This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I didn't like Five Nights at Freddy's 3, released earlier this month. I wasn't that impressed by the second one, either, from late last year. Big shout out to developer Scott Cawthon all the same: He hit on a best-selling idea and, like any of us would, he worked it. But something got lost in those two sequels.
The original Five Nights at Freddy's remains, to my mind, the best game of 2014. Simple, captivating, and created by someone who, in his own words, "knew it might have been my last try before having to start a new career," FNAF felt like a lo-fi, and desperate, piece of outsider art. It broke the rules of horror games—in fact, games in general—and to that extent it was honest. It felt made by a person who had genuinely, emphatically, become exhausted with attempting to figure out The Market, and was finally wheeling out his maddest idea just so he could depart in the knowledge that he tried to be an artist.
'Five Nights at Freddy's' scare montage
Beyond almost every other release of last year, FNAF felt urgent, a game that instead of being pieced together through various meetings and design documents, simply had to come from its creator. That the two sequels lost that potency is a natural by-product of the first game's success. But I dislike them not because the concept got old, or the whole thing "went commercial"—I dislike them, simply, because they aren't funny.
Before Five Night's at Freddy's made me jump, or stirred me with its raw energy, it made me laugh. First, I think, it's just the ludicrousness of the situation. Here you are, this putz security guard, who's clearly taken the job just so he can earn a few dollars over the summer, and you're being chased around a Chuck E. Cheese at night by an animatronic duck. The whole time I played FNAF, I was imagining the look on the character's face, this permanent expression of just: "How the fuck have I gotten into this one?" I've worked cruddy jobs, and I've often turned up to them expecting to half-ass my way through. That attitude, twisted back around at me, in the shape of a fucking murderous robot rabbit, killed me laughing. It was like every shift in the bar kitchen, spent lazily picking bits off the tortilla wraps, had come back to haunt me.
Plus you have all the little details, the things like being trapped in the office, the doors having only limited power and the fact there are no cameras directly outside where you're sitting. Stupid, pain-in-the-neck little contrivances like these make Five Nights at Freddy's into an absurd, cynical kind of tragicomedy. It's a world—much like Basil Fawlty's, or Larry David's—where insane circumstances, and a sort of recalcitrance on behalf of reality itself, always dick over the protagonist. You wake up. You go to work. The power's limited. The cameras are broken. A robot bear is trying to crush you to death. This is life and it just never gets any easier.
But what made me laugh the most about Five Nights at Freddy's was how it tapped into childhood, more specifically children's television. The animatronics—Chica, Bonnie, Foxy, and Freddy—look as if they've been lifted from some unintentionally nightmarish mid-morning show for kids. Do you know the ones I mean? They predominated in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, colorful guff with puppets and rubber masks and so-called "lovable" creatures. I'm thinking of Harry and the Hendersons, or Teletubbies, or fucking Wizbit—the myriad costumed freaks in these programs were enough to give me, and I imagine many other children, a complex, and to this day I'm still vaguely freaked out by prosthetics and anthropomorphic animals.
Have you seen Orville? Have you actually looked into Orville's fucking eyes? They're glassy and black. He's the expression of a creature that neither understands nor cares about human suffering. "Scream as much as you like," his comportment suggests. "The biting won't stop." And that's what the FNAF animatronics have. Blank, mechanical stares. A twisted, implicit malevolence, made double by the fact these are things meant for children. They're ghastly and weird, plastic and indifferent. They're exactly like Harry Henderson, or Tinky Winky, or bloody... anything from Wizadora. These are characters you can't help but suspect. Their clement, daytime behavior—supposedly choreographed to entertain children—is clearly just bait on their murderous hook. They're the kid's TV equivalent of Buffalo Bill with his arm in a sling.
And it's funny. It's so, so funny. I love re-watching kid's TV, not because I sit there asking, like those unbearable dickheads who say The Clangers was written on acid, "What were the people who made this thinking?", but because I like to imagine myself, age five, being utterly unable to comprehend the terror on the screen. There's something funny about kids being frightened by adult entertainers. You have this guy, probably an out-of-work actor, decked out like a giant rabbit-thing, and he's jigging around trying to make the kids laugh. And they're not laughing—they're bawling their fucking eyes out because it's weird and off, and although they can't articulate it, they're being confronted for the first time with the fact that the universe is a strange, bewildering, and terrifying place, and it can't be trusted.
That's what the animatronics in Five Nights at Freddy's remind me of. The ones in the sequels are too complicated, too sentient, too on-the-nose. The ones in the original are plausible. I can actually imagine myself, as a child, going to a restaurant and seeing those things, and having the eight-year-old equivalent of a nervous breakdown. They're real in a way that their successors are not, and they remind me of a time in my life that I already find hilarious.
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