Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Five Nights At Freddy’s

If there is one video game series I am absolutely fascinated by, it’s Five Nights at Freddy’s. 

The way the indie point-and-click style horror game blew up into the phenomenon it is, changing the world of YouTube gaming and kicking off a sort of revival of the indie horror genre is something truly remarkable. So few things are able to capture the attention of such a wide audience, let alone maintain it for so long.

I have been completely invested in the lore as well as its creator, Scott Cawthon, for years and even wrote an essay attempting to dissect Cawthon’s own role in the RPG edition FNaF World while taking a class on Life Writing in college. The deeper you get into Five Nights at Freddy’s, the more interesting it becomes, and there is a great deal a writer can learn from not only the game’s success but its history.

With the recent activity on Cawthon’s website suggesting there may be another installment on the horizon, possibly a VR game, I thought this would be an excellent time to share some of the things I have learned over the years from this horrific and “magical place for kids and grown-ups alike, where fantasy and fun come to life.”

Literally.

If you are unfamiliar with the craze that is FNaF, let me give you a brief rundown.

The original game was released in 2014 and is set in at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, a restaurant resembling a Chuck E. Cheese complete with animatronics that are allowed to roam freely after hours to prevent their mechanisms from locking up.

Players take on the role of a nighttime security guard at the pizzeria, a job that seems easy enough at first but takes a dark turn with Phone Guy’s instruction to keep the animatronics out of the office lest the player meet a gruesome fate due to being mistaken for an endoskeleton not in its suit.

As it turns out, the animatronics are haunted.

Overall, the premise sounds underwhelming. But the true reason for FNaF’s widespread interest is in its lore, as the series expands upon its narrative surrounding an event known as The Bite of ’87 as well as The Bite of ’83, along with other murders and honestly disturbing things I won’t be going into with this article because, honestly, it would take a LONG time to go through everything from the games and the novels (yes, there are FNaF novels, which are sort of a separate canon but are being woven into the games more and more).

If you are interested in catching up with the lore, I recommend checking out The Game Theorists many videos attempting to break this down with each new edition to the series. It is a lot to digest and might take more than one sitting to get through.

That said, there is a lot a writer can learn from the Five Nights at Freddy’s series and from Scott Cawthon himself.

1. Your Writing Journey Might Not Go As Planned, But That Is Often For The Best

When it comes to Five Nights at Freddy’s, the history of the man behind the machines is just as interesting as the game’s lore.  With the game’s popularity, one might assume Cawthon has always had an interest in creating horror games.

This is far from the case.

Prior to the creation of Five Nights at Freddy’s, Cawthon had made a few simple video games. His first, Doofas, was created when he was a child, which he revealed during a charity livestream hosted by YouTuber Dawko in support of the American Red Cross. His first official games date around the later 1990s and early 2000s including RPG Max, There Is No Pause Button!, and The Desolate Hope. Cawthon was also part of Hope Animation which describes itself as, “a collaborative project of Christian animators, programmers and designers who want to spread the message and teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible through the use of new media, digital arts, computer games and animation” on its website. Much of Cawthon’s work with Hope Animations is in the form of animated films retelling biblical stories like The Jesus Kids’ Club, and Bible Playsand feature-length adaptions of Noah’s Ark and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

So how did a man with a background in Christian children’s animation end up dominating the video game world with a game based around the horrific murders of several children?

2. Proving the Naysayers Wrong Can Be The Best Motivation

Five Nights at Freddy’s is actually the result of another game’s failure.

One of Cawthon’s earlier titles is Chipper and Sons Lumber Co. This title follows a young beaver named Tyke as he assists with the work at his father’s lumber yard. Similar to online gaming craze Farmville, the player is tasked with planting and watering trees to be chopped down and used to construct various objects to fulfill in-game quests. 

Chipper & Sons Lumber Co. was met with heavy criticism, particularly in its appearance. Though intended for younger audiences, several reviewers deemed the characters too creepy for its demographic, saying their movements were robotic. One review credited with being the final straw is Jim Sterling, who called the game horrifying and described its characters as having a “ghastly face twisted in a grimacing mockery of joy…[and] looks like it’s going to kill your children.” Criticism like this was unexpected and hit Cawthon hard, prompting him to consider giving up video game design altogether. However, comments like Sterling’s stuck with him, and he eventually made his character’s robotic appearances work in his favor. If the public thought something as intentionally innocent as Chipper & Sons Lumber Co. was disturbing, Cawthon was going to give them an absolute nightmare.

In short, Five Nights at Freddy’s was created out of spite. Cawthon ultimately took the note of his characters being robotic and used it to his advantage, creating a horror-scape where the characters were animatronics. Sometimes, it can take a while for a creator, whether they are a writer or a game designer, to figure out what their strengths are, and these strengths might be difficult for the creator to see and take a while to find. The important thing is to learn from the criticism you receive and work to improve your skills. 

3. Create An Engaging Narrative ~ But Don’t Let It Get Too Convoluted

Five Nights at Freddy’s is known for its lore. The rift between Henry and William. The Bite of ’87 and The Bite of ’83. Purple Guy. Springtrap. What is the identity of the security guard? Who is Crying Child?

As I mentioned, there is a lot to unpack across the series, and each installment adds another layer to an already complicated narrative.

Even though a lot of the fun when it comes to Five Nights at Freddy’s is in trying to piece together the events with scarce clues Cawthon provides, this also demonstrates one of the frustrations that comes out of the series.

Every new installment added to the series forces the fanbase to throw out something we thought we knew, whether it be in a character’s identity or the timeline of significant events and when each game takes place. With a series, especially one that has a high number of moving parts, adding a new cog shouldn’t jam up the machine but help things run more smoothly. 

In the case of Five Nights at Freddy’s, this is a frequent occurrence. While it can be enjoyable to watch theorists like MatPat scramble to adjust their timelines when a new piece of information comes to light, retconning (when a creator gives a piece of new information that doesn’t line up with everything else and essentially resets the series from that point on, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency) can be a point of contention. At this point, though expected from Cawthon, some of the most prominent theorists in the Five Nights at Freddy’s fanbase have expressed this feeling more like a chore than a game as they have to reorganize what they thought was so well laid out.

Surprising your audience and doing the unexpected in your narrative can make the story compelling, but be careful about how you do it.

4. Interpretations Don’t Override Your Work

At this point in the Five Nights at Freddy’s phenomenon, the interest in the game is not so much in playing the game but understanding its lore. Cawthon does an incredible job of hiding little things for theorists to analyze and sometimes agonize over as the narrative expands. However, this often leads to the fanbase working to pick apart every aspect of the game right down to the very codes of its programming.

While this has created an extraordinary online community as people work to solve the mysteries within the FNaF series, this has a habit of pulling Cawthon’s work in a different direction than the one that was intended.

In my own experience, I’ve had classmates or beta readers look at something I had written, only to comment on something that is not even in the story or read too deeply into one thing while completely missing the point I had intended to make even though everyone else in the group understood what I was going for. This is bound to happen, especially once a work is published and made available to the public. Between fan theories and even fanfiction, outside interpretations are inevitable, especially in a situation where the subject is so complex and intricately woven together.

The thing to keep in mind is, while someone’s interpretation might be inaccurate or cause them to perceive your work in a way that is different than you intended, that doesn’t change what it means to youYour work is still yours. It doesn’t matter what one reader might think of a character because they were not the one who wrote the story. The one who wrote your story is you. Even a fanbase that prides itself on solving a game’s mysteries, sometimes even before the game is released, cannot change that.

5. Learning When To Step Back And Move On

The teaser image for FNaF4 included the tagline, “The Final Chapter,” as Cawthon intended the series and its lore to be completed. He was ready to move on.

The fanbase, however, felt otherwise.

There was a high demand for more content after the game’s ending, which put Cawthon in a difficult position of being caught between his own intentions and what his fanbase desired of him. The story was finished in his mind, but its audience wanted a continuation, leaving him to create another installment: FNaF World.

FNaF World is completely different than its predecessors. Rather than a creepy point-and-click horror game, FNaF World is a vibrant and whimsical RPG.

This is so far from what anyone in the fanbase expected.

As the FNaF World starts, Fredbear explains glitches have happened in the Flipside, and the player is tasked with exploring the map and going against enemies in the traditional RPG mode, adding other Five Nights at Freddy’s characters to their party as they progress through the game. Many thought the game was picking up where FNaF4 left off, a suspicion furthered by its opening sequence displaying the text from that game’s ending, “I will put you back together,” presumably seen from the perspective of Crying Child’s death as Fredbear comforts him. This coupled with the last image in FNaF4, a box closed with two padlocks and the quote, “Perhaps some things are best left forgotten, for now,” stirred a hope that Cawthon would reveal its contents within FNaF World. When players realized FNaF World was not connected to the Five Nights at Freddy’s lore they were already invested in, they were quick to dismiss it as a disappointment. Cawthon later removed the game from Steam in the face of the backlash he received with the promise to refund those who had purchased it and were unsatisfied.

Cawthon said in a statement following the removal of FNaF World, “At what point do you stop trying to fix a project that didn’t go well and start working on something new? At some point you have to walk away and stop trying to fix it.” However, his followers would not let him walk away as he wished and were dissatisfied when he gave into their pleas.

When he did, players did as they typically do and began ripping the game apart in an effort to find clues to the first four Five Nights at Freddy’s installments that did not exist. Cawthon said in a Reddit post, “I guess most people assumed that I filled the game with random easter eggs this time. I didn’t. What’s in the box? It’s the pieces put together. But the bigger question is—would the community accept it that way? The fact that the pieces have remained elusive this time strikes me as incredible, and special, a fitting conclusion in some ways, and because of that, I’ve decided that maybe some things are best left forgotten, forever.” Cawthon had was aware that this ending would potentially upset a fanbase that had devoted itself to breaking down FNaF to mere ones and zeros and comparing shades of purple between installments for the sake of figuring out Purple Guy’s identity, but it was what he wanted for the story. This was not well received by his audience because, like the common adage on the internet says, they loved FNaF and the challenges its lore presented so much that their own enthusiasm and passion ruined it.

Cawthon later released an updated version of FNaF World, this time adding in new minigames, multiple endings, and a massive basket of Easter Eggs ready to be hunted.

Among these added endings is a beginning. A character canonically known as Desk Man appears a couple of times throughout the game.

Immediately, fans began a frantic search to uncover his true identity, most coming to the conclusion that he was William Afton, a character from the Five Nights at Freddy’s novel series credited with the creation of the animatronics. But this is just as easily interpreted at another instance of Cawthon’s self-insertion into the game. Desk Man says, “It’s a vicious cycle, you know. But then, most things in life are. The pendulum swings one way, then it swings the other,” which relates to Cawthon being thrown into the routine of creating and releasing Five Nights at Freddy’s games. The first was a hit, so he created a sequel and, though the third was not as well-received, the fourth did reasonably well. FNaF World, however, crashed and burned. It wasn’t what his fans wanted or expected from him.

Desk Man’s lines indicate a growth in Cawthon, as though he now understands that as a creator of anything, the content will be in part owned by its audience and subject to criticism that will mangle its intent, but the trick is in perseverance and continuing to produce new work.

This idea is manifested with the existence of Five Nights at Freddy’s because it was created out of frustration in the aftermath of Chipper and Sons. Desk Man, Scott Cawthon, and William Afton blend together into one in the updated version of FNaF World when he says, “I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t want to disappoint people…I’ve made something terrible. Her name is Baby. It’s too late to deactivate her. I’m sorry.”

This statement in FNaF World serves as a teaser to the sixth game in the franchise, Sister Location, and marks Circus Baby’s debut. Desk Guy’s comments also allude to Cawthon’s creation of both FNaF World and Sister Location. He was unable to stop it from going beyond what he intended for it, and it is now too late to back out of Sister Location, cementing the continuation of the series. Cawthon wanted to be finished with Five Nights at Freddy’s, but the demand was too large and he did not want to let anyone down. In a way, however, he let down the one person he should not have: himself.

So what is the takeaway?

Sometimes, you as a creator need to decide when you are finished with a project.

J.K. Rowling is another culprit of this. After the final Harry Potter book and later film were released, that seemed to be the end of Harry Potter. The series concluded with the lovely image of Harry, Ron, and Hermione sending their own children off to Hogwarts. Rowling seemed ready to move on, even writing a few novels for adults. The reviews were not exactly stellar, as people wanted if not expected another Harry Potter-esque book.

But then she went back to Harry Potter, cowriting Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play continuing the Harry Potter series with a story about Harry’s son.

And then came Fantastic Beasts. 

Even before these, Rowling had developed a habit of adding to the lore of The Wizarding World. There are things that become added in as the series progresses, like the Tri-Wizard Tournament in Book Four, Goblet of Fire, an event that occurs every three years though no mention of it was made in the first book.

But Rowling also expands the lore apart from the books, commonly via Twitter. Among the most infamous of these is the revelation that Dumbledore is gay. This seemed to come out of nowhere, and there really isn’t much in the books that indicates this. While I do like seeing diversity in fiction, especially in works that develop such a massive following as Harry Potter has amassed, but this was one instance where it felt as though Rowling was saying it just to say it.

More recently, Rowling said Dumbledore had an intense sexual relationship with Grindelwald.

Circling back to the point, instances like these where the creator appears to have finished a project and has moved on, only to come back and produce something more because of the fanbase’s demand for new content is what can make something phenomenal into something that causes even diehard fans to roll their eyes.

Knowing when to say goodbye is one of the most important skills to have as a creator.

There can be an immense pressure placed on people who garner such a following the way Cawthon and Rowling have to keep creating content for that series, even though they have indicated its completion and want to start something new. In both cases, they ultimately went back to what the fans wanted, though the continuations seem lackluster in comparison to the original canon.

Don’t force yourself to stay on one project if it is something you no longer want to be working on. All good things must come to an end. 

As the creator, you know when it is time let go of a project and move on. Whether it’s a standalone novel with readers begging for a sequel, or a series that people do not want to believe has reached its conclusion, it is entirely your decision as the creator to extend a project or end it. You might feel forced to continue, but it should be left to you and you alone whether or not a story extends beyond what is planned for it.

 

As much fun as Five Nights at Freddy’s is from a gameplay perspective, it is also interesting to look at from the perspective of a writer. I’m sure there are a number of things I have not included on this list of what Cawthon’s games have taught me, things I may not have realized.

As with many things, one of the most impactful parts of Five Nights at Freddy’s is not the Afton Robotics saga, but what I have learned from it. And to me, that is the one of the best things any creative work can give its audience.

 

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