thing to achieve,” adds Tim. “We’ve done a lot of research into different types of horror, and ultimately fear is a relative thing to each person. People take their own personal fears and experiences into the games they play. Jumpscares are probably going to be a scary factor for some people, but we don’t want to overuse them as a mechanic.”

“A lot of games rely purely on jumpscares, but I find that once I’ve had one or two thrown at me then I just quickly get used to them,” interjects Darren. “It’s about keeping that fear in the player throughout the game. We’re almost trying to get people frightened of themselves. They might walk into a room and see something and make a decision based on what they’ve seen. Later on, it might turn out that they made completely the wrong decision, and we might try to make that realisation a bit upsetting. We want people to be aware of what they’re doing within the game’s environments all the time. Getting that idea to work within a horror framework is quite hard.”

“That’s why a lot of horror games don’t work, because they probably don’t have that level of fear to them.” Tim reasons. “It’s all about getting that uneasy feeling of being somewhere you don’t ever really feel comfortable. Some horror games are largely about the combat and the blood etc., but for us I think the important word isn’t so much horror, but fear. One of our main points of reference which we always go back to is Silent Hill. That first game had that feeling of constant dread, you never really knew what was coming, you never felt safe at any time – that’s the atmosphere we’re aiming for. It’s not necessarily about being anxious of dying, but rather capturing that feeling of tension and discomfort and sustaining it throughout an entire game.”

Darren suggests that a crucial factor in effectively creating and sustaining anxiety in the player is the aesthetic design of the world. “A lot of that goes back to the environment design. For example, one of my favourite bits from the first Resident Evil is the part where you move the bookcase in the Dormitory and go down into this flooded chamber just before you reach Neptune’s Aqua Ring. The creepy music playing in the room before you get to the flooded lab was so effective and it just sent shivers up and down my spine. It’s about creating that sense of fear and eeriness and having it pervade throughout the game continuously; We’re trying to create similar moments and memories in The Corridor that will hopefully stick with players for a similarly long time.”

“I think above all, you’ve got to capture that feeling of the unknown, so we want the environments to be as diverse as possible. They might throw unexpected things your way, so it’s not just about what you’re seeing and what you feel, but also questioning the nature of the spaces that you’re in as well. Am I actually in this environment or is it something else? One minute you might be outside, one minute you might be in something very cartoony, but they’ve all got that element of horror running through them, that similar atmosphere of fear that we’re after. Silent Hill did it with the radio static; if you were near to a creature you’d get the static crackling through on the portable radio. You might not even be able to see what you were close to, but it still sent that shiver down your spine.”

Silent Hill has not only inspired the team artistically, but also in regard to what elements aren’t necessary for The Corridor – such as a combat system.

“The only thing I didn’t really gel with in the game was the combat. You’d find a creature and have to batter it to death with a dodgy stick! It just felt like it was taking something away from the mood for me,” Darren reasons.

That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to put combat in The Corridor,” Tim affirms. “A full combat is not in the game because we’re trying to keep things true to the story of the game. The player’s character is attached to a machine that connects them to another person’s mind, and you’re entering their thoughts and walking through a virtually constructed representation of their memories to see what they’ve done and to find evidence of a potential crime. Would you really be there to fight things? Would you be there to shoot and kill? Your character is more of an observer, but would you still have to defend yourself from this other mind? We’ve gone through all these questions so many times! Thinking along those lines, we’ve come up with a scenario where you might come across a gun or weapon, but it might not be necessarily for shooting something or someone. If you fire off the gun, then you might actually just ruin the puzzle it was the solution to.”

Having said that, the team has experimented with the idea of a combat system to see how it could function. “We’ve temporarily got guns in the current game at the minute actually,” Tim reveals. “You can run round and shoot at stuff as part of a test mode we’ve built, and it is quite cool to have those weapons in there to see what combat in the game would be like. But we’ve got to be realistic and remember that to build an entire combat system with such a small team and to suitably balance the levels to accommodate combat would be a real strain on our already limited resources. It’s also a question of whether the game actually needs all this stuff?”

Darren jumps in right away to answer. “I don’t think it does. I remember playing Doom 3 for the first time and I was petrified. There was a time where I walked through a dark room and I could hear something breathing next to me, and when I got a tiny bit of light in there I could just see this bloke stood next to me! He didn’t do anything, but still, that moment was very creepy! The moment the combat started though I just lost interest in the game as it was not really what I wanted anymore. I really liked that emphasis on the fear element, I liked the uncomfortable feeling that you got from the characters and the environment.”

Angel Statue

I get a particularly insightful look into Tim and Darren’s different design philosophies when the topic of Konami’s cancelled P.T. comes up in our chat. Specifically, it’s talk of P.T.‘s metagame puzzles which sparks up an ongoing debate the two developers are still currently working through for their own game about how much help should be offered to the player in a game via the user interface. Darren wants to create a totally immersive experience in The Corridor, one that doesn’t overtly direct or influence the player by highlighting items or displaying textual hints whatsoever.

I like that feeling of total immersion where there’s just the barest minimum of UI elements present to guide the player. I like to know what I’m doing in a game without being explicitly told what I’m supposed to be doing. For example, if you see an item such as a book, if it’s part of the game you might be able to interact with it, if it’s not, you can’t. I don’t like it when you walk into a room and you’ve got two or three objects that you’re obviously supposed to interact with and they’re all shining brightly. Personally, I’d rather have those items not so directly indicated to the player,” he says.

On the other hand, Tim would prefer the UI to subtly call out important items and offer additional information to the player when necessary. “It’s about finding that balance. A lot of games will highlight important items in the game world, and we’re trying to work out what the best method is of calling out important items to the player. Do you highlight or put a glow around an item, do you change the cursor to a hand icon when it’s hovering over it? Do you put important items in more light, do you design that room in such a way that the items stand out? Do you make them aesthetically pleasing, or do you put a little red carpet running right up to each thing? There are good examples of this in games like Bioshock, where important primary narrative items had that golden glow to them, where secondary pickups like ammo and audio diaries had more of a subtle silvery shimmer. If you’re going for a totally immersive experience though, where the idea is to put the player into the game as if they were actually there, then you don’t want to have those sort of effects present. It’s a hard thing to get right!”

Darren suggests that a careful ‘less is more’ approach to the level and item design is vital for such a stripped down UI to work. “Basically it means that you’ve got to put less clutter in a room. If you put too many things in one area and people are searching absolutely everywhere, they will likely get bored, so the trick is to put less items into the environments but make them more meaningful and clear.

It’s fascinating to see how the two guys go back and forth on this tricky issue. Ultimately, they tell me that they’ve decided to go with a traditional UI and hint system, and give the players who want a hands-off experience the option to turn all UI hints off. “In The Corridor, we’re going to put the option in of being able to turn off visual hints in the user interface, so if you want you can play through without any overt visual feedback to guide you through the game,” elaborates Tim. “It’s been a point of contention, but some players will want that sort of fully immersive experience, while others will want more direction.”

“At the same time, we don’t want people to get totally stuck, to the point where it becomes frustrating. If the player has been working around for five hours and just can’t find the solution to a puzzle then you can just turn the hints back on again. I remember playing games like the original Tomb Raider, where I’d be looking for a missing cog puzzle piece for about four or five days! By that point I just didn’t want to play anymore, but then once I finally found the missing cog it was simply the best thing ever!” he laughs.

As we finish our coffees and our conversation draws to a close, Darren speaks about reconciling the contradictory schools of thought around what constitutes good indie game design. “I was reading something the other day on Facebook from Ga-Ma-Yo where one lad was giving some advice, which was basically when you make a game you need to make it for yourself. Then somebody else said no, that’s totally wrong, you need to make it for everybody! I think we’ve done a bit of both; we’ve made a game that we’d like to play but we’ve also tried to do a game that other people would really want to play as well.

Tim echoes his sentiment. “We have to be realistic. It’s bad to say it, but we’re running a business, we’re trying to make a living doing this, and you’ve got to consider the market. You’ve got to make something people want to play, something that people will want to pay money for. When you’re an indie developer, you’ve got to do something a little bit different to put yourself out there, and people will pay for quality. The good thing is that now we’ve got all the core mechanics working, it’s more a case of just building assets now and getting them all working correctly. The end product will hopefully be something that gamers will absolutely love to play.”

At the end of the day,” Darren laughs “we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love gaming. It’d be great to get a game out there that we were involved in that people enjoy. But loads and loads of money would also be alright as well, I’ve got a wife and two small children to feed!”

Here’s hoping 2016 goes plain sailing for Desktop Daydreams. You can follow Tim and Darren’s progress over @desktopdaydream on Twitter, and keep an eye glued to their website and Steam Greenlight page for the latest updates.

Five Nights at Freddy’s – Review

FNAF - Title Screen
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(Reviewed on iPad)

 Bear Thrills

Five Nights at Freddy’s is one of the most frightening and intense games that I’ve had the joy/horror of playing in recent years, yet it’s also one of the most hilarious. It’s an impressive indie horror game, made solely by the talented Scott Cawthon, that’s packed full of dichotomies; it’s horrifyingly tense, yet incredibly simplistic, ridiculously fun to watch, but utterly terrifying to play yourself. Though it’s short, small and simple, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a memorable and very effective horror experience that is to be savoured.

The game is basic; it’s essentially just an extended barrage of brutal jump scares that you must endure, but unlike a lot of horror games built upon similar premises, you are utterly helpless in some rather unique and interesting ways. You can’t run, hide, shoot or even move in Five Nights at Freddy’s – your character is sat at a desk and totally vulnerable at all times – and you’ve only got a few feeble ways of protecting yourself from what’s after you each night – a nightmarish gang of terrifying anthropomorphic animatronic mascots.

It sounds like a cheap and gimmicky one trick pony by all means; something that would get old in five minutes, let alone five nights. Yet somehow, the game’s cunning design and presentation, backed up with a cast of delightfully horrific and surprisingly charming robotic antagonists give the game a vividly gut-wrenchingly tense atmosphere that is both delightful and terrifying to jump into again and again and again and again…

The Bear Necessities

FNAF - Help Wanted

Five Nights at Freddy’s is a ridiculously enjoyable combination of brutal jumpscares mixed with an asphyxiating and overpowering sense of dread and tension. With darkly-humorous writing and bizarre charm weaving throughout every aspect of the game’s design, it is both terrifying and hilarious in equal measure.

The game’s design and set-up is very simple and, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant. You play as a night-time security guard, who has accepted a new job as the night watchman of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a family pizzeria in the style of real life 1980’s American chain diners such Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre and Showbiz Pizza Place. These establishments were well known, for those who don’t know, for having other entertainments alongside their standard restaurant sections, such as bowling alleys and video game arcades for the families and their children to play on when they’d finished scoffing their pizzas.

Most fantastically of all, however, was the fact that the main hook of these restaurants was that they featured a big performance stage where a ‘live’ band of anthropomorphic animatronic animal mascots (check out video of The Rock-afire Explosion below if you don’t believe me), would mime and pretend to sing along to songs as a pseudo party band whilst hungry families wolfed down their margaritas. It sounds absolutely ridiculous I know, but it’s true; as a Brit growing up in the ’90s, the best entertainment our local Pizza Hut offered in my youth was an outdoor plastic slide in the shape of a dragon – I thought it was awesome, but I see now that I’ve clearly been missing out.

Like these robotically-enhanced American diners that Five Nights at Freddy’s is based on, Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza is host to it’s own animatronic mascot, the eponymous Freddy Fazbear of the game’s title. An all singing, all dancing giant grinning animatronic bear, Freddy is there to entertain the children and families at the pizzeria, along with his motley crew of friendly robot chums; Bonnie the rabbit, Chica the chicken and last, but certainly not least, Foxy the pirate fox (naturally).

FNAF - Starting PositionDuring the day, as the trailer suggests, the restaurant is a place of joy – the animatronics smile, sing songs and entertain the families and children with gleeful abandon. However, when you’re turning up at 12:00am for the graveyard shift, it’s a very different story.

The previous security guard (known online in fan circles as the Phone Guy, and who is brilliantly voiced by Scott Cawthon himself) has kindly left you a series of answerphone messages to settle you into your new job and to detail your night-time duties. Whatever happened to him you might well ask, and why exactly did he stop being the old security guard? Well, you soon start to get a pretty good impression of his whereabouts as the game progresses…in a nutshell, it’s not good.

The Phone Guy nonchalantly explains that due to problems with the animatronics’ joints locking up as a result of them having to remain in stationary positions during the restaurant’s opening hours, the robotic mascots are allowed to go into a free-roam wandering mode at night. If that nugget of info makes you have some serious second thoughts about that new job you’ve just accepted, wait until you get a load of this next bit. According to their operational protocols, if the animatronics encounter anybody in the restaurant after dark, they will not see them as a customer, but as an animatronic that’s flouting procedure by not wearing their costume over their metal endoskeleton – a very strict no-no during restaurant hours.

The correct course of action for such an egregious offence is to force said offending naked endoskeleton (read: terrified and screaming human being) into a spare animatronic costume post-haste. That might not sound too bad a corrective action at first, but trust me, it is – these are costumes filled with metal rebars, wires and all sorts of other painful sharp and pointy components, the Phone Guy rather unsympathetically drawls by way of explanation. In other words, it’s a pretty painful death.

Bearing all this rather worrying information in mind, quite why your character decides to stay on for the full week’s shift is beyond me, but nonetheless, he does, and it’s your job to survive the Monday to Friday night grind. Sheesh…and you thought your job was bad…

Goldilocks and The Four Scares

FNAF - Office Left Light

What’s fantastic about Five Nights at Freddy’s is that you are utterly, utterly helpless. Well… actually, that’s not quite true – I’ll explain. All you’ve got to do in each night/level is to survive until 6:00am when your shift is over. Easy. Only…it’s really not.

The game plays as a point and click interactive strategy horror title. As the night-time security guard, you’re sat in the pizzeria’s security office with a tablet device in your lap to watch the restaurant’s security camera feeds on, and independent door and light controls to the left and right sides of you. These are the only tools at your disposal to stop Freddy Fazbear and his troupe of terrors from grabbing you – the camera feeds, the doors and the corridor lights. Nothing else. You can’t move, hide, get up and run, or even cower in the corner of the room and pitifully wet yourself like Otacon in Metal Gear Solid (though you’re still free to do that in real life should the need take you of course). You’re rooted to the spot, and totally exposed to an unsolicited robotic greeting.

I know what you’re thinking – sounds simple right? Just close both doors, breathe a sigh of relief and wait things out until the morning light. No problemo. Well, unfortunately, there’s a catch (isn’t there always huh?). For whatever backwards reason, the Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza restaurant you’re working in isn’t hooked up to the mains – everything runs on a single power generator that has a very limited amount of juice left in the tank. Just barely a single night’s worth in fact. Every device you need to use requires power (visually displayed by the onscreen usage indicator) and having several devices and controls running simultaneously will put an even greater strain on the rapidly dwindling power supply.

Closing both doors and hoping to sit things out till morning is certainly the first thing I (along with countless others no doubt) tried to do when first playing, but it’s practically akin to signing your own death warrant in gloopy leftover pizza mozzarella. Having both doors closed is particularly power costly, and you’ll soon be left in darkness hours before the end of your graveyard shift with no way of defending yourself. To put it bluntly, you’re absolutely fucked beyond belief.

FNAF - Bonnie Black Eyes

Five Nights At Freddy’s is all about jumpscares. While these, as a horror device, are perhaps the easiest and cheapest tools in the developer’s arsenal to get a player freaked out and on edge, the way they are implemented in Five Nights At Freddy’s feels particularly inspired.

Normally, once you’ve spooked a player with an unexpected and particularly nasty shock in a game, they’ll be more resistant to being scared in similar fashion again as they’ll now be expecting to be surprised. Keep overdoing the scares this way and you’ll soon have the player second-guessing when they’re going to be shocked or attacked, often anticipating further attempts to scare them quite successfully – therefore greatly reducing the effectiveness of the jumpscares rather rapidly.

What Five Nights at Freddy’s manages to do really well is to not downplay the jumpscare side of things; it instead embraces them as an integral part of the experience rather than just a cheap gag, much like, say, a giant animatronic bear squeezing the life out of a terrified security guard. They aren’t just thrown around willy-nilly for a quick shock every once in a while, rather, the jumpscares are instead built up very stressfully for maximum impact.

As we’ve already established, as the security guard, you’re rooted to the spot, and completely vulnerable to a fatal over-enthusiastic robo-grasp at all times in the office. You’re unable to do anything except painfully wait and watch the robots get nearer and nearer, with nothing to defend yourself with except quick wits, fast fingers and hopefully a great deal of luck. Although you can close the doors to temporarily ward off the intrepid intruders, it’s only ever really delaying the inevitable; the doors, cameras and lights are by no means a feasible solution to your problem. In fact, now that I think of it, the game has a sort of George Romero ‘slow zombie’ (the only type of zombie if you ask me) style feeling of overwhelming dread and inevitability that permeates throughout the whole experience; you know that chances are one of the animatronics out there is going to get you eventually, but you don’t know when and which one. You can’t shake that screaming paranoia in your mind that you’re stuck, afraid and open to attack all the time. This sensation of complete paralytic horror is incredibly effective, and it’s what sustains the terror and tension when playing. When a game can really make you feel truly vulnerable, it’s both a terrifying and electrifying experience.

If an animatronic gets it’s heavy furry paws across the threshold of your office, then you’re dead. Done. Finito. The last thing you see before you’re grabbed is one of the robot’s insane faces suddenly lunging forward and screaming in your face – the ear-splitting shriek the animatronics emit when they grab you is extremely loud and jolting, and very effective at startling you even after you’ve been grabbed and forced into spare Fazbear gang costumes countless times already.

FNAF - Chica TablesHowever, the really clever aspect to Five Nights at Freddy’s is that in order to make it past even the first night on the job, you have to learn to fight your natural instinct to keep the doors shut. In order to have sufficient power to make it through each night, you’re going to have to keep the doors to the security office open as much as possible, only closing them when absolutely necessary – when one of the Fazbear posse is right outside, leering in at you with bulging cartoony eyes and wicked toothy grin bared wide. The entire game is an exercise in extreme self-restraint; one which will quickly shred your nerves to pieces – like an animatronic robot devouring a pizza, or a lone security guard for example…

By stripping away a great deal of the agency a player normally takes for granted in other horror games, (even other non-combat focused ones such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Slender: The Eight Pages) Five Nights at Freddy’s manages to ratchet the tension to such unBEARable (sorry, I had to) levels very quickly and keep the player on edge at all times when playing, with no let up whatsoever. The atmosphere preceding each scare is deliciously agonising, so that when you are inevitably next grabbed by an animatronic, you’re still shocked and still really dreading it each and every time. Playing the game is (alert – bad analogy incoming) like being blindfolded and bracing yourself for a punch to the stomach; you know the blow is coming and it’s going to hurt, but not knowing exactly when is the really agonising part. The threat of pain is a greater fear than the actual pain sensation itself…or something cool sounding like that anyway, you get the drift.

However, unlike actually being punched in the stomach whilst blindfolded, the constant pressure and fear of that next animatronic pounce from the darkness unknown keeps Five Nights at Freddy’s extremely entertaining.

So yes, the game can be essentially boiled down to being just an endless string of jumpscares, coming at you over and over again. But that’s kind of missing the point. The jumpscares on their own aren’t really the interesting bit, rather, it’s the way the that game makes you feel practically helpless to stop them in those awful pressure-cooker moments of stress before they happen – that’s what personally keeps me playing. Whether you can make your very limited resources stretch out through another night shift is a deliciously uncomfortable panicked blur of resource management and wide-eyed frantic screen-tapping. It’s some stressful but pretty special stuff.

Also – it’s a small point, but an important one, so I’m going to indulge myself here – in amongst all the rapid-fire scares, there’s some clever little easter eggs to be found at various points, which add more background detail to just what the hell is going on and why these robots might be playing up and stuffing people into objects they shouldn’t be stuffed into. Although they are quite easy to miss (and actively looking for them isn’t advised if you want to survive), they hint at something much more sinister and unpleasant behind all the ongoing jumpscares and night time hijinks, which when discovered will make you feel even more on edge whilst you’re fighting to stay alive in that cramped security office. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Silent Hill 2 style story revelation by any means; there’s no uncomfortable slow-burning atmosphere eeriness, plot twists or crazy eleventh-hour reveals, but there are some clever in-game clues about the lore hidden about in Five Nights at Freddy’s that suggest a more nefarious level of detail to events than what is initially presented. All of which really doesn’t help your on-going dread and paranoia when playing.

The Scare Bear Bunch

FNAF - Bonnie Staring

Without a doubt, it’s the four animatronics that have already made the game such a cult indie horror classic. Freddy, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy are the life and soul of this indie horror gem, and their freaky ‘n’ furry grins will be forever burnt onto your irises after playing. Scott Cawthon has somehow managed to create some of the most terrifying, memorable and fascinatingly daft antagonists you’re likely to be screamed at by in a horror game. In the relatively short space of time since the game’s original August 2014 PC release date, Five Nights at Freddy’s has deservedly become a massive talking point in the horror game/let’s play community on YouTube, almost certainly down to the universally freaky blend of hilarity and horror that the four fiendish mascots bring to the game.

There’s just something so uncomfortably freaky about the animatronics; their glassy staring eyes, their fixed contorted grins and the way that they seemingly take great pleasure in toying with and messing with your mind. The fact that each animatronics’ individual personality comes across with no dialogue, save their loud shrieking, eerie moaning and, of course, Freddy’s ominous chuckling, is impressive.

FNAF - Chica StaringTo recap then, let’s go over the creepy cast again. Along with the titular Freddy Fazbear, you’ve got the delights of Bonnie the bunny (the one I found the most frightening in my opinion), Chica the chicken and Foxy the pirate fox to keep you company on your solitary graveyard shift. Each animatronic has their own particular tendencies and characteristics that you’ll need to learn and prepare for if you ever want to see the morning light again. Or, to put it another way, if you don’t want to see said morning light from the blood-splattered insides of a metallic bear costume, then you need to know just what you’re tango-ing with here.

FNAF - Bonnie Door

Bonnie and Chica will tend to be the most active of the robots; each will frequently move up and down the corridors to your office throughout the night. Each animatronic is just as deadly as each other, and if any of them get into your office, then it’s game over, but having said that, Bonnie and Chica are both a bit more predictable to deal with and slightly easier to defend against than Freddy and Foxy.

FNAF - ChicaThis robo-rabbit and cyber-chicken duo will more often than not just go back and forth between the various rooms and corridors in a loose beeline to your office, just standing there below the cameras and taunting you by staring straight down the lens. They will try and get in from time to time, but providing that you’re diligently checking those cameras, and using the lights to check the blindspots just outside your doors when you think they’re close, you’re usually alright.

FNAF - FreddyFreddy is a bit sneakier than Bonnie and Chica, and to say ol’ Fazbear is the leader of the gang as it were, he’s rather a shy fellow, preferring to skulk around in the background. So shy in fact, that it was an absolute nightmare of its own trying to grab decent screenshots of him for this review piece!

Freddy will often hang back and let the other animatronics do the bulk of the pestering. He prefers to hide in full darkness, making him hard to spot on the cameras save for his faintly glowing eyes. He’ll usually come to get you once all the power is out to deliver a final coup de grace, but on occasion he will saunter up to your door and grab you, so you can’t discount him as a viable threat at any point.

While you might not see him until it’s too late, you will certainly hear him. Freddy’s got this hideous gleeful and deep Frank Bruno chuckle that you’ll frequently hear reverberating down the corridor many times, signifying that he’s on the move. The first time you hear it, it’s an instantly blood-chilling moment – it sounds frightening in a ghostly otherworldly way. You won’t forget anytime soon, trust me.

FNAF - Foxy Staring

Last but not certainly not least is Foxy, who’s arguably one of the most frightening animatronics out to get you. Foxy’s kept in a separate location from the other three robots (who all start off stood together in the main dining room stage) so you won’t know he’s even there at first, the curtained off Pirate Cove area is his home. Unlike the other three animatronics, Foxy has been decommissioned; he’s rumoured to have been taken out of service after the dreaded ‘bite of ’87’.

Foxy adds another set of rules and variables to worry about along with dodging the other three robots – he’s designed to catch out those who try to skimp on monitoring the cameras by just checking the areas immediately outside the doors with the corridor lights from time to time.

Foxy’s cunning mechanic is that he’s aware of how often you’re looking at Pirate Cove on the monitors to check up on him. As you play, you’ll encounter him gradually at first, before he becomes an ever more persistent menace. The Phone Guy will casually inform you on the second night of Foxy’s modus operandi, whereupon you’ll catch a glimpse of a twisted figure with a rictus wolfish snarl grinning maniacally back at you from behind the parted purple curtains. I still find his Jack-Nicholson in the Shining-style grin to be mesmerizingly frightening even now, having played the game countless times.

Your only way of fending him off is to make sure that you’re diligently checking Pirate Cove frequently enough to hopefully keep him behind those curtains for as long as possible. Forget to check on him, or get too distracted with another of the robots and he’ll start to move when you’re not looking, sneaking ever so slightly further and further out his enclosure each time.

FNAF - Foxy Corridor

After a while, if you’ve not been keeping your electronic gaze on him as much as he’d like, Foxy will bolt straight down the corridor to your office with a hideous shit-eating grin twisted across his face, bursting into your office and loudly screeching in your face faster than you can say “Bob’s your FUCKING HELL THERE’S A GIANT PIRATE FOX IN THE ROOM TRYING TO TEAR MY FUCKING FACE OFF!” Yes – that fast.

FNAF - FoxyIf you’re lucky, you might catch a quick glimpse of him in the camera feed and be able to quickly punch the door control just in the nick of time if your reactions are sharp. But normally, once you can hear him clattering down the corridor towards you or catch a frightening glimpse of him darting past the camera, it’s usually far too late. Even if you do manage to get the door closed, he’ll bang on it with his hideous pirate hook a couple of times, which for whatever reason drains a significant amount of your precious generator power (not to mention your sanity) On top of that, he’ll then reset back to his original Pirate Cove position, meaning that if you’re lucky enough to have survived his swashbuckling advances, you’ve got to keep checking up on him all over again.

Bear-riers to Entry

FNAF - Chica Attack

With all this horror and hilarity going on each night, what’s not to like you might ask? Well, the main problem that I found with the game was that sometimes, no matter how diligent, careful and patiently observant you try to be, the game can get extremely unfair and hard in the later nights. What makes the game feel so cruelly difficult is that there seems to be a great deal of luck as to what actually happens in each round. On the early nights, providing you’re checking everything on the cameras regularly and learning when it’s okay to leave the doors open and when it’s not, things feel highly stressful but just about manageable.

Get to the later nights, and it’s a different story. It can feel nigh-on impossible to win by the time you get to night four or five, when the whole gang is out in force, strolling nonchalantly about and being more persistent than ever. The cameras start to malfunction and cut out really frequently, leaving you with very limited visibility other than what you can see directly outside of your office doors, and the passage of time on the in-game clock seems to crawl by at such an agonisingly slow pace that you’ll question whether each night was six minutes or six actual real life hours. Okay, maybe not, but you get the point.

Each night’s events feel totally out of your hands, which really adds to your sense of helplessness and despair. You only need Foxy to come out a few times and bang on your door to whittle down your power levels to absolutely nothing and you’re absolutely screwed, or get stuck with Bonnie or Chica repeatedly hanging around for ages outside one of the doors and Five Nights at Freddy’s starts to feel less like a game and more like a kind of chancy slot machine, only with creepy animatronics trying to yank you out of your seat every few minutes and steal your paltry winnings.

However, it’s that very unpredictability which makes the game so much fun to play in the first place. If you knew exactly how long that pesky Bonnie is going to lurk outside your door, or just how frequently it is that you’re going to have to check Pirate Cove to keep the maleficent Foxy at bay, then the game wouldn’t be half as frightening or tense. You’ve just got to do your best to stay calm, stick to your plan and not become a gibbering mess while desperately hoping that you make it.

Whether you win or lose a night will be down to mere seconds. Usually, your game will play out like this; the time will be at 5:00am, and you’ll be down to your last dregs of power…when the lights eventually shut off and you’re left in darkness. If you’re unlucky, you’ll just hear some approaching heavy plodding footsteps before Freddy jumps out at you, but sometimes you’ll just see his illuminated eyes staring back at you from the gloom as he begins to play an eerie child’s music box version of the Toreador Song.

FNAF - Toreador Song

As long as he doesn’t grab you and keeps playing the tune at this point, you’re still alive; you’re still in the game, and the clock might just roll round to 6:00am and you’ll live to monitor the cameras another night. However, there’s no indication at all of just how long Freddy will play the song for, and the minute it’s over, you’re dead. You’re powerless, you have to sit there in the darkness with all your fingers and toes crossed, and hope beyond all reason that you’ll make it. It’ll go right down to the wire whether you’ll survive, or get stuffed into a spare robot costume once again.

When you actually do see the time roll around to 6:00am to signal that you’ve survived another horrific night (complete with a rewarding celebratory cheer sound effect), it’s hard not to let out a loud whoop of joy. It’s such a euphoric rush to have survived what feels like, at times, a fiendishly impossible challenge.

Bearing Up

FNAF - Bonnie Restaurant

Having extensively watched the game being played online by others before first playing it myself, I was quite sceptical about how well it would translate onto a touchscreen device. I thought that playing the game on my iPad would be a completely inferior way of experiencing this game in pretty much every way. However, to my surprise and delight, the mobile version’s touchscreen controls work incredibly well, and compliment your in-game activities to a particularly good degree.

The security guard actually uses a small tablet-like device to check the cameras in-game, so pressing through the cameras using on-screen touch controls actually felt incredibly immersive – particularly when playing in the ideal horror game conditions of a pitch-black room, late at night, headphones on and turned up loud. Additionally, as each night only lasts for a couple of minutes (although they’ll feel agonisingly long when you’re playing them of course), having the game on a mobile device makes it very easy to pick up and play for short gaming sessions. Particularly useful when you prefer to take your jumpscares on the go and freak out passers-by.

Also, it’s hard to tell just how the difficulty compares to the PC version. As your only way of surviving each night is to have quick enough reaction times to spot the animatronics down the corridors or outside your door, I can’t help but feel that the response/attack times of the Fazbear gang must have been slowed down somewhat from the PC version in order to compensate for the slight delay and generally inaccuracy of touchscreen controls. That’s not to say that the touch and swiping controls of the mobile version aren’t smooth and responsive, but there were times where I felt like things were just slightly more cumbersome on the iPad’s touchscreen in comparison to the PC’s mouse and keyboard controls.

Personally, as cool as I find motion and gesture controls on touchscreen devices to be, being a lifelong console gamer at heart, I find that I pretty much always prefer tactile button controls and inputs to touchscreen controls everytime. Swiping with your fingers to look around the office and check the doors works perfectly fine with the iPad’s touchscreen controls, but it does feel a tad more clumsy and a less accurate method of control compared to the keyboard and mouse inputs of the PC version…particularly when you’ve got to hit the door and light controls like crazy on the later nights to prevent being forced into yet another Fazbear costume.

Additionally, with the iPad having a smaller screen than your typical PC monitor, there’s several slight visual problems which quickly become apparent with this mobile port of the game. For example, on the iPad, you can either be looking at the left door, the right door, or down at your in-game tablet for the camera feeds. However, in the PC version, you can see both doors on at once without having to turn, making things feel much smoother and easier to manage when the pace and frequency of the animatronic attacks really ratchet up on the later nights.

More significantly, when you’re in the camera view, the camera/map overlay takes up a great deal of the screen real estate, which can detract somewhat from the playing experience. In fact, you only have a thin bar of space on the left hand side of the screen which is unobscured by the camera/map layout. This means that you’re often having to peer round the map to look at the already dark and fuzzy camera screens (which are hard enough to make details out on anyway) in order to observe all the horrible goings-on from Freddy et. al. It’s not a huge deal, and due to the smaller size of the iPad’s screen (not to mention mobile screen displays), there’s not really any other way that the map could feasibly be integrated into the display without some degree of overlap.

Plus, when you are finally caught by Freddy and his furry friends of doom, the death animations play at a much lower framerate on the mobile version, so they don’t look quite so intense as the PC version. Often the animation will lag to the point it looks like just looking at a static kill screen image, which does feel rather chintzy, and takes away from things a tad. However, it’ll still be enough to have you jumping out of your skin when Bonnie creeps into your security booth or Foxy sprints down the corridor, trust me.

FNAF - Bonnie Attack

In terms of replayability, if a mere five nights at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza aren’t enough to meet your animatronic jumpscare needs, then never fear…well actually, just keep on fearing now that I think about it, as there’s an additional sixth and seventh nights you can unlock – the weekend shift, if you will – after you’ve beaten the five standard nights. Interestingly, the seventh night is a custom level of sorts, where you can manually set the A.I. intelligence/difficulty of each robot. Surviving ’till 6:00am with all the gang set to level twenty (the max difficulty) is extremely challenging, but it can be done.

Overall, from a mobile game perspective then, it’s an incredibly entertaining and memorable horror experience, a port that has surprisingly translated really well from the original mouse and keyboard experience of the PC version to the touchscreen gestures of the iPad screen; making it perfect for extended play, or brief pick up and play sessions.

The Honey Pot

Five Nights at Freddy’s is an absolutely essential purchase if you’re into your scares, and like me, you love horror titles that are built around player vulnerability and that feeling of being totally powerless to fight back. Despite the simple gameplay fundamentals of watching cameras and closing doors to avoid the same repeating jumpscares from the animatronics, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a really special horror experience.

Due to its unpredictably nerve-wracking design and its twisted mix of horror and humour, the game has quickly become one of my favourite games to play as of late (as you might well have gathered by this point). Even though it’s quite a short game, thanks to it’s fast pace, good controls and intelligent UI design, this mobile version of the PC game actually works out to be a great pick up and play title whenever you feel in need of a quick and violent jump or two, or you simply fancy an extended evening of animatronic terror. I just wouldn’t advise playing it on your morning commute however, as you’ll be terrifying the other passengers with your terrified yelps.

The game is just so much damn fun, whether it’s your nervously sweating buttocks planted in that security office hot seat, or whether you’re watching some other poor sod getting scared out of his mind on Twitch. It’s lovingly put together with so much heart, which can be felt in all aspects of the design, that even when you’re on the receiving end of yet another point-blank shriek to the face from Freddy, you can’t help but feel charmed by the whole thing.

Thankfully, for those of us who don’t have enough bloodthirsty animatronic animals in our lives, a sequel, Five Nights At Freddy’s 2 has already been released on both PC and mobile platforms. So, remember to keep an eye out for that review, but don’t forget to keep checking those cameras too. Speaking of which, you were of course remembering to keep checking the cameras whilst reading this review weren’t you hmm? Right? RIGHT!?

FNAF - Freddy Hat

FNAF - Freddy Attack

FNAF - Freddy Face

FNAF - Freddy Eye

FNAF - Game Over