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Five years of Five Nights At Freddy’s

Screenshot: Five Nights At Freddy’s: Sister Location, GIF: Allison Corr
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Pizza pundits have been riffing on the uncanny valley awfulness inherent to animatronic mascot characters since long before the Rock-A-Fire Explosion first began to jam. There’s just something about watching a nearly human shape move in nearly human ways, as cold plastic eyes stare out at a crowd of children with clear synthetic disdain, that sets our brains on edge. And yet, despite a million “Chuck E. Creeper” jokes over the years—and one extraordinarily bizarre Banana Splits movie, to boot—one man has been able to parlay that disquiet into one of the most astoundingly successful independent games franchises of the last five years.

Almost one man. Despite their prodigious rate of production—the franchise snagged a Guinness record for “most video game sequels in a single year” for its run between August 2014 and July 2015—the Five Nights At Freddy’s games are almost overwhelmingly the product of a single person: game developer Scott Cawthon.

The franchise’s origin story has been repeated a sufficient number of times to have entered the territory of legend at this point. In brief, Cawthon, a Texan father of two, was attempting to drum up interest in a children’s game, but met repeated objections after reviewers complained that the characters he’d designed looked too much like creepy animatronic dummies; his past creative efforts were mostly wrapped up in Christian animation projects. Taking the note, Cawthon decided to make horror game lemonade out of stiff-limbed lemons, crafting a simple narrative about a pizzeria where the robots moved around at night, murdering seven kinds of hell out of a series of hapless security guards. Thus, Five Nights At Freddy’s—plus a million Funco Pops, Todd McFarlane playsets, T-shirts, and more—was born. The franchise now encompasses Blumhouse horror productions, Hot Topic residencies, and untold numbers of horrifically cheerful drawings littering refrigerators and classroom walls around the world.

It would be a mistake to assume that the entirety of that success owed itself to our shared fear of singing android mice hanging out in low-rent pizza chains. Released in August of 2014, the first Five Nights At Freddy’s intersected perfectly with the rise of streamer and YouTube culture, giving Let’s Play-ers and Twitch jockeys alike the ideal vector by which to get repeatedly jump-scared for their audience’s delight. The game’s basic formula is for players to watch security cameras, shut doors when the robots get too close, and shriek miserably when they get in anyway and kill you. Its irresistible mixture of adrenaline and anxiety made for an endlessly addictive, peek-through-your-fingers-at-the-screen phenomenon.

And yet, playing through the original game today, the thing that’s most readily apparent about its design is not the creepiness of ursine lounge singer Freddy, or the still-gets-you-every-damn-time shock of those rampant, high-volume jump scares. Rather, it’s how damn stressful these games are. Stripped of their horror conceits, the Freddy’s games are essentially time and attention simulators: Check that camera, watch that vent, close that door, get murdered by that cupcake-toting duck. It’s a test of multi-tasking as much as nerve, and as the titular nights tick on, the most palpable feeling that comes oozing up in the player is not fear, but worry. There’s something especially galling about the fact that completing a night almost immediately dumps you into the next one; can’t a doomed night watchman get their 15-minute break? It’s here that the franchise reveals itself as a riff, not on childhood fears of animatronic boogeymen, but on adult fears, of being hounded by a thousand nagging tasks, or buried under work. How can you even make time for getting killed by a creepy fox robot when you’ve already got three other bosses breathing so inexhaustibly down your neck?

The pressure only escalated four months later, when Cawthon released Five Nights At Freddy’s 2. Critics have occasionally accused the designer of shoveling games out the door, but it’s clear from playing it that Freddy’s 2 is very much its own beast, a deliberate attempt to not just refine, but to fundamentally alter the way the first game played—almost always in an effort to increase those flop-sweat moments of plate-spinning dread. Cawthon has talked in interviews about his desire to maximize the original game’s sense of teetering chaos. His primary method for doing so is to introduce an almost literal ticking clock to your list of attention-draining tasks, in the form of a music box keeping one of the robots pacified. Fail to keep it wound—a process you’ll need to do roughly every 45 seconds, and in the midst of fending the other animatronics off—and, well, you know.

At the same time, Cawthon toys in smartly crafted ways with the player’s hard-hit sense of vulnerability. In the first game, you could always keep yourself safe by slamming shut the doors of your office at any time, with the caveat that doing so rapidly drained your non-renewable power supply, often inevitably dooming you to fail later on in the night. FNAF 2 removes that pressure by eliminating both the power mechanic and the doors themselves. Instead, your only real means of safety is to don a hollow Freddy mask of your own, then stare out of its empty eyes, listening to your character’s tortured breathing as the robots prowl around you, oblivious to your presence. You’re perfectly safe as long as you keep it on—unless one of the few robots who isn’t fooled by it peeks in, or that damn music box starts winding down again.

Freddy’s 2 is also the point where the series began to dive deep into its own highly convoluted lore, something it only doubled down on with the release of Five Nights At Freddy’s 3 in March of 2015. We’re now in “three games in the span of seven months” territory; Cawthon has said that he views the initial spate of titles in the series as a single batch of development ideas that he knocked out as quickly as he could. Outlined through background details, cheerfully macabre mini-games, and hard-to-excavate Easter eggs, the hint-heavy approach to storytelling is another way the games so effectively colonized an entire generation of children’s brains. If you think adults go nuts over Lost-esque mystery box plot convolutions, try giving a class of third-graders a jigsaw narrative with a couple of pieces missing and let them go to town. Even the first game had a few hints that there was something deeper going on with this chain of truly regrettable Italian restaurants, but the second and third laid out that plot in full, a grotesque constellation of murdered children, souls stuffed into robots, and spring-loaded animatronic suits with terrible consequences for anyone dumb enough to carelessly try one on.

At the same time, Cawthon continued to hold out against inertia by not just pumping out the game people might be expecting, or even demanding, i.e., another Five Nights At Freddy’s, but with slightly better graphics and weirder monster designs. Instead, he re-imagined this third installment as a game of rust-colored cat-and-mouse, paring his cast of antagonists down to a single hostile robot, Springtrap, and letting him loose to hunt the series’ latest hapless security grunt all on his own. (And yes, of course said robot bunny is the corpse of an undead serial killer trapped eternally in one of the aforementioned suits; why do you ask?) The result is a game far more capable of inducing real panic in its players, rather than simple anxiety or dread. There’s nothing worse than flipping through a bank of constantly glitching cameras, desperately trying to hunt down a grinning bunny-eared killer, and knowing that every wasted second brings him closer to your door—or to popping out of your office’s vents, if he’s feeling particularly saucy. And yet, adult fears still intrude; FNAF 3 is a game where you’re just as likely to be killed off by an inopportune computer glitch, as by your overzealous and malevolent coworker popping in for a little chat.

Which is part of what makes Five Nights At Freddy’s 4 (July 2015) such an odd, disappointing outlier for the series, as it ditches those more nuanced anxieties in favor of something a lot more primal—and, ultimately, a lot more tedious and dull. It sounds like a slam-dunk idea on paper: Instead of focusing on the plight of inevitably doomed wage drones, it puts players in the pajama-footed shoes of a kid the same age as the game’s target audience to fend off invading nightmares in their bedroom with nothing but a flashlight at their side. Whereas the first three games dole out their exposition and tutorials through surprisingly comedy-rich “phone calls” to the players, often voiced by Cawthon himself, FNAF 4 is an almost entirely silent affair, the better to hear Nightmare Freddy and his friends breathing from the dark as they attempt to sneak into your room.

And yet, that effort to bring the series back to its most basic elements of doors, lights, and death ends up being a surgery that cuts too close to the bone. With only a handful of tasks to repeatedly perform (and no cameras to flip through, or humor to lighten the mood), Five Nights At Freddy’s 4 has nothing to distract players from the inherent tedium of the task they’re being asked to perform. Minimum-wage drudgery is a soul-crushing bore when you’re a young adult; assigning it to an insomnia-ridden child is a fate too grim to bear. And the lack of a strong connection to the series’ overall plot means that the primary reward for completing a night—getting another drip or dollop of story information that Cawthon so skillfully seeded into the first three games’ progression—is no longer there. It transforms what should be the apex of the franchise’s scares into its most regrettable nadir.

At least, of the main series of Freddy’s games. Having wrapped up one of the most prolific years in game development history imaginable, Cawthon next decided to test how far his audience would follow his brand. He ditched the idea of horror games entirely with the brightly colored, scare-free RPG action of 2016’s Five Nights At Freddy’s World. Reimagining his various haunted pizzerias as a cheerfully lit theme park where his characters could pal around and be free of the burden of murdering children, Cawthon followed his muse into the world of turn-based combat and relentlessly silly jokes. It’s the sort of idea that would have flowed naturally back when he was an unknown indie developer, tossing out whatever game concepts fit his whimsical interests.

But by this point, something had happened to Five Nights At Freddy’s, as word-of-scream swiftly disseminated its gospel out to the pre-teen masses: It was transforming into a certified, honest-to-goodness Brand. As a one-man studio, Cawthon was already getting 70% (minus Steam’s cut) of all the games’ sales—which, at $5 to $8 a pop across at least half a million sold per title, added up to a considerable sum. But that was only part of it: Late 2015, in the wake of the series’ first massive glut of games, was also the moment when Cawthon signed a series of licensing deals with companies like Funko, allowing children everywhere to cover themselves in images of their favorite homicidal bots. Almost overnight, Five Nights At Freddy’s transformed itself from a scrappy horror underdog into that most iconic of marketing commodities: a cheerfully branded lunch box available at Walmart. (And Amazon. And Target. The sudden ubiquity of its ugly-cute mascot characters, leering off of department store clothing racks nationwide, only heightened the perception of the games as some kind of sudden cultural invader.) And the people now flocking in droves to Cawthon’s little universe, cash in hand, did not want experimental, brightly colored RPGs. They wanted Five Nights At Freddy’s games. Unhappy with the reception FNAF World received, Cawthon pulled the game from Steam, issued refunds to everyone who asked for them, and appeared ready to acknowledge that whatever else the Freddy’s games might want to do, they needed to scare people first.

Image for article titled Five years of Five Nights At Freddy’s
Screenshot: Five Nights At Freddy’s: Sister Location

Which is exactly what Five Nights At Freddy’s: Sister Location accomplished. If the original four Freddy’s games all constitute a single batch of horror game ideas, Sister Location—released in October of 2016, the longest development cycle the franchise had treated itself to to date—is the bigger, more ambitious sequel. No longer content to merely be a series of static image files backed up with a handful of legitimately unsettling animations, the title features such bold gaming innovations as “moving,” forcing the player to crawl at varying speeds through a variety of hostile environments, as flesh-hungry animatronics prowl around them. None of this is fun. The Five Nights At Freddy’s games are almost never fun, it feels important to note. But it is at least novel, forcing you to stare anxiously into a darkness from which, at any minute, an increasingly well-realized mechanical horror might suddenly emerge. It’s frustrating, unpleasant, and—yes—scary.

All of this is helped along by the extra time and care Cawthon put into both the game’s writing, and its production values—the latter of which had always felt like a bare-bones placeholder in earlier titles. This is the first Freddy’s game to feature professional voice acting, and it pays off memorably, with Heather Masters voicing new antagonist Circus Baby, a cheerful, ice-cream dispensing animatronic with a curious habit of always keeping track of exactly how many children she’s in close proximity to. It doesn’t hurt that Cawthon appears to have spent the intervening time (which also saw the publication of the first licensed Five Nights At Freddy’s novel) working out exactly what sort of story he was trying to tell to an audience he never could have anticipated his work would pull in. Sister Location is the darkest installment of the series by far. And yes, we’re including the “dead murderer hunts you through a filth-encrusted horror attraction” action of the third game in that tally. It also packs a couple of twists that have some legitimate impact in their ability to shock. All of which is leavened with some of the series’ best humor, too, including giving players a bit of comedic TV-watching downtime between each of its increasingly harrowing nights. It was a firm statement that, whatever else Cawthon might wish to be doing with his new-found clout, he could still deliver scares and mysteries with auteurish aplomb.

And then… silence.

Well, okay, not complete silence: Cawthon co-wrote and released two more books: a novel and a guidebook to his strange little universe. But in terms of game development, the prolific one-man studio went dark, only occasionally hinting that he was working on “something,” possibly some kind of joke game or tycoon management sim. Said rumors were apparently confirmed on December 4, 2017, when he released Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator, seemingly a joke game about tossing 8-bit pizzas into the mouths of hungry children, for free on Steam and Game Jolt. And yet after about five minutes of play, Pizzeria Simulator reveals itself to actually be the long-anticipated Five Nights At Freddy’s 6, having gleefully Trojan-horsed its way into players’ homes. This is one of those situations where being a truly independent developer, free of marketing pressures or profit-hunting executives, can have its perks.

Not that the “pizzeria simulator” part is all a joke, mind you; although they’ll be dodging murderous, vengeful robots while doing so, players are still expected to run their own Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, complete with purchasing animatronics, installing cash-draining arcade games, and managing a variety of liability lawsuits. Meanwhile, the core gameplay sees you managing the malevolent attention of a host of new friends, while also performing such mundane actions as ordering new cups and plates and unclogging toilets. Nowhere has the series more fully acknowledged that it’s really just a series of Chores Simulators—albeit ones that also happen to feature killer assemblages of plastic and wires. By steering into that “Christ, can I just get a minute” sense of trying to get something done while your office-mates continually ask for a minute of your time, it achieves the ultimate version of the series’ attempts to prepare children for their horrific lives in the adult working world. (It also provides a surprisingly melancholy and moving finale for the franchise’s actual plot, but it’s the “I’ll talk to you in a minute, Brenda, I’m trying to get these flyers printed out on this shitty-ass printer” aspect that well and truly lands.) As a grand finale to an unlikely blockbuster franchise, it nails the most horrific elements of the series’ tone. Evil robots, yes. Jump scares, sure. But there’s nothing more horrifying than knowing that every day of your life is going to be a series of somehow vital-yet-unimportant tasks, all of which must be completed in record time, lest some overbearing asshole come jumping down your throat.

After one of the most memorable bursts of game-making productivity in recent memory, the release of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator finally seemed to see Cawthon willing to rest on his laurels. This is relative, as he spent the next year working on a free DLC allowing players to face off against every single robot in the series’ arsenal in whatever arrangement they might choose. Although the series released a VR installment, Help Wanted, earlier this year, it was developed by an outside team, with Cawthon taking on more of a guidance role. Ditto, presumably, the augmented reality game that’s supposed to be out later this year.

The five-year anniversary of the original Five Nights At Freddy’s came and went back in August, mostly without comment in the wider gaming press. There’s a sense—one it shares with Fortnite, another game embraced by YouTubers and small children alike—that there’s something inherently lesser or contemptuous about this franchise. Maybe it’s the simplistic mechanics, and the often amateurish visuals, cobbled together in a low-budget, easily accessible game design tool. Maybe it’s the dumb but effective shock of the ever-present jump scares, the sort of fright that bypasses the cerebellum in favor of giving the lizard parts of our brain a cheap and easy jolt. Maybe it’s just the ongoing frustration of hearing 9-year-olds talk at length about their shared fear and fascination at Freddy Fazbear himself.

And yet, the legacy of Five Nights At Freddy’s doesn’t rest solely in the fickle attentions of pre-teens, scream compilations of beloved Twitch streamers, or the clearance rack of mall-based novelty stores. A cursory search of independent game release sites like itch.io and Game Jolt reveals literally thousands of fan games and imitations of the series, all inspired by Cawthon’s drive to take something simple and transform it into something mysterious and good. These are games about drudgery, which nevertheless saved their creator from it; if they’re not always creative, they at least engender early bursts of creativity in those who play them. There’s a sneer inherent in “A child could make that!” but it doesn’t stop it from being inspiring or wonderful when that sentiment turns out to be actually true. In the end, the Five Nights At Freddy’s games are cautionary tales, not about getting your brain bitten into by angry knock-offs of Munch’s Make-Believe Band, but about getting your soul sucked out, night by night, in exchange for a measly 10-buck-an-hour check. There are worse horrors to inculcate an entire generation of children to.