Gaming Writer Sophie Webb explores the impact and development of the lore of Five Nights at Freddy’s on the precipice of the movie’s release

Written by Sophie Webb
sci&tech editor studying msc youth mental health :)

The summer of 2014 saw the release of the enigmatic Five Nights at Freddy’s, an indie horror game created by a lone developer, Scott Cawthon. Inspired by the once-popular Chuck E. Cheese restaurant franchise in America, at which animatronic characters perform songs, the game follows a guard working the night shift at a very similar location, surveying security cameras and getting overly familiar with the demonic animatronic animals roaming the building. 

It was one of the finest recent examples of “less is more” in horror games

Primarily through word of mouth, the game soared to notoriety for its simple but wildly effective premise: the player remains stationary, unable to run from pursuers, with only visual and audio cues to identify incoming attacks. With its unforgettable ambience, achieved through pristine sound design, it was one of the finest recent examples of “less is more” in horror games.

As iconic as the game would have been as a stand-alone feature, it happened to give way to a lengthy series of sequel and prequel games, tie-in books, music, online animations and hundreds of fan-made tribute games. The once-modest quartet of haunted animatronics has expanded to a cast of hundreds. Excitement for the series reliably rears its head with each new release, the death of each iteration followed swiftly by the arrival of its successor. 

The ghostly animatronics may or may not be controlled by the spirits of murdered children

Perhaps unexpectedly, this otherwise simple game opened a bottomless well of lore and complex characterisation, with its basic game mechanics complemented by a convoluted and depraved story of loss, family trauma and life after death – after all, the ghostly animatronics may or may not be controlled by the spirits of murdered children. While such an idea was barely hinted at in the original game – via an ominous newspaper clipping taped to a wall – it was spun into an integral element of the story over the course of numerous games. Players could get a particular thrill from slotting pieces of lore together, with eclectic terminology such as “the bite of ‘87”, “purple guy” and “the man behind the slaughter” becoming symbols of this endless treasure hunt, as well as memes in their own right. Games may enjoy a certain level of success if they provide players with detective work, in other words, a “job” to do long after they have logged off the game. This provides the player with a sense of higher purpose – other lore-heavy examples include Fallout, BioShock and Assassin’s Creed. Perhaps what makes FNAF’s bare-bones mechanics all the more thrilling, is the player’s gradual and inevitable realisation that there is vastly more to consume than meets the eye. 

Theorising immediately became a group activity

Theorising immediately became a group activity, with entire YouTube channels dedicated to making sense of the lore as it becomes more intricate with each new release. The culmination of the series so far feels like it could be the FNAF movie, releasing in the UK at the end of this month, and featuring cameos from a handful of the aforementioned YouTubers. The film has been many years in the making, with the project stopping and starting in hesitation. While expectations are high, you could argue that it doesn’t matter how well the games transfer to screen; fans will dutifully comb the end result for any new insights. Its creators have the unenviable job of satisfying die-hard fans with their theories at the ready, while simultaneously introducing the series to newcomers. 

Potentially, the lore could evolve uncontrollably, beyond all recognition

Potentially, the lore could evolve uncontrollably, beyond all recognition; some would argue that it’s already on its way to doing so. It remains to be seen whether or not the series can continue to entice new fans while satiating the old ones indefinitely. Surely, there comes a point at which it’s too late to jump onboard; too much lore has been missed, and not even the most comprehensive video essay on YouTube is enough to get up to speed. It’s at this point that a game risks becoming alienating. 

While there may be bumps in the road ahead, fever for FNAF feels as potent as in 2014, nine years down the line. As is the case with the restless spirits of the murder victims possessing animatronics, it seems that a great deal of FNAF’s longevity is its own insistence on living forever.

Watch the trailer for Five Nights at Freddy’s here:

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