I’ll start off by making it clear that I have never been a fan of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series of horror video games. I’ve been meaning to write something about all its missteps since the first entry and the complaints have just piled up with the games. The surprise early release of the fourth and ‘final’ installment seems like the perfect time to address their issues with a gimmicky numbered list. We’ll go through each failing one at a time, staring with…
You might wonder how I can call a horror game about homicidal animatronics from a children’s pizza restaurant boring. While it’s true that there is a seed of an interesting game here, the fact is that the creator Scott Cawthon does basically nothing with it.
Horror-comedy is almost completely untapped when it comes to video games, excluding glitches that make monsters behave in odd non-threatening ways. There’s a long but still not fully explored tradition of horror-comedy in cinema that includes films like Army of Darkness, Gremlins, Drag me to Hell, Slither, and Housebound.
The Freddy games could have joined them if they had actually committed to both elements and used more distinctive imagery. Say you are presented with the same seed of an idea that Scott Cawthon had. You can then explore the elements of all the associated genres and find something that fits well, or you can do what he did and pick the first (read: bland) thing that pops into your head. What kind of animals should the animatronics be based on? Most people’s first thoughts would be the stuffed animal set: teddy bear, yellow bird, and bunny. Every set needs a slightly tricky unfriendly one so… a fox. Foxes are tricky.
That’s unimaginative. Picture this instead: the game uses a set of animals and a restaurant theme that are incongruous, which acts as humorous commentary on how children’s entertainment rarely bothers to make sense. Personally, I’d do something like setting the restaurant in the American southwest and giving it a pirate theme. Then you wind up with a set of desert-dwelling animals that will never see an ocean in their life running around and singing about the high seas and walking the plank. (The restaurant serves square pizza ‘planks’)
You could call it Six Nights at Scurvy’s and have a cast of animatronics that are both funnier and creepier than Freddy’s gang. A coyote instead of a fox. An armadillo in a tricorne hat instead of a bunny. A rattlesnake whose tail functions as the band’s tambourine or maracas. Then maybe even a cactus with a skull and crossbones painted on it because they just don’t have that many interesting animals in Arizona.
You see what I mean? That’s already more distinct, cohesive, and funny than the stuffed animal set.
It’s hard for me to decide if this or the lacking creative elements are the biggest sticking point. I understand Scott is an indie developer and that he wanted to make a game with a small scope, but there were far smarter ways to design it.
As they stand the games have you constantly switching between camera feeds to check on animatronics and make sure they haven’t come too close to your office or bedroom or whatever. Small tasks like winding music boxes, turning on lights, and closing doors are sprinkled between the screen switching.
This is one of the most obnoxious types of gameplay I’ve ever seen. I don’t know about you, but switching screens all the time is headache-inducing more than anything else. It’s not hard to see what he was going for: a stressful tense bundle of multitasking that prevents you from seeing everything at once. Again though, if you think about it past your initial instincts you’ll come up with something better.
Instead of switching camera feeds that take up your entire screen, the security guard character could be seated in front of a bank of monitors with different camera feeds. The trick would be that the field-of-view is not wide enough to encompass all of them. That accomplishes the same thing without forcing players to perform an obnoxious action similar to high-speed channel surfing. You could even put them in a swivel chair so they have to spin around every once in a while to check behind them.
In addition to the stationary elements, the games need to be broken up with a few short missions where you actually wander around the restaurant to reset circuit breakers or something. Currently the only thing that interrupts the flickering cameras is Atari-style confusing mini-games. Wandering missions could introduce lots of moments for scares as well as novel gameplay. You might be required to don an animatronic head and blend in with them, performing certain actions associated with that animal so you don’t raise suspicion.
Imagine the horror comedy gold of missions like that. Picture yourself wading through Scurvy’s waist-high ball bit (an assortment of blue and seafoam green called the ‘balltic sea’) and seeing an animatronic rise out of it in front of you like a vampire from his coffin. It would be incredible in as many ways as you can slice a pizza.
Some might argue that as an indie developer his games have to stay smaller than that, but I refuse to believe that after the success of the first game he did not have the budget develop one complete 3D building you could move around in.
This is a quick point. These games have come out way too quickly. It’s a sign that Cawthon doesn’t understand the pacing involved with art/entertainment releases. He’s saturating his own market and making the general public more annoyed with his presence than he should be.
It’s a great way to drain the passion from the everyday fans and intensify the insane lust of that special kind of 5naf fan. You know the type: they’re always drawing their favorite ship of the animatronic characters on deviantart. Rule 34 is somehow the first rule in their handbook. Why they’re interested in the sex lives of homicidal animatronics possessed by dead children I do not know. I pray I never do.
This point may seem the most nebulous, but to me it points to Scott’s greatest weakness as a creator. He does not seem to understand how the conventions of any aspect of art or entertainment actually work.
I’m a big fan of game critic and commentator Jim Sterling, who has speculated that he had a little something to do with the birth of the 5naf series when he criticized one of Scott’s earlier game projects. It was called Chipper and Sons Lumber Co. and was supposed to be a kid-friendly game. Jim Sterling made a video about it and pointed out how the cutesy animals in the game actually looked psychotic. That’s misunderstanding number one; he saw them as appropriate.
After receiving criticism like that he decided to turn it into a strength by just running with the creepy animal angle, which is honestly the smartest thing he could have done. Unfortunately his misunderstandings just piled up from there.
He misunderstood that horror is about building tension, not mounting frustration. (I think it was the critic Yahtzee who called the jump scare the horror equivalent of a fart joke and I’m in complete agreement with him)
He misunderstood the release process, resulting in four nearly identical games in an extremely short period of time.
He misunderstood the humor in his own concept. Old malfunctioning animatronics being kept around despite their bloodlust is what makes it funny and scary! By making their origin story involve a serial killer (the purple guy has to be the worst creepypasta-style name I’ve heard yet by the way) and the souls of his child victims, you’ve turned it into the plot of your average paranormal ghost movie instead. Bad move.
Most recently he misunderstood why his games were even considered genuinely creepy in the first place. The latest game sees the animatronics appearing as nightmarish versions of themselves covered in extra teeth. Scott, they were scary because they were animatronics. They were scary because they superficially looked child-friendly but had dead eyes and contorted expressions that unsettled rather than startled. You’ve just destroyed the only seed of creativity 5naf had by turning them into bland, sharp-toothed, closet-hiding monsters.
All of these misunderstandings speak to a mind that doesn’t really get art/entertainment. He hasn’t yet figured out how to break the surface of real inspiration and see the magnificent ocean currents of subtext. Until he does he’s just another Stephenie Meyer.
While I do consider this last one a failing of the series, it is not Scott Cawthon’s fault directly. All of 5naf’s flaws become a hundred times worse when the games are elevated to the level that they are. The culture surrounding these games is dense, intellectually cynical, and severely lacking in self-awareness.
Those fans I mentioned earlier? The ones who see your horror video game as a soap opera or as outright pornography? If that is the bulk of your community you have not only failed to make real art/entertainment, you’ve helped that group of people spread their brand of colorful dimwitted masturbation even further into the mainstream. You’ve allowed the propagation of similar repetitive works whose supposed fans will attach a sexuality and a pregnancy to anything with eyes or a name.
It also aids the subgenre ‘Pewdiebait’, named after the world’s biggest youtuber. The term describes games interested only in being random or startling enough to get a youtube personality to play and promote their game. That’s an entire subgenre of completely useless, selfish, poisonous, manipulative trash games clogging up both of the biggest platforms for video game-based media (Youtube and Twitch).
As I said, it’s not Scott’s fault directly, but all these things must be considered when you put your creations out into the world. Art/entertainment belong to everybody. That means that a piece of it is mine, no matter how infinitesimally small that piece is. That’s why I felt compelled to write this criticism. The mere existence of games like Five Nights at Freddy’s pushes the creative sphere further away from the things I value.
If I could convince Scott Cawthon of one thing, it would be that you don’t want to be remembered by poorly drawn porn and Pewdiepie’s disingenuously contorted face on a thumbnail.