Five Nights at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted Review – A Celebration of Jump Scares
I haven’t played many horror games in VR because I like to think I’m a person of at least moderate intelligence. Despite this, I’ve never taken the horror genre very seriously and believed myself rather out of reach of its ability to scare me. I’m admittedly easy prey for jump scares, but I was nevertheless thoroughly assured of my own resilience and approached this game with a sort of blind—and entirely unproven—self-confidence, believing myself a pretty chill gal. Still, I wanted to be prepared for any jump scares that Five Night’s at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted might throw my way.
You know that feeling when something seems like utter magic, but then you learn exactly how and why it works, and suddenly it’s no longer as magical? I thought I’d try to do that with fear. You know, just to be sure. To safeguard my chill, if you will. I have a particular fascination with brains, and so I got stuck in to research about the psychology of fear in videogames. My theory was that understanding the mechanics of this particular phenomenon would remove its power over me entirely. So, when I approached Five Night’s at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted, I was ready.
I was (and I cannot emphasise this enough) wrong. Five Night’s at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted is a game with a single goal—to elicit jump scares. And oh boy, did it realise its goal in me.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is an established, iconic series, populated with frightening animatronics and dark claustrophobic rooms. Its VR debut has undeniably breathed new life into it, utilising its levels—which it very appropriately labels ‘experiences’—from its previous titles. The experiences are based on a simple premise: survive. The game has several experiences you can play drawn from its previous titles with progressively harder levels of difficulty to unlock. In one of them, you sit in a small dimly lit surveillance room as the animatronics slowly advance towards you. Your task is to survive from midnight until 6 am. At your disposal are security cameras to keep an eye on their whereabouts, lights to see through the windows into the rooms adjoining yours, and switches to seal the doors shut against the animatronics. Of course, these matters are never as simple as they appear – turning the lights on and keeping the doors sealed drains your power, and trust me when I tell you that you seriously do not want your power to run out before the night is through.
Other experiences involve disassembling and repairing the animatronics, crawling through vents to carry out maintenance, and evading the animatronics. Unfortunately, the controls aren’t great. The DualShock was a bit of a write-off, with the tracking quite laggy and often dropping off entirely. In a horror game requiring such pinpoint accuracy it’s an extra stress you really don’t need. The Move Controllers functioned much more effectively but could still use some work to really nail their accuracy. I’m also not the biggest fan of the PSVR headset itself – getting it to sit well on my head is often quite the ordeal, and you REALLY want it to sit well on your head for all the frantic head checks you’re going to be doing – but it seemed to track smoothly. Which I’m grateful for, in a self-flagellating kind of way.
Otherwise, Five Night’s at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted is quick to take advantage of the VR environments, asserting its psychological advantage over you from as early as a menu screen. Animatronics glare down at you from on high, silently proclaiming their predatory status and your vulnerability. And the menu in which you select your next experience—set in the “beloved”, familiar pizzeria—is even more terrifying, containing buttons and levers that have unknown consequences and a sort of overarching meta-game that unfolds as you explore the experiences. I was torn between admiration and betrayal; a menu is supposed to be a safe space! How very dare they take that away from me! And yet, this upturning of the sanctity of something as innocuous as the menu screen is an audacity that I really appreciate in a game like this.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, because this is a game whose creative energies are trained on relentlessly eviscerating your nerves. Though there are several different experiences to live through, they all share a potent mixture of claustrophobia, darkness, and limited resources. And the audio is arguably where Five Night’s at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted excels the most. So much of my (limited) success was down to paying attention to the sounds of my environments – to footsteps, creaks, shrieks. On the flip side, a huge part of my terror can be directly attributed to the audio. Particularly when a Hitchcock style audio cue would play for no apparent reason, scaring the bejeezus out me and utterly shattering whatever Zen I’d managed to attain. In contrast to this it turns out that silence can be just as frightening (and any parent can attest to that truism).
The animatronic antagonists of Five Night’s at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted are beautifully designed and intricately detailed in that creepy clown, Chucky-esque vein. The characters are well-known and loved(?) by now, with some new characters added to the cast for the VR imagining. In the spirit of the game, they should be cute, but their design is just subtly off enough that they are horrific; their eyes a tad too sunken or too widely open, their smiles grotesque, their wiring exposed, their movements imbued with a beautiful but somehow harrowing grace. What becomes of you when the animatronics do get their hands on you is, horrifyingly, left to your own imagination—you’re never shown exactly what occurs once they’ve pounced on you.
If all that terror weren’t enough, it’s compounded by the fact that you’re very intentionally drawn to pay attention to every inch of your surroundings. Not just to find coins and tapes—which can be used in the pizzeria—but to play with your environment to figure out how to use it to survive. You’re not often clearly told how to use the tools available to your advantage, if at all. It’s incredibly hard to focus on learning how to play the game when your nerves are already under such pressure, and that helplessness feeds right back into your terror.
Several endings can be unlocked. I reached one of them, and it has really tickled my brain with its disturbing brilliance. I haven’t stopped thinking about what it could mean, and whether I’ve interpreted all the events leading to it correctly since I unlocked it. This is a big win for the game’s replayability—I’m keen to go back and unlock more endings to learn more about the wonderful, awful world of Freddy Fazbear’s.
For all my preparation, I still have no idea why jump scares are so very intoxicating. Developer Steel Wool Studios clearly get it though and have very precisely tapped into that primal fear of being hunted, utilising VR to take this feeling and elevate it to a new level of terror and excitement. I don’t want to play it ever again, but goodness me, I want to play it again. Once my heart rate has settled down.
Lauren is a hoopy frood whose hobbies include rick-rolling, cosplay, pizza, lock-picking, elvish calligraphy, and sneaking into places she’s not supposed to be. She fondly recalls her childhood days of obsessing over old-school adventure games and finishing Commander Keen for the first time in a blaze of glory, thus leaving a truly indelible mark on the video gaming world. Present day she has a weakness for World of Warcraft (for the Horde!), Overwatch, Dwarf Fortress, Stardew Valley, and Ezio. Ah, Ezio.