Breaking the game is fun

I cannot say I am remotely scared by anything that happens in this game now. But the pressure to be perfect…

Between the ages of four and six, there’s a shift in the way most children play games, psychologist Alison Gopnik argues in Radiolab’s “Games” episode. Four-year-olds tend to prefer open-ended, creative games (e.g. play house, imaginary friends); six-year-olds start playing more rule-heavy games like tag and kickball. Good games, the episode argues exist in the space between rigid order and unbridled imagination.

It’s this tension I’m thinking about as I watch YouTube game streamer Markiplier attempt to beat the indie horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s on an allegedly impossible difficulty.

Let me back up a little: in Five Nights at Freddy’s, the player acts as a night guard at a Chuck E. Cheese’s look-alike where the animatronic robots have gone murderously insane. There’s only one line of defense against the robots: the doors to the player’s security booth, which require precious battery power to hold shut. The player must use security cameras planted throughout the store, narrow windows onto dimly lit rooms, to figure out when they need to protect themselves from the robots and when they can conserve battery power. Here is what a normal play-through of the game looks like.

As with most successful horror games, atmosphere is essential for Five Nights: the ambient buzz of electricity, the bizarre gurgling in the distance, the possibility of turning on a light to find an animatronic right at your door. It all ends with a frustratingly cheap scare—an animatronic jumps up at you while screaming—but the slow, uncertain buildup is masterfully done.

Unfortunately, what the robots do from playthrough to playthrough isn’t all that different, and as you learn what each of the robots does, you start to learn repeatable strategies for beating them, innoculating yourself against the horror of the game.

Rather than get bored and stop playing, Markiplier decided to take these insights and attempt to beat the game with every monster’s difficulty turned up to its maximum value. With each animatronic showing up frequently at his door and forcing him to use battery power early and often just to survive, Markiplier needs both scrupulous timing and substantial amount of luck to complete this mode. Developer Scott Cawthon allegedly claimed it wasn’t possible.[1] But then, that’s what they said about putting a man on the moon, and we sure proved them wrong.

Markiplier says he’s been practicing for seven hours, and it’s easy to believe him. His mouse movements are quick, decisive and economical. His train of narration involves less strategization and more repeated psyching himself up to continue on with another tiresome and unforgiving round of play.

His style of play looks nothing like that of someone who is just learning the game. Of the dozen cameras that the player is supposed to use to watch the night’s unfolding drama, Markiplier uses only the two needed for the optimal strategy. He defaults to a mechanical rhythm in his play: check left light, shut right door, open camera, open right door, check right light, repeat. Everything is accounted for; nothing is scary. The game has been gutted of everything that makes it interesting.

So why is it so exciting to watch? Undoubtedly, there’s a certain pleasure to watching someone accomplish something this demanding. Markiplier’s complaints early in the playthrough that victory is already out of reach could have come from a bad sports movie. So could the too-close-for-comfort ending where he must rely upon the robot using the longer of its two death animations.

But I think there’s something more to the appeal. Though its repetition may suggest a sort slavish rigidity, Markiplier’s perfect strategy does subvert the developers’ intentions that players trip through Five Nights scared of every sound.

We need the game’s rules to provide us with a challenge, but we also want to bend those rules and make something that is our own out of them, even if that’s just a show-offey perfect play-through. In the tension between play house and kick ball, hacky video game strategies manage to have it both ways. And that is undeniably fun to watch.

[1] This legend is everywhere, but I cannot find proof of it. Back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *