How an indie game dev managed to gather a theorycrafting community

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The beginning of the following

The first game, published in August 2014, was rather simple yet effective. Based on low light still images (animatronics don't move when watched on surveillance camera), intriguing noises and jumpscares, Five Nights at Freddy's can be completed in a little less than an hour provided the player survive the 5 basic nights plus the bonus night featuring crushing difficulty. On top of that, a custom seventh night allows to set the activity level for each animatronics for extra replayability.

Click me

Still, this game laid the tracks for some theorycrafting. What about the event that Phone Guy calls "The Bite of '87" that prompted the first closure of the restaurant? Which animatronics is responsible ? What about the Missing Children incident that is mentioned on an ever-changing newspaper clip pinned to one of the walls of the restaurant seen on one of the camera feed? Again, who is reponsible for the 5 missing children, man, machine or both? And who is this Phone Guy anyway?

Little is revealed in the first game, which led fans to study each and every images available from the camera feeds, removing the static, brightening and enhancing colors to find clues about the burning questions. To little avail, until the next installment.

The more is revealed, the more questions appear

Pumped by the success of the small-scale initial game, Scott Cawthon set out to release a second game late 2014. Five Nights at Freddy's 2 plot is set some time in the future. The original aging animatronics have been replaced by newer, kid friendlier versions by Freddy Fazbear's Pizza owners after complaints from parents that the animatronics are leaking blood and mucus and releasing a foul odor alike to "reanimated carcasses".

Aside from the gameplay that has been slightly reworked with many more dangers and much less protection means, the principles are the same. Limited ressources and visibility, 5 nights to survive, 1 bonus and 1 custom, and even a new Phone Guy. However, when the player is attacked and killed by any of the animatronics, sometimes he is brought to one of several minigames. Those minigames are styled according to Atari 2600 standard with huge pixels, 8-bit colors and sounds.

One of the death minigames

During most of those minigame, the player is controlling one of the animatronics in a series of rooms that could fit Freddy Fazbear's Pizza rooms. The goals are never clear, but they are simple enough that they can be achieved easily, ending in the jumpscare of the corresponding animatronics. More interesting are the peppered clues about the Missing Children Incident, why the animatronics turned violent and the acquaintance with an odd Purple Man that seems to have some sort of link with murdering children at the restaurant.

Drawing from the new "evidence" as well as the daily recorded messages, a new slew of theories emerged from the fan base, argued over blog posts, Youtube videos, Reddit conversations and on the forum pages of the complete unofficial Five Nights at Freddy's wiki. The regular messages from the author himself helped fuel the frenzy, being dissected to add weight to some theories while debunking others.

It never ends

The third installment of the series has been cleverly announced from December 2014 by Scott Cawthon by changing the front page image of his own website at regular interval, unveiling little enough to guess only a portion of what would be in the game. Needless to say, the theory machine ran wild once again, until the day the game finally came out in January. It features a never-before-seen animatronic and more enigmatic minigames that may or may not decrease the confusion about the events that surrounded Freddy Fazbear's Pizza restaurant.

As I write, the first teaser screens for the 4th game, announced to be released on Halloween 2015 in the series have been released. Will the plot of this game, dubbed "The Final Chapter" answer all the question posed by the previous ones? I really don't know, but you can count on the community to close all the plot loopholes with as many theory patches as you can possibly conceive.

A close-knit community

What is striking about the FNaF community is not the fact that players endlessly speculate over very little evidence, but rather that most of them are defined inside their community by their position towards common theories. Instead of being divided along a clear fault line, like the conspiracy theories communities can be between the believers and the non-believers, the FNaF community is separated in multiple overlapping shards because there are so much different theories to adhere to or to refute. Two community members opposed on a specific theory can find themselves agreeing on a different one. As such, I've seen way less partisanism in the FNaF community than in most debates I've taken part to, be it political, scientifical or philosophical.

However, this community's premise has led to unfortunate actions from some of its members, in the name of the search of the truth about the famous pizzeria. So far as to call repeatedly an actual pizzeria whose phone number coincides with a series of digits visible on a screen in the game. Or posting Scott Cawthon's personal information with the hope of getting a firsthand account of the FNaF mysteries?


By carefully peppering well-designed games with enigmatic clues about mysterious events, Scott Cawthon was able to create and foster a whole community without having to directly involve himself except in the most extreme cases of obnoxious curiosity. With 3 games in the series and a fourth on its way, it is a brilliant example of an healthy community gathered around murderous animatronics and dead children.

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  • I honestly find it ridiculous that this series is already going for it's fourth installment when the first game came out last year...
    This guy found a bunch of idiots easily amused (or terrified) with almost nothing, and he's milking them blind.
    I have way more respect for game developpers studios that work for 3 years straight to make their game, than this guy who found a simple formula that somehow worked (to me, it's mere luck, nothing else) and keeps making games out of it until it stops working.

  • He's milking them blind $5 or $8 at a time, he's not very good milker!

    I think you make the mistake of confusing video games scales. Sure, Scott Cawthon created and published 3, and soon 4 different games on his own in a relatively small timeframe, but their scale can nowhere be compared with a single game a studio would create over the course of 3 years. The latter game would not be sold for less than $10 either.

    What about the yearly schedule of sequels of the Assassin's Creed franchise? Is it the same type of milking to you?

    Also, would the first game not be as successful as it was, Scott Cawthon would not have been prompted to create more games in the series.

    Finally, what defines to you a "proper" video game experience?

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