So by now, I’m sure everyone on this planet has at least heard of the viral game sensation that is the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, created by Scott Cawthon via his own one-man development company, Scott Games. So far, four games make up this indie franchise (five if you count FNAF World) and all have found major success despite being a download game via Steam. So why is this such a big deal?
First of all, you can thank the Internet. Word of mouth travels so much faster these days thanks to social media. Imagine a game like this trying to take off in the 1980s. It’d take a lot longer, obviously, especially for an indie game.
Secondly, the premise of the game itself. While it’s rather simple (jump scares, pattern finding, etc…), there’s a lot more going on in the games than one would think. I’ll get into this a bit more later on. And thirdly, the mystery that surrounds it.
The Basic Idea:
So, the general idea behind the first game is that you’re a security guard working nights at a Chuck E Cheese type pizzeria. There are animatronic animal mascot characters and you find right away that things aren’t at all happy and fun at this place at night. The mascots come to life and start sneaking around and try to kill you. You cannot leave your office and only have a few cameras, lights, door switches and a limited use of power to protect you, which can all fail at any point. Once they fail or you screw up the pattern that keeps the characters at bay, you’re dead, mauled by the bear, fox , bunny or chicken. And each night you live, you’re greeted by another phone call (fans dubbed this character “Phone Guy”) and clues start to surface as to the danger you’re in, what might be causing this and other subtle hints. However, not much is revealed and you’re left to speculate and fill in the blanks with very hidden details. Survive the first five nights and things really get crazy on night six and seven.
Game 2 and 3:
The mysteries of first game get a few answers in game two, which rather subtly is revealed to be a prequel half way through play. It gets weirder, though. There are more animatronics, more mysterious chaos going on and Atari-styled 8bit games that appear when you beat a level that gently give you clues as to what is making the characters evil. The third game goes a bit further, taking place thirty years from the original game, in which you are a guard at a horror attraction based on the terrifying happenings at the original pizzerias. Things get out of control rather quickly as your boss discovers an original animatronic and original training/message audio tapes from the restaurant. Again, there are mini games to play upon completion of the level, but thanks to some EXTREMELY hidden clues, you can purposefully glitch a game and find the “true” ending. Yes, the game is designed to let you do this, but figuring out how isn’t very straight forward, and the various Lets-Players I frequent on YouTube have all had to research the hell out of this to find out how to do it correctly.
We’re back in the past, most likely in 1987. This time, you’re a small child alone in a dark bedroom at night, armed with a flashlight. You’re terrified of what lurks outside the doors and what is in your closet. To make things worse, your older brother and his friends torment you mercilessly, scaring the crap out of you during the day whilst wearing masks of the FNAF characters. This game relies MUCH more on listening/sound cues as to when you should shut a door, open one, or peak at what’s crawling onto your bed or trying to leap out of your closet. This one for me was a lot more unsettling because the sounds are so subtle, so soft and one mistake kills you. Slowly, thanks to subtle visual cues around the bedroom and revelations and text from the mini games, things start to make sense. Hell, this game actually made me sad at its conclusion. “Perhaps some things are best left forgotten”.
So why is that a big deal?
Well, partly it is the minimalistic storytelling. You only get dialogue from the Phone Guy in the form of a voicemail, and he’s not very up front about anything. Secondly, the tension the game creates as you frantically try to figure out where these characters are in the building as they come to life. It really starts to get to you. You know they’re coming but you only have a few audio clues as to their location. Your cameras can only give you so much warning and if you miss a cue, you’re a goner, AND you only have so much power and once you’re out of it OR your lights or the doors break, you’re screwed. Thirdly, the clues given in the mini-games reveal murders, possession and other horrifying details that are causing what’s occurring. Some clues are subtle and others are blatant. Lastly, it’s just a creepy feeling you get when you play. The atmosphere is morbid, the ambience is dark and frightening and while the game play is simple, it’s a race against time and relentless attacks.
The Unexpected Success:
I had first heard about this through my girlfriend. I work 4am shifts certain days of the week so I’m in bed early so she sometimes watches online Lets-plays while I loudly snore in the bedroom. So, one night, she had stumbled onto the first game of the series and just had to show me (and explain why she was screaming and throwing her phone away in terror all night). I was skeptical, but upon watching the Steam Train (Game Grumps) and Markiplier’s playthrough, I was quite impressed by every aspect of this game. It was simple, but it was captivating. The minimalist storytelling and the whole question of “why?” as the clues slowly appeared kept me hooked.
It was thrilling being blown away as news/clues of a new game would get released, coming out merely as small, often hidden clues on Scott’s webpage. Some of which were only visible if you manipulated to colors of the photo or even accessed to coding thereof. All of this was intentional, something I had never seen a developer do for their own advertising to this extent. Between that and the spooky artwork that’d be posted, often without warning, I couldn’t help but to hang on to every detail. It was exciting and video games don’t normally get me –this- excited. And for an indie game to generate this much buzz was even more exciting.
And as each subsequent game got released, we were glued to Markiplier and 8-Bit Gaming’s channels to see, re-watch and dive into in depth theory analysis on every terrifying detail. And the fourth game, while just as scary, really made us sad at the end. And with rumors of a 5th cannon game on the way, I am eager to look back on the games and brush up on the story.
My Reaction as an Ambient Music Junkie:
While the idea of a game using sounds as a cue isn’t new, I felt that the way Scott used it was unique. It was, at times, your only clue to avoid a terrifying death in the jaws and claws of an evil animatronic mascot. In fact, as each game progressed, the atmosphere and sounds would thicken, in a way. Foxy would sing, Freddy would laugh, Balloon Boy would laugh/talk, and a plethora of other clattering, static, footsteps and poundings would echo through the halls, and nothing is more frightening in that universe than nonliving things coming after you and the player having an extremely limited means to avoid them, to tell where they are and protecting yourself. Listening to all of that through headphones is chilling. I really admire the thought and simplicity of it all. Normally, a slowed down laugh or reversed speech would make me laugh because I have used a lot of that in my own sound recordings but here, it’s oddly morbid.
My personal favorite usage of sound was in the mini games of the second installment. In true old school 8-bit fashion, a digitized voice calls out letters. Although hard to understand at times because it was meant to be vintage technology, they spell out words and phrases integral to the plot. I am sure this isn’t the first game to do this but for me, that impressed the hell out of me. It added a whole new creep factor in to boot.
While the reaction to the revelations and conclusions on the fourth (and supposedly the final game) were mixed, with some fans rejoicing and others revolting, I have to say I’m satisfied. Yes, there may be a few questions here and there left unanswered but, honestly, I’m ok with that. Watching the fanbase react the way they did is something interesting onto itself, for me, anyway. Scott did seem to enjoy watching gamers and game theorists take apart the game and storyline bit by bit to find the carefully hidden clues he had painstakingly put in and I could tell his frustration when some folks didn’t get or want to accept the ending for the fourth game. Despite all that, I am glad to see Scott returning with a 5th installment to the series, taking place at a sister location that was referenced in several of the previous games. That in itself has me genuinely curious. By now, we have nearly all the answers to what happened at the main franchises and why things were the way they were. It’ll be cool to get the scoop on what was going on at a place we had never seen but had only heard about in the messages Phone Guy left us.
So, thank you, Scott Cawthon. Seriously. I am glad to see you’re still creating and coming out with something that I have no doubt will be quite an experience.
Play and buy all four FNAF games on Steam via Scott Games.
Watch Markiplier’s Playthroughs for all four games (plus some animated clips, comedy spoofs and a playthrough with Jack Black) here!
Check out in depth theories by The Game Theorists, something Scott at times comments on.
And check out 8-Bit Gaming’s playthroughs and theories as well.