For this post, I’m going to talk about the first game in Five Nights at Freddy’s, the one that started the franchise and made us fear the dark. At least, it made me check the shadows in my house for lurking bots. Chica making eye contact with you is the stuff of nightmares.
To recap, FNAF is a survival horror game. You play a security guard taking the graveyard shift at a dilapidated animatronic pizzeria. Only you aren’t keeping thieves out; you are fending the animatronics or bots so that they can’t get into your office. They are in a free-roam mode and if they see you, they will stuff you into an animatronic suit, the equivalent of a fuzzy iron maiden. You have to man the doors and the lights, to make sure they can’t get inside.
Game one doesn’t have as much lore as the rest of the franchise does. While you can glimpse backstory in freeze frame bonuses, thanks to the Internet screen-capping, we don’t have a giant story that requires continuities. Instead, we get a glimpse into the flip side of children’s entertainment. And we cannot enjoy it.
The Horrors of The Day Job
According to the paycheck and what Phone Guy tells us, the game definitely takes place after 1987, but minimum wage is fairly abysmal. The player character Mike gets paid $120 for five days of work with six-hour shifts. For thirty hours of work a week, which falls below full-time and thus doesn’t qualify for any benefits, that amounts to about four dollars an hour. Such a paycheck is barely enough to cover groceries for an entire family during the week.
What’s more, day jobs often require people to take up tasks they don’t want, and those attitudes get normalized. Some are reasonable, like “don’t make personal calls on company time”. Others say not allowing cashiers to sit on breaks in retail positions, seem counterintuitive. In this case, Mike has to babysit all the murderous animatronics, and his attending night after night normalizes this behavior.
The worst part is that due to the murder part, Mike cannot enjoy any perks that come with working in a so-called “child-friendly” pizzeria. He doesn’t get a free pizza, or even an employee’s discount, for risking his life. Meanwhile, the shop opens from day to day. As we can infer from the first game trailer, the patrons at the pizzeria enjoy all of the bots. Otherwise, why would this place still be open after what we learn? The parents still take their kids to get pizza and see the floor show.
The hazard of getting older is you learn how apathy at the workplace can hurt a person. And it can affect your childhood nostalgia so that you can’t enjoy childish things as an adult. It’s like why you can’t enjoy the circus knowing the history of animal abuse, or seeing Shamu at Sea World after reading about the documentary Blackfish.
In short, the game emphasizes why growing up can suck. You aren’t allowed to enjoy the things from your childhood, because now you have bills to pay in a hostile world. What’s worse, the things you might have enjoyed as a kid get corrupted over time. FNAF is the logical extreme of that.
Game one is about apathy. While the player may scream and shriek on seeing the animatronics lurking outside their office, no one else cares. Your character Mike Schmidt doesn’t care. The people who hired you don’t care. And the bots really don’t care who you are.
Phone Guy, your mentor, and instructor for how to survive the night, also displays the least amount of apathy, relatively speaking. The man copes with the trauma by rationalizing the horrors. He justifies the bots coming out and being rough around the edges by saying they’ve spent decades on stage “singing the same stupid songs” and they don’t receive respect. As he dryly puts it, your manager doesn’t tell you about these things when you send in your job application. Even so, he keeps emphasizing that it’s part of the job and that you have to put up with it. On Night Four, his last recording mentions that the bots have gotten to him, and his response is to ask if you can “check the suits in the back”.
Corporate management also doesn’t care about you, their patrons, or even the bots. They only care about avoiding trouble. As Phone Guy mentions, if the bots get you, management will clean up the pizzeria, and file a missing-person report after 24 hours. They will make sure only your eyeballs and teeth appear if at all.
Mike is meant to be an everyman. He’s a faceless character that comes to the shift and has his reasons. At best, in the game over screen, we see his eyes but that’s about it. We see his check, and his pink slip when he’s fired for tampering with animatronics, but ultimately we only know what the game tells us, which is he’s coming night after night. But for now, Mike doesn’t have a supernatural reason. We can safely assume that there’s a reason he can’t take a day shift job. The viewer just isn’t allowed to know at this juncture.
Then we have the bots. Chica, Bonny, Freddy, and Foxy. Oh, and Golden Freddy if you trigger his jumpscare. As Phone Guy tells you, they probably attack you because they mistake you for being an animatronic without a costume. We see contradictions to this, like how Bonnie ignores stripped animatronics in one room. Golden Freddy also appears at various times to crash the game, for no apparent reason. It seems the bots just spend their nights torturing the newbies and trolling them so that the security guard either loses power or lets his guard down at the wrong moments.
In freeze-frame screencaps, players can learn some horrific lore. Years ago, five children went missing in the pizzeria, and the suits started smelling of blood and mucus. It doesn’t take rocket science to infer that the ghosts of children are haunting the suits, with their bodies being stuffed inside. They lash out at people who had nothing to do with their murders, and execute them mindlessly. Scott confirmed that Mike’s predecessor, aka Phone Guy, was innocent; he didn’t hurt any children. Phone Guy also says on Night Three that“most people don’t last this long,” inferring that countless security guards have died and ended up in suits; corporate management even has body disposal down to a science, so that no police officer would find even a spatter of blood the premises.
If even dead children are playing judge, jury, and executioner to random strangers, then we have no hope for anyone in this world to care. This is a horrific world where you can die on the job, and if anyone mourns you, they will not find you. Or so it seems.
References from Reality
While Scott may not have drawn from real life, the FNAF corporate backstory bears many similarities to what happened to real-life animatronic pizza places in the 1980s. We have similar stories of corporate mismanagement, though obviously Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza never poured bleach on dead bodies.
Rock-afire Explosion, according to one documentary, suffered poorly managed corporate interests when Showbiz Pizza tried to buy the copyright from its creator Aaron Fetcher without compensation. Fetcher refused, and his explanation was that even without the compensation, the Rock-afire Explosion was his baby. He didn’t trust that Showbiz Pizza management would handle the creations well, and while his company Creative Engineering went under due to being unable to find an audience for his creations, I feel that he made the right choice in the long run. Chuck E. Cheese would take the creations, use them for a couple of years, and eventually phase them out. Right now, instead of the giant mouse that would host the floor-show, we have a tiny CGI one that dominates the commercials. Rock-afire Explosion currently has an online audience, one that FNAF has helped promote. It also has fans from the 80s that remember its magic.
Surprisingly, given the time period of the game circa 1987-early 1990s, a real accident did occur with animatronics in Disneyland, in Anaheim California. In the 1970s, the park had a revolving stage show called “America Sings,” which used robotic animals to talk about colonization and pioneers. On July 8, 1974, a Disney cast member was crushed to death due to the revolving sound stage; no one got to her in time because her fellow cast members thought the screams were part of the show. The show closed for a few days to fix any safety issues and boarded up for good in 1988. It took until 1998 for Disney to reuse the space, renaming it Innoventions.
I often wonder what it was like to go to Disney in the 1970s and 80s. There were probably fans of “America Sings” who didn’t attend the accident day and didn’t understand what had happened. When I was a kid, the Skyway in Disney World was closed, but while it was planned an accident killed a custodian who was cleaning it. At the time, I didn’t get why the Skyway was closed. As an adult, I can understand better.
What The Audience Says
For a game that has apathy as a running theme, it ironically inspires a lot of emotional reactions. People claim to hate the game or the jumpscares, but keep playing. These reactions are intentional so that people will fear the dark and animatronic pizzerias.
The first hint of intentional apathy in the game is when people mistake Chica the Chicken for a duck. Heck, I mistook her for a duck the first time. Most chickens have wattles, and the chicks have sharpened beaks. Chica’s beak is rounded like a duckbill, and she’s a soft yellow that reminds people of ducklings. Also, ducklings will grow up into feathery velociraptors that will stalk you for food. Chickens can be vicious but not that vicious.
It doesn’t matter if Chica is a chicken or a duck; she is on the hunt to kill, and at best will stop for a snack break in the kitchen. Her design is deliberately ambiguous so that we question who created her. Who would not ensure that their chicken looks like a chicken? A creator that doesn’t care about feedback or a graphic designer that comes for the paycheck. Chica doesn’t care about anyone, so why should her creator care about her form?
We also get some universal sentiments: “Why am I working here? Why didn’t I get a job as a dishwasher?” Markiplier and FBE Entertainment had some pretty hilarious reactions about that, with Mark outright crying in frustration on learning that there was a sixth night, and also a seventh.
That is the big question of the game: why would Mike return night after night to a failing pizzeria that has seen better days, and face getting killed by animatronics? Why don’t they tell anyone or at least notify the police? Is it a world where the police wouldn’t care about a building where the bots come to life and murder unwitting security guards when they get the chance? Or, if they can’t convince anyone, why not get another job at another place?
Theories abound from the player character being an adrenaline junkie to a diehard Freddy Fazbear fan like Phone Guy. There are hints that he takes the job because, like Phone Guy, he takes the murders personally and is trying to get to the bottom of them. For all we know, before the rest of the series emerged and suggested otherwise, Mike Schmidt could enjoy all of the frights. Game Theory in the game’s early incarnation posited that it was a reference to a real-life murder at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Colorado and that the player-character is a convicted killer hallucinating about his crimes and the testimony that got him in jail. Great theory, but sadly Scott Cawthon confirmed that the horrors really were happening, including the bots trying to get into your office and that no one was shot in Colorado within the game-time.
We do get answers when games four and six, as well as the supplemental survival logbook, spill the beans, as to why Mike took the night shift. If you look at game one alone, however, then we have merely educated guesses. The simple solution is that Mike isn’t meant to be a literal person. He’s an allegory for people going to day jobs.
Mike is meant to be an everyman. He’s a faceless character that comes to the shift and has his reasons. We see his check, and his pink slip when he’s fired for tampering with animatronics, but ultimately we only know what the game tells us, which is he’s coming night after night, without even stopping to pick up a baseball bat or some barricades for the office.
The Right Amount of Caring
We see the solution to this problem of apathy with Phone Guy, ironically enough. While the man doesn’t care about the status quo or his state of mind, he cares about the strangers who replace him. He’s the only one in the game who actually gives useful advice on how to survive the night. Phone Guy dies leaving helpful messages for his successors and holding off the bots for an inordinate amount of time. His actions ultimately help the player and Mike survive the nights, even though he could have said nothing.
Mike’s and the player’s decision to care ends up saving Mike from the hellish job. If you make it to the bonus round night seven, then you can adjust the difficulties of each bot. This tampering, which runs from difficulties of 0 to 20 per animatronic, gets Mike fired partly for the tampering. It ends up freeing him to find another job, where he won’t have to die. Of course, with the option of the 20-level difficulty, Mike may care about the adrenaline junkie feels.
Since this is a horror game, a dose of caring isn’t enough to solve the problems that come from haunted bots. We find out in supplemental articles that health inspectors threatening to shut down the pizzeria for sanitation reasons. They missed the implications of blood and mucus in the suits; they are bothering by the book to follow the law. With corporate management, rather than fix the problem with the murderous bots or start from scratch, they try to bury all the metaphorical bodies.
The priority of money over humanity also ends up dooming the restaurant, as it doomed the original Showbiz Pizza. Corporate management cannot justify keeping Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza open because investors refuse to put up the capital. It’s enough to forestall the horrors for thirty years, as we find out in the sequels, but it still leaves the ghost children trapped in the robots, unable to move on to an afterlife where they can be children again.
Fans Who Care
Ultimately, the fans brought up an important point with their questions: no one in the game cares enough about the horrors that ensue. As a result, they get invested in the game. Mike takes the terrible night shift job, risking his life and circadian rhythm; Phone Guy also took the job once and spent his time rationalizing the bots’ behavior and what he witnessed on the cameras.
FNAF needs the fans to provide the rest of the care that the game itself lacks. In the meta sense, the fans make the art, write the music, and post theories about the lore, inviting others to sense. In the game analysis sense, the players bring a sense of compassion that this cruel world lacks. Players dive into this world and ask the questions that need to be answered. YouTubers got advice about how to manage power and the doors.
Game two will answer some of the questions posited, and incorporate fandom nods. But of course, since it’s a horror game, we won’t like some of the answers.