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Why Five Nights at Freddy's 2 is a viral success

Five Nights at Freddy's 2 popped up out of nowhere this week, a sequel to an indie horror game that released just a few short months ago.

Almost immediately, it skyrocketed to Steam's top sellers list. Why? Because it's tailor-made for the thing that makes or breaks indie horror games in 2014: It's perfect for live streaming.

The world's worst job

Five Nights at Freddy's 2, like its predecessor, is a quirky, bizarre horror game set in a Chuck E. Cheese-like pizza parlor with murderous automatons that normally appear to be placid, smiling woodland creatures. The premise is hilarious and unsettling, putting you in the shoes of a night guard that has to survive an onslaught of the deranged robots, using only your flashlight and a suite of security cameras. The goofy set-up makes Five Nights at Freddy's 2 a fantastic spectator sport, possibly more fun to watch than to actually play.

This isn't to say it's not fun to play. Just being in this nightmare hell vision of a popular childhood birthday party venue has its appeal. I live-streamed the game myself the other night, and like Griffin in our Overview of the game, I barely listened to my "supervisor's" instructions on night one, so I died a lot. That leads us to the next point: Dying in this game is wildly entertaining for anyone watching it.

Jump scares!

Death comes suddenly in Five Nights at Freddy's 2, in the form of a screaming, horrifying, messed-up murderous cartoon character lunging at your face. It always feels like it comes out of the blue, and it always, without fail, caused me to scream at the top of my lungs and fling my headphones off.

This was great fun for the people watching my pain, if my chat comments and later twitter conversations were any indication.

Watching people get scared while they play a horror game is just plain fun. It's the reason things like P.T. reaction videos are so popular.

It makes the fiction a social, shared experience, a way of engaging with horror while keeping it at a safe distance. There's a little bit of schadenfreude involved too, if we're being honest. There's an aspect of "haha! It got you!" that's undeniably entertaining to watch when it happens to someone else. So long as the player knows going in that they're playing a horror game (that is, we have informed consent going on here), it's all in good fun.

Smile for the camera

As a massive horror fan that doesn't mind a few jump scares, playing this kind of game is actually more fun for me with an audience. There's a performative aspect to playing horror games live that's appealing to me, and Five Nights at Freddy's 2 seems to know that. The entire game is theatrical, from the wildly over-the-top aesthetics to the way every automaton's movements are exaggeratedly telegraphed in the audio. It's a tense game with big, loud, goofy moments and awful silences between them, pitch-perfect for screaming and talking yourself through.

Five Nights at Freddy's 2 is very tongue-in-cheek with its presentation. Since the gameplay is all but lifted from "classic" FMV titles like Night Trap! it's directly referencing terrible B-movies and B-games. The "so bad it's good" schtick doesn't work often in games (see: the Matt Hazard series), but in such a deliberately cheesy horror game, it works beautifully. As a player, I felt disempowered, at the mercy of the deranged creatures.

Flash in the pan

Ultimately, Five Nights at Freddy's 2 got tiring. I should've paid more attention to the supervisor's instructions, and after dying about a dozen times, I tired of Freddy's antics. But I won't soon forget my time with this weird, wacky experience. That's the power of this kind of game. It may not be deep, but it gives a hell of a show while it lasts.

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