You know, when I first heard about the game Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) the last thing I thought I’d be doing is writing an article that lauds the creator’s ability to write a spine-shivering, engrossing story. I haven’t even picked up the game or played it for myself, but I’ve been pulled into the theories and imagination of the series, and spent more time mulling over it than I have most of the writing in MMOs I play. With the newest release, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, the writer in me was fiendishly delighted by the way the story was delivered, and the response of the fandom, who continue to attempt to unravel the web that the developer, Scott Cawthon, has trapped us in.
I’ve chosen to write this spoiler-free, which is why you’ll find no specific details about the story that you couldn’t discover from reading the game’s overview.
FNAF – An Overview
The story is so subtle, that you could almost miss it if you weren’t thinking beyond the odd, animatronic animals who roam the halls of the pizzaria at night. In these games, you are a severely underpaid night watchman. You are given meager tools to do your job, which is mostly protecting yourself from the restaurant’s mascots, including Freddy Fazbear and crew. You can’t leave your station, but you can use security cameras to monitor the behavor of things around you. You also have doors and lights (limited in power supply) in the first game, and a mask and flashlight in the second game. You’ll need all these to make it through your shift… because if one of Freddy’s friends get into your room, and you don’t react in the right way, it’s lights out for you.
This all seems simple enough. It’s a game of learning patterns, of cause and effect. If character X does action Y, then you must do action Z or it’s game over. There’s plenty of jump scares and it’s really a ton of fun to watch people play and learn the game on YouTube.
Each night, you get a phone call from an unknown fellow employee (fondly called the Phone Guy) that often coaches you on what you can expect that night. Things change as the week progresses, and the scenarios get harder. But listening to the Phone Guy was the first hint I had that there was something deeper going on under all this.
Why did these machines act the way they did? Why did they sound the way they did? Why did Phone Guy leave half-hints that sounded rather gruesome, all the while trying to pretend everything was totally okay?
My curiosity led me to forums and wikis only to discover my hunch was right. There was a lot more going on under it all than Phone Guy was willing to tell us about.
What’s so great about the writing in these games?
The creator confirms almost nothing. And that’s a beautiful thing.
It’s up to the players to discover the clues hidden throughout the game and piece them together to learn the extremely creepy history of the pizzeria. These clues are as subtle as half spoken comments from the Phone Guy, clippings of news paper articles that appear on the wall in one of the rooms, the date on a check, strange hallucinations (that the fandom still hasn’t fully figured out yet), and creepy mini-games that pop up when you die multiple times in FNAF2.
There’s nothing there, aside from the strange hesitation in the Phone Guy’s voice (as he tells you but doesn’t tell you), that screams “Hey! Look at me! Loook! Look! Here’s the story!” And that’s a beautiful thing.
It’s one of those “When you see it” moments when it all comes together. And when it comes together, there’s still swiss-cheese holes waiting for you to theorize and make your own conclusions. I have my idea of what I think happened. Someone else has theirs, too. The beauty of it all is that the game makes it so my thoughts are just as valid as the next person’s… because the facts are so vague that (within canon, of course) there’s not a right or wrong answer. Just a lot of really creepy things to make you wonder.
If the developer has these answers, he’s not sharing. But to pull off something like this, to leave hints and embed thoughts in our minds that mislead the players until the last moment, he’s gotta know the story he wants to tell inside and out. He gives us just enough to drive us nuts (in a good way), and the Theory page on the wiki is proof of this.
Sometimes a game’s story doesn’t have to be in the spotlight to be told well. So often, game writers try so hard to engage players that they force their story on us, only to fail (GW2 – I’m looking at you).
Sometimes, giving the player the burden of filling in the story with our imagination is more captivating than hand-holding and telling us everything. This is difficult and risky, as must be done right, though. It also may not translate well for other genres.
FNAF has perfectly nailed what it attempted to do story-wise. Hats off to you, Scott.
Or… well… maybe leave it on for now.