My favorite games challenge you to survive with a combination of existential dread and classic puzzle-solving — and just a dash of your own sanity’s sacrifice — in the name of victory. So when the Five Night’s At Freddy’s series was unleashed upon the world, the product of a single creator’s horrifying vision, I was sold.
Welcome to 2015’s most financially successful nightmare— and a narrative about gaming that I think serves as a warning. Just 48 months ago, the rise of Scott Cawthon as a game creator with a small original IP would’ve been celebrated like the work of those in the focus of Indie Game: The Movie but his success is so overwhelming, it is instead aligned with the kind of stories we lump Flappy Bird alongside; which is to say the more this creator pushes forward, the more the world seems to push back.
Freddy’s takes place in a shadow facsimile of Chuck E. Cheese where the anthropomorphic southern animal band just so happens to come to vengeful life by night and you, the minimum wage security night-shift boy, is tasked with making sure they claim no innocent lives, especially yours. Interactivity is limited to a poorly-aged security camera system that allows you to monitor the slow advance of the uncanny valley’s greatest warriors as they hunt a minimum wage employee for sport. You have access to zero weapons or defense systems, but you can apply a limited amount of electricity towards a security system that might, at best, allow you to view your robotic death as it stalks you through an abandoned restaurant but also may or may not exist in an infinitely repeatable system of socially specific finalism. You monitor the property until 6AM each night for a week, and by night three you’ll find yourself plagued by nightmare creatures that can only be dissuaded through light flashes, door jams, or the thin prayer that they’ll mistake you for one of the other monster beings.
The biggest element which separates Freddy’s from the indie game world is the release of three different iterations within a single year. Each adopts new locations and adjusts game-play elements, but no one else in indie games has ever displayed the self-confidence to trilogy their new IP within twelve months.This leads to two very important conversations. First is the deliberate provocation of the internet’s imagination by submerging the relevant back-story in Amiga-era graphics. Bizarre interstitials from 5NAF2 onward dare you to interpret a series of interconnected child murders strewn between the pizza chain’s history. This stylized approach to historically actualizing a series of pizza restaurant child murders has become catnip for internet commenters who see something different in the nightmare bytes. The second thing which sets Freddy’s apart is the inspirational backstory.
Freddy’s accomplishes a great deal of nightmare fuel by balancing simple graphics against an AI that hunts you for sport, with an almost randomized system of success. Scott Cawthon is the secret weapon.
Scott is a game designer who has never aimed to profit from his status as a Christian, but amongst his other releases over the years has produced a Bible-centric slot machine game for a comically limited audience. A few years back, he released a game called Chipper & Sons about a family of beavers, that was wildly panned in the critical community for not only being un-fun, but also presenting characters that seemed more Event Horizon than Madagascar.
Whereas so many other creators might take the heavy criticism of producing a brutally un-engaging game as a sign they have no business making interactive entertainment, Scott almost pointedly reapplied the work he’d put into a family friendly game that was poorly received, and used it to create one of the most oppressive gaming experiences of this generation, single-handedly.
But his workman-like aesthetic seems to have worked against him. The third entry in the series hit in March, followed by a fourth in July. In between, the announcement of a major motion picture deal landed. And now, at the end of the year, there’s a trailer up for a genre crossover called Five Night’s At Freddy’s World that transports the familiar antagonists into an RPG adventure. The comments sections are pouring over with vitriol for what this has become: a financially successful franchise.
Is it Cawthon’s fault for finding a formula that works and exploiting it or—more universally—is it a pushback against a “casual jumpscare” genre that peaked with the mainstream in this series and is now inseparable from PewDiePie and all the other frightful shrieking Let’s Players who built their own success on the back of this game? Can we distance the creator from his creation, or from the monsters his creation spawned?
If this is a spiteful response related to media three levels disconnected from Cawthon, why are the angry villagers storming his castle instead of reflecting on our own choices? Because that’s what 2015 in games is about— spying on what we hate and hoping to stop it with our attention. Just like the security guard we portray in Cawthon’s game.