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Sorrel’s Side Quests: ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ was great until it wasn’t

This month, a movie will be released that seems to be at least half a decade late to its own party. That movie is “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” a long-in-development horror film based on the 2014 video game of the same name. The long-awaited (or maybe dreaded) arrival of the “Five Nights at Freddy’s movie got me thinking about what exactly happened to FNaF.

Over the last nine years, Five Nights at Freddy’s has become something of a shining example of what not to do with a breakout hit. After the game garnered some attention and sales off the back of a couple of high-profile YouTube playthroughs, it took less than a year for solo developer Scott Cawthon to crank out three sequels. By mid-2015, Cawthon had already sold the film rights to the franchise (yes, the movie adaptation releasing this month has been in development for eight years). By the end of that year, he had co-written a tie-in novel, the first in a planned trilogy. 

In 2023, Cawthon is less involved in the franchise. While he still publishes the games through his own company, he has retired from development, which is now handled by Steel Wool Studios. Still, the machine Cawthon set in motion has been running dutifully, and there are now 32 published tie-in books sitting next to virtual reality remakes of the first few games, mobile spinoffs and flashy sequels. Walmarts, GameStops and Hot Topics of the world have been over-lining their walls with FNaF merch as Blumhouse and Universal finally finish “Five Nights at Freddy’s” the movie.

FNaF as it is now is a beacon of cynicism, a nearly decade-long craven cash-in, but what about that original game? Is it any good? Well… yes, it’s actually pretty excellent. The basic pitch is equal parts funny and sincerely unsettling. You play as a night watchman for Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a Chuck E. Cheese-style family pizzeria and arcade with animatronic mascots that become bloodthirsty murder robots as soon as you clock in. The tone is winking and silly but never so absurd as to pull you out of the horror of the moment.

It’s also got a fairly brilliantly designed core loop. As the player, you can’t move through the environment at all; you can only sit and watch your cameras as the animatronics get closer and closer. There are lights on either side of your office you can shine to check and see if your mechanical assailants are upon you and doors you can shut to keep them from entering. 

Absolutely everything, including checking the cameras, shining your lights and shutting the doors costs energy, and you only have a limited quantity every night. Once you’re out of energy, you’re totally on your own. That means the game incentivizes doing as little as possible. Optimal play often means sitting in silence and simply waiting. It’s genuinely tense and unsettling.

“Tense and unsettling” isn’t really how I would describe modern FNaF. As the series has gotten bigger and broader, it has lost a lot of the elegant simplicity that makes that first game (and, honestly, the first couple of sequels) so unnerving. The franchise is far more complicated, both mechanically and narratively than it was back in 2014. Ultimately, this means it’s a lot less scary. I’m sure it’s making a lot more money, though.

The movie looks set to loosely adapt the events of the first game. That’s the one I like, so it should be at least kind of appealing to me. It looks bogged down by the last nine years, though; trailers have hinted it might tie into some of the tiresome and convoluted lore of the later entries, and I’m worried it will find itself caught in the same trap as the franchise at large. FNaF was free to be small, simple and scary back when it was one person’s passion project. With nearly a decade of expectations behind this one film, I don’t know if it can maintain that energy. If nothing else, I’m interested in seeing what happens when the first game’s scale is revisited through the lens of the series’ now sprawling (and kind of boring) legacy.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung is a junior studying virtual reality game development at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Sorrel by tweeting her at @sorrelquest.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung

Opinion Writer

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