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Freddy Fazbear animatronic looking terrifying in Five Nights at Freddy’s

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Five Nights at Freddy’s spawned a fan game renaissance shaded by controversy

Creators open up about the Fazbear Fanverse Initiative

Image: Scott Cawthon

Five Nights at Freddy’s fan games have existed for almost as long as the series itself. Endorsed by FNAF creator Scott Cawthon, thousands have sprung up on Game Jolt and since Cawthon’s first game was released in 2014. These independent projects catalyzed the fanbase, as constant unofficial content kept people engaged between major releases. Over time, they grew into their own community, helping the fandom to weather repeated changes and controversies.

FNAF is a horror game series that takes place in a fictional pizzeria where the animatronic characters come to life at night. With story snippets hidden in minigames and voice recordings, it built a fanbase through its surprisingly deep lore alongside its tension and jump-scares. Cawthon made the first few FNAF games almost by himself, and launched them just months apart throughout 2014 and 2015. Today, the number of official games and spinoffs reaches double digits.

A screenshot from Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, showing an animatronic through a security camera Image: Scott Cawthon

That’s nothing compared to the number of fan games. FNAF has a “wild level of accessibility” for fan developers, said Seven Dane Asmund, who created the fan game Clearing Your Name. The Bitsy game was released in 2018, and Asmund said it is still played almost every day. “I think that was something really inspiring for the fan game creators,” Asmund said. “Just being like, this is something that one person can do. I’m one person, and I’m just figuring stuff out, and I can do that.”

FNAF fan games also grew in popularity thanks to YouTubers and streamers. The official entries in the horror series made for an excellent spectator experience, and it became a staple among Let’s Play broadcasters, whose reactions to the animatronics — and especially the jump-scares — made for a fantastic spectator sport. After YouTubers played the official games, many turned to fan games to continue delivering the same entertainment. It was mutually beneficial, as it showcased these fan creations to a broader audience and cemented their position in the community.

Fan games became such an integral part of the FNAF experience that Cawthon himself legitimized a number of them. In 2020, he announced the Fazbear Fanverse Initiative, which would fund and publish selected fan games. In an announcement on Reddit, Cawthon explained that he would be financing some of these games directly, while “stay[ing] OUT of the development side of things so that these creators can do their thing.” The initiative would also allow creators to sell their fan games and to have them ported to consoles. Five prominent creators were selected for the first round of the project, with Cawthon expressing his hope to expand the initiative in the future.

An animatronic looking over an arcade vent, in POPGOES. Image: Kane Carter

One of those selected was Kane Carter, the director of the POPGOES series. He originally started work with volunteers sourced from Reddit, and now works with a “professional team of experienced adults.” He said that Cawthon approached him in early 2020, asking whether he would be interested in Clickteam, the company that ported FNAF to console and mobile platforms (and also ported POPGOES). The series would become “official but fan-made spin-offs.”

“I was of course thrilled with the concept, since prior to this there was no reasonable way to put FNAF fan games on other platforms, and especially no way to make any money from them,” Carter said. “The idea of potentially turning this hobby into somewhat of a job was a dream come true.”

Another participant, Felipe Moraga, better known as Phil Morg in the community, said he approached Cawthon, rather than the other way around. Cawthon had taken down one of Morg’s earlier projects, a recreation of the second FNAF game called FNAF 2 OS. Most fan games reinterpret the lore in some way, change the genre, or add other creative twists, but FNAF 2 OS was very similar to the original because, according to Morg, it was made as his own attempt to learn a new game engine.

When it was taken down, Morg reached out to Cawthon and over the course of their conversation brought up the changes he would make to the series if he were given the chance to do so — like new visuals and changed game mechanics. Cawthon ended up inviting Morg to the Initiative to create what would become Five Nights at Freddy’s Plus, which the Fanverse’s official announcement post describes as a “remake/re-imagining” of the original game, using Morg’s new ideas.

An overhead image of a children’s birthday party room in POPGOES Image: Kane Carter

“With financial support, a longer development time, and the freedom to work with the IP in whatever ways I think would be best, I’ve been able to create things that I would have never been able to before,” said Morg. “If you told my young teenage self about the Initiative back when he was still obsessed with the first game in 2014, he would probably laugh it off and think no company or creator would ever be crazy enough to support fans as directly as Scott has done.”

Though Morg and Carter describe primarily positive experiences, the Fanverse Initiative hasn’t been without its problems. Both describe a hands-off approach from Cawthon. “A lot of people might think that Scott is in constant communication with us, [providing] a lot of feedback and guidance to make sure our games can succeed, [but] this could not be farther from the truth. In reality, making a game under the Fazbear Fanverse Initiative is much like creating your standard fan game,” Morg said.

While that has given developers great creative freedom, it has also meant not getting questions answered, or appropriate support for project-specific issues, according to Morg. “You are often not able to get the necessary tools or information that would allow you to do parts of your job properly,” Morg said. For example, he isn’t sure how much Five Nights at Freddy’s Plus will cost when it’s released, something which he states in his FAQ will be “decided by the publisher.”

“Like anything as new and untested as this, the Initiative has had some bumps in the road,” said Carter. “It has been a surprising honor to have Scott put time into fan projects at all, but it’s obviously not easy, especially when the man himself is retired from game development at this point. So there have been some issues with communication.”

Cawthon said he was retiring from game development in June 2021 amid criticism of his political donations, which primarily favored Republican politicians, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former president Donald Trump. The retirement announcement, posted to Cawthon’s now-defunct website, acknowledged “possibly the most creative and talented fanbase on the planet,” but stated that he wanted to return to “things [he] got to focus on before FNAF became such a success,” like making games just for fun. Cawthon only acknowledged the criticism obliquely, by stating that he had “been shown tremendous love and support over this last week, a lot of which has come from the LGBTQ community.”

After Cawthon’s donations were publicized on Twitter, many people in the fandom were upset. They felt that their money had directly contributed to harmful causes, via their purchases of FNAF games and merchandise. Many spoke out on social media about the betrayal they felt, and they met backlash under the Twitter hashtag “#IstandwithScott.” Moderators of the FNAF subreddit contained all discussion to one mega-thread, where many users expressed that they were waiting for a response from Cawthon.

A few days later, Cawthon responded in his own Reddit post. Cawthon said that not addressing the matter of his donations wasn’t an option because of “so many people from the LGBT community in the fanbase that I love.” He explained that the candidates he supported, both Republican and Democrat, were ones he felt would make the best overall impact. Of Trump he wrote: “I felt he was the best man to fuel a strong economy and stand up to America’s enemies abroad.” Cawthon emphasized his donations to Democrats like Tulsi Gabbard and Kimberly Klacik, but he did not mention the same politicians had backed legislation to support transphobic policies, nor did he acknowledge Gabbard’s homophobic statements.

A screenshot from Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 with a close up of a ragged looking bunny animatronic Image: Scott Cawthon

Asmund, who is queer, highlighted that many LGBTQ+ fans were dissatisfied with this response. “He never once [acknowledged] that the people he was supporting in every single case were anti-queer,” Asmund said. “You have to decide where your lines are. I think that for a lot of people it was really easy to be like, ‘screw this guy, I’m leaving.’ [...] People needed him to realize that he was doing something directly damaging to us with the money that we had given him, and he never recognized that.” Cawthon did not respond to an interview request about the circumstances surrounding his retirement, nor his support for fan games.

May 2021 had also seen a new and different kind of pushback when an FNAF fan spotted the WAX blockchain was advertising upcoming FNAF non-fungible tokens. Fans who were familiar with NFTs were displeased, which led to an explanation post on the subreddit that detailed environmental and theft concerns. Cawthon himself commented, asking if he was “missing something” about why people were reacting so negatively. Users responded with explanations and complaints, and Cawthon stated that WAX NFTs are “carbon neutral,” but the fanbase continued to push back. The NFTs were canceled the following day, with Cawthon writing that it was “not worth it” to upset the community.

For those who did not want to leave the FNAF fandom behind, fan games became a community where members continued to enjoy the franchise without directly supporting Cawthon. After flourishing for years, the community is sometimes only tenuously connected to the mainline series at all. “Many people [in the fandom] don’t even play the actual games!” said Morg. FNAF has a life of its own on social media, too, with out-of-context quotes going viral especially on TikTok.

Still, hunger for new FNAF stories continues to make fan games into unexpected hits. Asmund, for example, hadn’t expected many people to see their first-ever game, Clearing Your Name. Then it was picked up by a couple of YouTubers. “Hundreds of people saw it. And then thousands,” Asmund said. “That just kind of happens because that’s the community, and they want to see what fans have done.” Asmund’s fan game even got its own fan game, Clearing Your Name 3D Remastered, made by a young developer called Emil Joes.

In October 2021, the first Fanverse Initiative game was released: Five Nights at Flumpty’s 3, created by Jonochrome. Shortly after the game launched, a TwitLonger was released. The anonymous poster stated they had witnessed, via “group Dm’s,” Jonochrome (then in his 20s) being in a “relationship” with a girl who was “13-14 at the time.” Jonochrome and the woman, now an adult who wished to stay anonymous, both posted on Twitter, with explanations from each of their points of view. Jonochrome stated that there was “nothing sexual about our conversations,” and that he “was wrong for pursuing a relationship with her.” He then posted a second message stating that he was leaving the internet “for a long time.”

In reporting this story, Polygon contacted Jonochrome for further comment, and he provided this statement: “It was devastating to learn how my poor judgement has hurt people I care about and respect, and I truly don’t want that to happen again. I’ve been getting therapy as promised, and so far, it’s helped me identify how events in my past influenced my choice to self-isolate for years, and how that lifestyle has been harmful to my habits and way of thinking. It’s only a start, but I’m looking into more active help resources now, and I’m prepared to make serious changes.” (The woman involved could not be reached for comment.)

In December, Morg wrote on Twitter that these incidents and others had been “mounting issues” that led to him being “done with” the official FNAF series. The final push was the mainline series’ most recent release, Security Breach, which pushed the series in a direction that Morg felt no longer fit the tone and quality of the originals. But Morg will continue to work on Five Nights at Freddy’s Plus, according to his Twitter post, and will continue to stream other fan games.

A screenshot from Five Nights at Freddy’s Security Breach showing Freddy Fazbear at the end of a bright lobby Image: Steel Wool Studios/ScottGames

“Disconnecting from FNAF in general has actually made the process of working on Plus a much easier and rewarding experience,” he said, since he’s now able to let go of what he dislikes and bring in things he feels are missing. “My motivation to work on these kinds of fan projects continues to be the same: a burning desire to share my own vision on what I think is a unique, fun, and creative franchise.”

As the number of fan games continues to grow, independent creators have been hopeful about the place they hold in the FNAF community as a whole. Asmund said that they hope future releases in the Fanverse Initiative might directly benefit LGBTQ+ members of the fandom. “I really would like to imagine a near future where this continues and [Cawthon] supports any of the probably very many queer creators who have been inspired by his games,” they said. In the meantime, fan games continue to give the community a way to enjoy the FNAF universe on their own terms.

Fan game developers, like Carter, hope to see fan projects accepted more broadly in the industry. “I only hope that the general zeitgeist of the gaming community also catches on and sees how important and innovative something like this can be,” Carter said, “and how it might be able to affect other franchises.”

The thousands of fan developers in the FNAF community show no sign of slowing down their creativity. And alongside YouTube Let’s Plays, TikToks, and fan art, these unofficial games invite new people into the fold all the time. By embracing them and starting the Fazbear Fanverse Initiative, Cawthon legitimized a fandom’s ability to create. At the same time, his actions caused many to leave that fandom, or at least complicated their relationship with it — like Morg separating himself from the formal franchise entirely. As development continues on these Initiative games, only time will tell how they will fit into the complex web of the FNAF fandom.

Correction (March 28, 3:25 p.m. EDT): A previous version of this article misstated Morg’s Five Nights at Freddy’s Plus as being taken down. FNAF 2 OS had been taken down. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.