Way back in March I briefly mentioned in a post of how I first came into contact with the game Five Nights at Freddy’s. As the focus of that piece had more to do with the game, YouTubers, and the concept of perceived reality, I didn’t state the full details. Here are the facts of that first encounter:
Let me preface this by saying that I do not enjoy scary games in the least. When I was a kid I was terrified by the butler in Tomb Raider. I had to gain the courage to play the zombie mod on Call of Duty: Black Ops. In general, I do not handle scary games well. So, naturally, when my friend first told me about this crazy game she had heard about called Five Nights at Freddy’s, I was intrigued. We were all intrigued. So that night, in late September, I looked it up on YouTube to see if we could find any visual information about the game. The first result was Markiplier’s play-through, which I clicked on. My friends Amanda, Dora, Alex, Christian, and I watched the video, half-expecting the game to be somewhat cheesy and possibly funny. We were so wrong.
Let me preface this next section by saying that, even though I can’t handle scary games—or scary things in general—I never get scared to the point where I scream. That night, five grown adults screamed at the Five Nights at Freddy’s play-through. At a play-through. We were terrified, sitting there in horror and disbelief as we watched this game that totally exceeded our expectations.
But the funny thing is that I think that’s what the developer was getting at: an element of surprise.
The game’s concept is brilliant, particularly due to its simplicity. The basic concept of the game is that the player plays as a static security guard working the graveyard shift at a family restaurant that is similar to Chuck-E-Cheese, called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. They player’s mission is to make it until 6AM and avoid being killed by the possessed animatronics that wander the halls. The only way the player knows of the whereabouts of an animatronic is through the use of a security monitoring system. The player’s only defense mechanisms against these horrid foes are closing the doors to the security office, turning on the lights above the doors, and playing dead if the player gets caught by an animatronic. The player does this for five nights in the hopes to make it through still alive. Just beware of the jumpscares and creepy ambiance of Freddy Fazbear’s restaurant! Oh, and murderous animatronics. Yeah.
The back story behind the gameplay is even creepier than the game itself. Through nightly phone calls from the infamous “Phone Guy” (voiced by developer Scott Cawthon), he states that during the restaurant chain’s career, an employee dressed as the character Freddy Fazbear, and lured five children into the back of the restaurant, where he murdered them. He then stuffed their bodies into the various animatronics in the restaurant. The animatronics—Freddy, Chica, Bonnie, and Foxy—subsequently became possessed and dangerous. These are the same animatronics that try to stuff the security guard you’ve probably played as into an animatronic suit. That’s comforting.
Now you see why I only watch the videos rather than play the game.
One of the most shocking things about the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise is that the game series came out in rapid succession; all three games were released in the span of seven months, and a fourth game is slated to release on October 31st of this year. When most Triple A game series take years to develop and release, the sudden success of an independent point-and-click survival horror game is outstanding.
After the first game released, it gained massive popularity. Once the internet got wind of Five Nights at Freddy’s, it was smooth sailing from there. Not only are there countless Let’s Play videos on YouTube which chronicle various YouTubers’ journeys through Freddy Fazbear’s. Then there’s the fan-made art pieces—such as fan art, fanfiction, and fan games—the cosplays, the “code” breakers (those who find the hidden gems within the game and on the developer’s website), wikis, and game theory videos. Needless to say, it’s become quite the popular oddity in the world of gaming.
While FNAF does have its critics and haters, this indie game has become an urban legend of sorts; a ghost story that can be told around a campfire. It’s the story behind the game that makes it terrifying, which sets up the player for scares as they try to reach 6AM. If FNAF were merely a jumpscare flash game, it would not have become the success that it is today. Instead, the game’s plot, and Scott Cawthon’s knack for the mysterious, has generated an insane amount of intrigue in both the gaming and online communities. The game leaves the player with many unanswered questions, and Cawthon doesn’t give out answers easily. Thus, another surprise.
I don’t think anyone expected such a simple game with a unique concept to become a huge phenomenon, meaning that FNAF exceeded expectations. Even the concept of the game is a surprise. Most of us know deep down that animatronics are somewhat creepy, but to implement them into a game takes us off guard. According to the Five Nights at Freddy’s Wiki page, the inspiration for the horror game came from another that Cawthon had developed long before the FNAF phenomenon began. After complaints about the characters being too much like animatronics, Cawthon turned the critique into a game that took the internet by storm. Who could have guessed that a shot in the dark at developing a new game—which was inspired by a negative critique—would have resulted in soon-to-be four games in less than a year. I think that FNAF’s success even surprised Cawthon, and perhaps this is why there are so many surprising elements in the games.
Scott Cawthon developed FNAF as a way to get back into game development, so he more than likely threw caution to the wind and made a game that he truly wanted to make. I’m sure then he could not have guessed how popular the game franchise would become, but made the game anyway for the sake of making a game. In doing so, he added all of the panache, the shock and awe, and the scares because he felt that they were necessary. By leaving behind his inhibitions, FNAF became what it is today.
What’s more, he understood the demand for answers once his game became a success. These questions from the community are probably what drove Cawthon to develop the second, third, and the soon-to-be fourth game. Maybe he’s incredibly organized in plot development, like J.K. Rowling, and has the entire storyline mapped out in full detail. Or maybe he knows the plot that we know, and allows for the fans to speculate and add on to the FNAF cannon. Either way, Cawthon does not answer the fans’ burning questions easily, but leaves much of it up to the eagle-eye players and the theorists. If Scott Cawthon were to reveal the myriad of secrets that surrounds the game franchise, the mystery of Five Nights at Freddy’s would be gone.
In the end, I believe that Five Nights at Freddy’s success comes from the surprises that it leaves the player. These surprises are what make the series so fresh to the gaming scene, which keeps the fans wanting more. This is what FNAF‘s legacy is made of; whether it’s the jumpscares in the gameplay itself, the bag-of-tricks-style storytelling, or the mystery that surrounds the actual games, Five Nights at Freddy’s has created its own legacy. My friends and I couldn’t have guessed how scary, and how successful, such a game would become way back in September. But, then again, we never knew we were in for such a surprise to begin with.