Here we are, the final part of this journey investigating how passive storytelling makes for very interesting gameplay experiences. It makes you feel like you need to know more. How did things get to where they are? What was the cause? Unlike the minimal dialogue in Submerged and Overwatch’s method of non-game media to tell their narratives, this week we’re going to be taking a look at a game that has the closest method to active storytelling. It has a script. It has voice acting. It has non-game media.
It is Five Nights at Freddy’s.
Welcome to Your New Job
Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) is an indie point-and-click survival horror game developed by Scott Cawthorn for the PC, Android and iOS on 8 August 2014.
You find yourself sitting in a slightly dilapidated office. A poster of anthropomorphic animals can be seen with a very cartoonish “CELEBRATE!” written at the top. Fan art of these figures is up on the walls, drawn by children who happily celebrated their birthdays. But juxtaposing the happiness portrayed in these pictures are the spider-webs that have grown over time, showing neglect. Unkempt, unsafe wires hang down from the ceiling. The room is so badly lit.
The phone rings. A friendly voice is on the other end. But it’s not a phone call, it’s a recording made by your predecessor. He gives you advice. He tells you what your job entails. You’re a night security guard officer. The animals on the poster are animatronics. You’re at a fast-food outlet called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Your job is to make sure everything is safe and sound throughout the night. 12am to 6pm. Sounds easy enough.
But wait, the animatronics move? There’s a chance that you might be mistaken by their programming as another animatronic? Complications might arise?
Welcome to your new job.
Phone Guy’s Phone Calls
The main method of storytelling that FNAF uses is Phone Guy’s Phone Calls. The phone calls are short, sweet and, at times, creepy. You don’t find out much about the Phone Guy himself. You don’t find out much about anything really: he just gives you tips to help you survive the night. Because during the day, the animatronics might be safe and sweet for children, but at night, they’re anything but.
With each phone call ending up shorter than the last, by Night 4 there’s no doubt that there’s something seriously wrong—with everything. With the animatronics, with Phone Guy, with the whole establishment.
Cawthorn meticulously wrote the script in this game (and every game in the series where Phone Guy appears) in order to deliver an unnerving sense of danger to the player. With the simple point-and-click nature of the gameplay, this makes the player feel useless to the whims of the antagonists of the game, the animatronics.
What is Happening?
As you progress through the nights (including the elusive sixth, seventh, and Custom Night), more and more things arise eliciting more questions than answers. The posters randomly switch to a very dark news report about children going missing. Pictures of a crying figure replace the celebratory, child-drawn ones. Sightings of a “Shadow Freddy” and “Golden Freddy” appear, without much explanation.
All of this simply adds to the tension.
By omitting massive amounts of information, Cawthorn has allowed for so much mystery to be present in the original game. And it is that mystery that brings players back again and again to the series, in the hopes of finding out what happened in the FNAF universe.
Following the release of the first game, hundreds if not thousands of posts were made on gaming forums, Reddit and even the official FNAF wiki. Thousands of FNAF fans joined heated discussions about the lore. They were driven to find out what they could from discoveries made by others and debated about every single thing, from Chica’s second, smaller set of teeth in the animatronic’s mouth, to why there is even a fan on the desk in the office.
Yes. Even the unmovable, non-interactive electric fan on the desk has undergone intense scrutiny.
Convoluted = Bad Storytelling
Even though this article is mostly about the first game in the main series of FNAF, this applies to the series in general (even the spinoff, FNAF World).
FNAF is an example of when passive storytelling is both excellent and shocking. How is this possible? Passive storytelling excels at giving players a sense of mystery and intrigue. You want to find out more! You feel the need discover all you can. FNAF has that intrigue, that mystery. As the forum posts show, many people felt the need to learn more about the lore. Cawthorn’s use of omission to create FNAF’s storyline is inspired.
Until you take into account what he did in the other games.
With each game released, Cawthorn provided more and more questions about the whole timeline of FNAF’s story, and players rarely received, if any, long-awaited answers to the series’s biggest questions.
In fact, with more and more entries in the series, it seems many more contradictions can be found in the timeline than canon discoveries. And that is where FNAF falls short. Really short.
The Completion Principle
But why do players keep coming back for more if FNAF executed its storytelling badly? MatPat from The Game Theorists explained this phenomenon amazingly. By using the Completion Principle against players, Cawthorn provides enough lore to whet your appetite, then leaves a lot more things unanswered. With the conflicting nature of the plot points revealed, Cawthorn has managed to ensure that players are still talking about the series, two years and five games later (the spinoff, FNAF World included).
And with the fifth installment in the main series, Sister Location, coming out sometime in the near future, players have yet to experience a clear-cut and understandable timeline, where all the pieces of information Cawthorn has already given players all fit together. Whether Cawthorn’s method of passive storytelling, the mystery and lore contradictions, will come through in the next installment of the series is yet to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: People will be talking about the game.