“And under this carnival disguise the heart of an old youngster who is still waiting to give his all. But how to be recognized under this mask? This is what they call a fine career.”
— Jean Anouilh, The Waltz of the Toreadors
My first disclaimer, right off the bat, is that I haven’t played any of Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s games. However I have been following them and, specifically, the overall story line.
The reason that the story behind Five Nights intrigues me so much is due to my own particular interests. Some of you who have been following Mythic Bios for a while know that I am absolutely fascinated with a special kind of creepypasta. You know the one: a short story told through different forms of media that become viral memes which proliferate through the Internet and user imaginations in the most strange and disturbingly wonderful ways. At the same time, I am a very nostalgic child of the 1980s and 1990s: especially when it comes to 8-bit and 16-bit video games.
In addition to all of this, for a while now I’ve been following the work of Kris Straub: the creator of Ichor Falls, Broodhollow, and the infamous Candle Cove. And, frankly, if I didn’t know any better I would say that in a lot of ways Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s feels like stories that Kris Straub would create if he were working in the medium of video games and playing with late twentieth century children’s nostalgia and urban legends eroded by adult decay and a wickedly self-aware sense of humour. At the very least, it taps into a similar place of childhood nightmare fuel from which Straub’s horror work and Christopher Howard Wolf’s (SlimeBeast)’s Abandoned by Disney series also spring.
As it is, Cawthon takes a multimedia approach to his interactive storytelling. For the most part, each Five Nights game is a point-and-click endoskeleton requiring exacting precision tempered by a slow-burning sense of paranoia and and an ever increasing level of danger: all an attempt to survive long enough before faulty spring-traps snap down in a jump-scare that will leave your peace of mind — in pieces — for at least a night or two.
But then there is the rest of the game’s material — its costume — to consider. There are, after all, the masks that you’re forced to wear, and those that stare at you right in the face before the long dark.
You have the newspaper clippings on the corners of your office. There are the children’s drawings on the walls of the pizzeria which you have to watch through faulty security cameras. You have an answering machine from your supervisor telling you about the dangers of walking animatronics in the night, and then more ominous references such as “The Bite of ’87.”
Then we get into the second disclaimer of this article: namely spoilers. You play this game from a second-person perspective: working six hours at night a week in a pizzeria to keep an eye on the place, but aside from seeing your character’s name on a pay cheque — should you survive to the end of at least two games — you never see your face. In fact, you don’t see any human faces in any of the three games. The only faces you get to see are those of the animatronics, the walking large, cuddly, worn, and mouldering robotic children’s mascots at night as they try to stuff your sad naked flesh “endoskeleton” into an empty suit full of pistons and wires.
Even your supposed ally, Phone Guy, is just a voice on an answering machine: and the person who is responsible for all of this is a loathsome 8-bit purple sprite.
And here is where I think Cawthon’s genius truly shines. In the second and third games of the series, Cawthon institutes a platform game element. These mini-games are often considered reminiscent of those created for the 8-bit Atari 2600. You would totally think that with their blocky graphics and crude sound effects couldn’t be taken seriously. Of course, even if you somehow disregarded the resurgence and adoption of the 8-bit aesthetic by contemporary independent game designers, you would still be dead wrong.
Between the “Death Mini-Games” of Five Nights 2 and the hidden mini-games akin to easter-eggs in Five Nights 3 — morbidly reminiscent of Warren Robinett’s Adventure and the Pac-Man level 256 perfect score glitch respectively — the mythos of Five Nights becomes more fleshed out.
While the animatronics in the point-and-click parts of the games come from a grim place where neoteny — child-like traits often incorporated into exaggerated cartoons — is combined with the uncanny valley — the notion of discomfort caused by an object that unsuccessfully tries to imitate a living being are terrifying because of how realistic they are made to look, they are creepy in a different way when rendered into pixel form. They are like 8-bit hieroglyphics, allowing you to explore the horror with a detached and almost dream-like manner. There is just something incredibly archetypal and gloomy about the graphics of the games that brings out its dark subject matter: especially when you consider that they are traditionally from a child’s medium of entertainment.
The Death Mini-Games of Five Nights 2 introduce you to the Purple Man and his role in what might be wrong with the animatronics that are attempting to kill you while, at the same time, giving you a little more background into the development of Freddy’s pizzeria and the animatronic characters therein. And in Five Nights 3, instead of having to die in order to gain random access to mini-games, you can voluntarily search for the other mini-games to perhaps change the fate of certain characters in question.
I think there are two elements that I truly appreciate from the combination of mini-games, newspaper articles, and answering machine information. First, there is what Cawthon is not telling you. There is what he implies and what he leads you, as the player and viewer, to put together. Cawthon even goes further in the advertisements for his games: implanting secret codes and clues into his messages. He makes you do all the work and all of the speculating: somehow making the dread and horror that much worse.
After all, there is a particularly challenge in another form containing the horror genre: how can you keep building up tension in the story when you reveal what the monsters look like? In addition, you certainly don’t want to reveal everything about the horror in the story or it becomes expository and rote. You have to keep a little bit of mystery in horror so that you always ask yourself why: while a part of you is always at least partially afraid of the possible answers.
These are the kinds of elements that inspire fans: that made this series into something of a viral meme on par with creepypastas. There are fan-made stories, games, animations, art, and trailers based on the archetypes that Cawthon creates. A Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is in the works and there is even speculation that Freddy’s is a real restaurant somewhere: probably based off Chuck E. Cheese’s. Certainly the mascot costumes, pizza, and arcade games taps into a resonance in me as a child of the eighties and nineties: a nostalgic feeling that Cawthon is trying to invoke and distort.
The fact of the matter is that, for the most part, the three Five Nights at Freddy’s that exist right now can stand by themselves. There didn’t need to be another game after these. However, I had my suspicions. Perhaps it was because of the empty product page he kept for some time with the discarded top hat. Maybe it was his silence about whether or not there was going to be another game.
But sure enough, come October 31, the fourth and final Five Nights at Freddy’s will arrive. And if you look at the graphic on Cawthon’s page, it is extremely appropriate if you think about it. I think it actually sums up a lot of the second element that has been on my mind, in some form, when I think about this game.
I mean, of course it makes sense for the last chapter of a horror survival game to come out on Halloween, but here’s what gets to me. Imagine Freddy’s Pizzeria is like Chuck E. Cheese’s or even Disney World or Land. Certainly, a place for children would celebrate Halloween in some fashion: or at least take advantage of it commercially. Maybe “The Bite of ’87” might not come into it as many fans are speculating, but imagine how freaky it would be to be in a haunted children’s restaurant on Halloween of all days: perhaps even during the day this time around. Perhaps there are actual Nightmare toy versions or animatronics for such a lovely occasion.
But all speculation on my part aside, take this a step further. Remember what I said earlier about faces? How you never see any human faces in any of the Five Nights games? There are always costumes involved. There are always roles to consider. You arguably wear a uniform as a security guard. A murderer might have worn a animatronic suit. In Five Nights 2 you have to hide your face under a Freddy Fazbear Head in order to survive an animatronic intrusion. And children might be hiding — or hidden — in other inside the darnedest places. Even Phone Guy, the former security guard who showed you the ropes of your new job and was your only ally for the most part, tells you that he is curious to see what is inside those animatronic suits.
The fact is: it’s always Halloween at Freddy’s, and I suspect that it’s always been. No one is as they seem, everyone wears masks, no one rests, and everyone wants to play. Sometimes nostalgia is an illusion of the fabled “good old days” that can, when stripped away, becomes a dark, ravenous thing in the late hours of the night. Sometimes you lose track of time when you so desperately want to keep living, and you don’t always want to see what’s under that costume. After all, some seemingly innocent dreams are, at their core, rotting nightmares.
And just when you think its safe to take that mask off, to forget the night time, to mistake the performer taking off his top hat with a flourish and a bow as the end: the story only continues at an elegant pace … and the suspense will kill you.