In the Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) games, Scott Cawthon implements and manipulates a unique tool to create a compelling experience: nostalgia. While this may or may not have been conscious, FNAF’s elements of storytelling, subject matter, place, and aesthetics all work together to create tension between the past and present, what we remember as positive and subverting it into something much more sinister and menacing.
FNAF puts itself into the world of the 80s naturally, and it does this through utilizing a collective memory of nostalgia through subject matter and aesthetic. The premise of FNAF is about haunted animatronics attacking the player in an animatronic pizza parlor. Take a moment to think about this. Animatronic pizza parlors are a very specific experience from a very specific generation. Chuck E Cheese first opened in 1977 (interestingly enough, it was created by the founder of Atari, Alan Bushnell, as a way to make video games family friendly/for children audiences). While it still exists today, I would argue that it no longer has the same prominent significance to the American childhood experience as it did until the mid/late 90s. That means that the memory of the animatronic pizza parlor experience really resonates to those who grew up as kids in the 80s and 90s.
For those who grew up in the 80s and 90s, our collective memory of Chuck E Cheese and other animatronic pizza parlors is relatively positive. I remember really feeling that the animatronic performers on stage were real. They moved, they sang, they had a spirit, and it was incredible to me as a kid. Whether Scott Cawthon meant to purposefully utilize this childhood experience and twist it in his games is unclear, but its effect is startling. When a narrative takes something that is perceived in one light (in this case, animatronics being a positive, amazing thing) and then subverts that (being, animatronics as trying to kill you), the emotional jump in trying to reconcile these two things is powerful.
Likewise, I think this accounts for the varied experiences players have when engaging with FNAF. This might just be me, but as a twenty-seven year old, I can’t play FNAF in the dark. In the middle of the night, I’ll get up for water and can’t look in the office because the red lights on my husband’s computer make me think of Ennard’s eyes in the mirror. I get imaginary jump scares in the dark of Chica and Foxy as if I’m the kid from FNAF 4. This game has immobilized me into a seven year old kid again, making me freaked out for no logical reason, even nights after engaging with the game content.
However, I watch the kids I babysit binge FNAF videos, laughing and howling. At Awesome Con, a vendor near us sold FNAF pillows for kids. “They just love them,” she said. “They’re not even scary,” one kid told me. “They’re funny!” I would argue that this lack of fear is multifaceted in its origin (a whole article in and of itself) but that perhaps the most critical factor is their memory and experience with animatronics and animatronic pizza parlors. They’re growing up with no real world context for these ideas. They have no collective memory that tells them “remember how great animatronic pizza parlors were,” that superimposes Chuck E Cheese onto Freddy Fazbear. Even though Freddy Fazbear is a relatively new invention, it feels like we’ve had a long history with him because of how our mental schema connects him to Chuck E Cheese.
So thematically, FNAF appropriates our collective memory of animatronics and pizza parlors to create an effective horror. But FNAF also does this through aesthetic choices.
Most all of the FNAF games have atari-esque mini games. These, I would argue, have the highest emotional resonance of all the FNAF content. The low resolution pixel graphics hit us from multiple angles. First, like the other dated objects, they bring back the nostalgia of playing old Atari games. I say this as someone who didn’t grow up with Atari games, or play much of any of them until I became an adult. That was the generation before me, not from my own personal experience. However, my generation has appropriated that nostalgia and taken it as part of their own. This is different than the animatronic pizzeria nostalgia, which has a clear generational divide. Because unlike animatronic pizza parlors, which were a dated cultural fad, Atari rose above its time as a fad to become a cultural artifact. Its cultural significance as the introducer of video games to American audiences has made it a “classic” that supersedes time. It’s become part of gaming history. So all that to say, when people see Atari era graphics, there’s usually some sort of warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia associated with the experience, regardless of age.
However, like the twist with the animatronics, these atari minigames are used in a dark context. My nostalgic feelings for Atari-era graphics are turned on their head as I navigate dead children stuffed into animatronic suits, serial killers dying in springtrap suits, and haunted animatronics. These bizarre, dark subjects are reinforced by the pixel art’s lack of details. The character Purple Guy is made terrifying by the lack of details surrounding him. Purple Guy could be anyone. As the book Understanding Comics describes, we relate most to the caricatures with the fewest details--we can impose ourselves, or others, onto their emotional depictions and empathise. They could be anyone. For Purple Guy, that makes it feel like he too could be anyone, anywhere. It makes me curious about him, but also significantly more troubled, considering how that depiction accurately reflects most serial killers, who disappear into the everyday crowd, only to find future victims.
The lack of details also demand that our imagination participate even more into the experience. We have to “fill in the gaps” to make sprite Chica into Chica. The crying child into a child. This makes us as players more emotionally invested in the gameplay. This reinforces the idea of these mini-games, which are obscure hints to lore in the series. What I find most compelling about the FNAF games is that they show--or perhaps better--let us do, instead of telling us the story. This means we have to not only physically participate by playing but mentally participate by trying to put together subtle clues to fit the story together.
And that’s ultimately the power I find in the FNAF games: how they set up an environment that makes me emotionally invested without telling me to be invested. David Cage will tell you how to feel in his games, but FNAF cleverly uses our nostalgia against us to set us in time and place, limiting our mechanics, and switching us between different visual aesthetics, to have us feel fear instead of telling us to be afraid.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is about a girl whose life is narrated as a text adventure game. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.