America

A Reclusive Horror Designer Pivoted From Religious Games

Many times, in many ways, for many reasons, the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie almost never happened. It always came down to Scott Cawthon.

A video game designer in his mid-40s, Cawthon is the sole creator of one of the past decade’s most successful indie franchises, a low-budget point-and-click horror series that has become its own sprawling empire. Five Nights at Freddy’s — or FNaF, as it is known to fans — has thrived under Cawthon’s exacting control over the product; he oversees everything, including graphic novel collections and licensed toys and merchandise.

So when the game was optioned and set to be turned into a major movie, it was only natural that Cawthon wanted to be involved in almost every aspect of the production.

“There is no amount of money you could have offered Scott up front to say, ‘Let us have the rights to FNaF and we’ll invite you to the premiere,’” said Jason Blum, the producer of the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie, which comes out in theaters and on Peacock this week. “He would never, ever have done it.”

Scott Cawthon, the game’s creator, was heavily involved with the writing and casting of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” which opens this week.Credit…Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

It is unusual for an artist without experience in the movie business to be so involved in an adaptation of his work. And Blum acknowledged that Cawthon’s involvement, in everything from casting the characters to co-writing the script, led to creative disagreements with the studio.

“It was a very, very complicated process,” Blum said. “Sometimes it was difficult. Scott would say this director isn’t going to work or that writer isn’t going to work.”

He accommodated Cawthon’s vision partly because he believed in it. But Blum, who called Cawthon a genius, said he had also sensed that in important creative matters, he did not really have a choice.

“It became clear that if I pushed it,” Blum said, “he was going to throw me off the movie, too.”

Cawthon’s journey with FNaF began during a period of personal frustration and disillusionment. It was the early 2010s, and Cawthon had been pouring his heart into self-funded indie games that could not seem to find an audience.

These religious-themed titles — like Noah’s Ark and The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on the John Bunyan allegory — were an intensely personal reflection of his Christian beliefs. But despite a generally warm reception from like-minded gamers, they were not generating the kind of income Cawthon needed to support his wife and children.

Their failure provoked a crisis of faith.

“I felt like I’d squandered so many years of my life,” he later told a Christian gaming blog, adding, “I came to the conclusion that I could not have failed so miserably unless God himself had been holding me down.”

Cawthon’s game The Pilgrim’s Progress is based on the John Bunyan allegory. Its enemies include Beelzebub, Apollyon, Shame and Giant Despair.Credit…Scott Cawthon

Cawthon, a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston who is based in Salado, Texas, reluctantly abandoned the Christian market and began working on games with greater commercial appeal. He began releasing cheap computer titles and free-to-play mobile apps like Vegas Fantasy Jackpot and V.I.P. Woodland Casino, which might bring in $40 or $50 each month in download fees and ad revenue. He supplemented those projects with computer programming work and retail jobs at Target and Dollar General.

But in 2013 he landed on an idea well outside his wheelhouse. One of his recent projects, a Farmville-like resource-management game called Chipper & Sons Lumber Co., had been ridiculed online because its cheerful beaver protagonist looked unintentionally creepy — “like a scary animatronic,” in the words of one disapproving commenter.

The criticism stung. But Cawthon ultimately embraced it, he said in the blog interview, vowing to “make something a lot scarier than that.”

The result a year later was Five Nights at Freddy’s, a survival-horror game about a security guard at an abandoned pizzeria who is terrorized by bloodthirsty animatronic animals. While the gameplay mechanics were a little crude — players cycle between security camera feeds on the lookout for the creatures, who intermittently leap into the frame like the jump scares of a slasher movie — the grimy look and tense atmosphere helped it become a surprise word-of-mouth hit.

Children especially loved it. In fact, children did not even have to play it to become fans: Popular video game streamers like PewDiePie and Markiplier racked up hundreds of millions of views shrieking along to FNaF’s over-the-top scares, amplifying its popularity.

While the player cycles through security camera feeds in games such as Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, animatronic creatures leap into the frame.Credit…Scott Cawthon

The franchise’s mythology, which is only hinted at in what is now a series of nine games, became the subject of endless discussion and debate on online forums. Because of Cawthon’s carefully maintained privacy — he declined to comment for this article — every message board note or email to a fan was fodder for pages of analysis and speculation.

“The fandom is kept alive through fan theories,” said Quinn Quimby, a journalism student in Huntsville, Texas, who is a regular contributor to the fan site FNaF Insider.

An admirer of the series since the second grade, Quimby has grown up alongside the franchise, keeping a keen eye on the way fans have engaged with the lore by offering explanations for things that transpire in the games. “The reason it’s been able to stay so popular so long is because it still has those theories going on all the time,” Quimby said. “Nothing is out of the question — even that it’s all a dream.”

Cawthon’s parasocial relationship with his fans has been strained in recent years. In 2021, a Twitter user published a list of more than $40,000 in donations that Cawthon made to high-profile Republican leaders, including Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell and Donald J. Trump.

Although Cawthon’s Christian beliefs were well known to the FNaF community — some perceived an anti-abortion message in his game The Desolate Hope, which follows a robotic coffee pot in a world of computer viruses — many fans felt betrayed by an artist they had come to idolize.

Cawthon defended himself on Reddit, saying he would not apologize for having “exercised my right, and my duty, as an American citizen.” While he said he “never cared about anyone’s race, religion, gender or orientation,” he was clear about his affiliations: “I’m a republican. I’m a Christian. I’m pro-life. I believe in God.” He also said that he was happy to be “canceled” and was content to retire anyway.

Cawthon’s game The Desolate Hope follows a robotic coffee pot in a world of computer viruses.Credit…Scott Cawthon

Since then, Cawthon has posted online only a handful of times. Already averse to interviews, he has not spoken to journalists about his recent FNaF games or the upcoming film.

Despite his public silence, Cawthon was actively involved with “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” which stars Josh Hutcherson of the “Hunger Games” movies. Although Cawthon cannot control how people respond to his work, he can guarantee that he is happy with it.

Emma Tammi, the director of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” said she had worked closely with Cawthon on the movie’s shape and direction; he is credited as a screenwriter.

“We would not be releasing this film if Scott was not satisfied,” Tammi said. “This goes back to how passionately he feels and how protective he is of the fan base. He would not let something out into the world that he didn’t put his stamp of approval on. I wouldn’t be here today without his seal of approval.”

One of the only lengthy interviews Cawthon has given is with the popular FNaF YouTuber Lewis Dawkins, who posts under the username Dawko. After an exhaustive discussion about the making of the games and their accompanying lore, Cawthon addresses the movie, which at the time was still in preproduction. He sounds almost pleading.

“I don’t always get things just right,” he said in 2018, speaking to Dawko but also to the fans at large. “I’ve been writing this script. It doesn’t mean the movie’s going to be perfect.”

“But I hope everybody at least believes that my No. 1 goal is to make sure that I don’t let anybody down,” he continues. “A lot of people enjoy these characters and these games, and that means the world to me.”

Related Articles

Back to top button