Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sister Location: When Jumpscares Are Just on Principle

Note: This article has major spoilers for Five Nights at Freddy's: Sister Location. Please play the game or watch a playthrough before you read this if you are concerned about spoilers. And whichever you choose to do, please do so in a way that supports Scott Cawthon and his hard work.

For someone who's never in her life played a Five Nights at Freddy's game, I'm a massive fan of the series. I've talked in previous posts about how YouTubers and the book Silver Eyes allowed me to engage in the lore without risk of triggering a seizure. And I've been riding the Sister Location hype train since the first moment.

So, having watched my way through Markiplier's and GTLive's playthroughs, I have to say... hot damn. Like seriously, hot damn. I wasn't sure what Scott was going to do after six official multimedia installments that, even according to him, made the lore so densely populated that it was even starting to contradict itself. But what he's done here is... well, for someone who's acknowledged the denseness of existing lore yet still wants to continue, it's a stroke of genius. In a lot of ways.

Unsurprisingly, I was drawn to FNaF by the underlying story. I had no interest in sit 'n' survive jumpscare time. But when I was told there was a story of murder, possession, and uneasy spirits all related via minigames and Easter eggs, I was on board -- especially considering it was all told through the lens of childhood nightmare fuel, one of my other great loves. There was a wealth of story, and I experienced it via Game Theory's videos (which, overall, Scott has said are the closest to his intent).

But the first four games, plus Silver Eyes, seemed to be pretty well self-contained, so I couldn't see a continuation happening. Provided you won the minigames, the five murdered children had their revenge and found peace. Could you tell a new story with the same themes without it just being a rehash?

Apparently, yes.

As Sister Location opens, we hear from William Afton, a designer of rent-out-able animatronics (and major character in Silver Eyes) whose design choices are being questioned. We also occasionally hear from his young daughter, who wants to see Circus Baby perform but whose father keeps her away from the animatronics even when other children are allowed in to see them.

You're not long into the game -- hell, not long into the trailers -- when you see that the endoskeletons of Baby, Ballora, and the Fazbear character repaints look equipped to do things far beyond sing and dance. They're just this side of being Terminators. And the minigame, which shows you Afton's daughter's demise at the hands(?) of Baby, confirms that. Add to that the fact that part of your nightly duties often involves shocking them, and you have some very disgruntled killing machines on your hands.

So we have a flip already. In the first set of games, we have benign (albeit creepy) animatronics turned into killing machines after being possessed by terrified kids out for revenge. In Sister Location, we have killing machine animatronics who seem... seem... to want to be benign. Granted, that involves Baby assimilating the other units into herself and scooping out the player's insides to make a human suit for them. But her motive, sick as the execution may be, is freedom from her murderous nature.

Wronged humans given new life in animatronic bodies; wronged animatronics given new life in human bodies. The parallel is clever. Terrifying and gross, but clever. Though with Baby it gets a little nesting doll: she appears to be a dead child inside an animatronic inside another human by the end of the game.

Even the tone is fresh. The original games were deliberately toned old and dingy, with talk of bad smells and bodily fluids pouring from the suits. Phone Guy's dialogue was rough and human and rambling. Then in Sister Location, everything is shiny and chrome. Our guides are computer-generated voices that clip along with pre-programmed cheer and the occasional sarcastic joke. The atmosphere, even given what's going on, is bright compared to preceding games.

It's impressive, and it's not something you see often: revisiting similar themes via a complete tonal shift and near-complete swapping of elements. And somehow, despite the fact that we have changed out the setting entirely, changed out the game mechanics in all but one secret room, relegated the lead antagonist to a side-player, and swapped out half of the rest of the cast, it's still instantly recognisable as a FNaF game. Usually moves like this turn out terrible -- or, worse still, mediocre.

What I really take away, though, is a sense of increased skill on Scott Cawthon's part, both as a storyteller and a game designer. Which is not to say the first FNaF games were bad. They weren't. But as much as I like the underlying plot and the unfolding story, the jumpscare was sort of The Gimmick of the game. To the point that, for a long time, it was largely all the series was known for unless you did some truly deep cuts. When you did do the deep cuts, the story you found was chilling and heartbreaking. But the game was still Jumpscare A-Go-Go.

The releases of both Silver Eyes and the FNaF World expansions featuring Desk Man and Baby did something very important: they showed audiences (and potentially Scott himself) that the story could succeed without the gimmick. Sister Location, believe it or not, really rides on that discovery. This game would not have turned out as well as it did had we not had reassurances that the story could hold itself up.

'But Kara!' I hear you cry. 'There are still jumpscares!'

I mean, yes, there are. There absolutely are. Accompanied by that wonderful screeching sound I've considered making my ringtone at cons just to see who freaks out.

But there's something I've noticed, and I'm not alone in this. As a subtitle editor, my eye has gotten extremely sensitive to fractions of seconds while watching things. Makes watching YouTube videos hell when the audio lags, but it's great for things like this. Because the jumpscares... aren't as jumpy. I've had plenty of time to stare at several of them, and overall they are not as sudden. This is most noticeable with the Minireenas when you're in the springlock suit: they rear back before they attack.

This probably sounds like the most finicky little thing to notice. And it is. But even that split second, that tiny moment to adjust, alters how our brain perceives the scare. He's not popping a chip bag near our ear anymore: he's learning how to use tension and dread. Hell, one of the biggest jumpscares in the game is a perfectly harmless one. They're only in there because that's what FNaF players expect.

But no, the scariest thing about the game is Baby's voice: calm, childlike, sad, threatening. The playful, almost loving tone when she says she's kidnapped you. The way the plot bubbles to the surface night after night. The dread when you learn why she's been keeping an eye on you.

This is, quite honestly, the first main line FNaF game that could succeed without the jumpscares. It's also, probably not coincidentally, the most cinematic of the games so far. Whether this is Scott evolving as a skilled writer or Scott evolving as a confident writer who's willing to place his story at the forefront of the game rather than as an Easter egg, I'm not sure. Either way, it's a big leap forward.

Too, it gives me hope for the movie. If the plot of the original FNaF quadrilogy were approached as the plot of Sister Location was, I believe it could also stand on its own. I don't expect the movie not to have jumpscares because then you'd have some cross fans, but I also think -- between the franchise holding its own as both a book and an RPG and Sister Location excelling based on its story -- it's been proven that they can be an addition rather than a major tool.

This is all a very long-winded, Kara-ish way of saying that while I can't rate the gameplay (as I can't play the game), I can speak from a story and execution standpoint. And Scott has managed to simultaneously breathe new life into the franchise, separate himself from a pile of lore that was getting threateningly dense, and prove to an ever-growing fanbase that the Five Nights at Freddy's name has viability as something more than an adrenaline-boosting curiosity.

And if for some reason you've read through all of this without actually experiencing the game -- do consider picking up Sister Location on Steam if you like horror games. It can be appreciated without knowledge of the previous games.