Alt+Home: The Sincerest Form

Games can be more than mere entertainment. In our column Alt+Home, intermedia artist Kent Sheely explores the ways independent developers are challenging the status quo, creating brand new experiences, and making a difference in the world.

The video game industry stands astride a long, sordid history of plagiarism that stretches all the way back to when games were first starting to become a commercially viable industry. In 1981, a company called Holniker released Meteors, a game that so closely resembled Atari’s Asteroids that Atari attempted to sue the other company for copyright infringement. Although the court found more than 20 distinct similarities between the two titles, it ultimately did not award damages to Atari, stating that game mechanics and rules could not be trademarked and the visual appearance of Meteors was distinct enough to set it apart from its predecessor. This court precedent laid the foundation for numerous subsequent cases, in which game developers and publishers managed to squeeze their reproductions into the industry right next to the titles upon which they had based their own work.

In recent years, new easy-to-use software and open publishing platforms have put game creation into the hands of people who would not ordinarily have had access to create their own works in this medium. Social networks make it easier for small-time and amateur developers to find an audience for their work and to get assistance from others. As a result of this openness, the relative simplicity of work made by independent developers, and the Internet’s tendency to be a massive and unpredictable petri dish for viral content, certain games have inspired countless fan-created counterfeits.

Some creators devise their very own characters and lore for their adaptations, mimicking only the play style or a certain key element of the original games, but a common thread in many of these “knock-offs” is the inclusion of references to other media, especially other video games. Trademarked characters and recognizable settings make regular appearances, placing the “copycats” squarely into the realm of remix culture. Some even contain hidden nods to previous iterations of the same initial product.

Most of these adaptations fall into obscurity. Some, however, manage to stand out from the crowd.

A selection of titles receive the clone treatment more than others, and stand out as the pillars upon which innumerable simulacra have been propped. Most of these adaptations fall into obscurity, trampled underfoot by thousands of its nearly-identical siblings. Some, however, manage to stand out from the crowd by successfully extracting some essence of their archetype and bending it into a fresh experience. Others earn attention through their hilariously ill-conceived assembly, or because they actually succeed at parodying their source.

Perhaps the most famous target of cloning, Flappy Bird is a 2013 mobile game made by a Vietnamese developer named Dong Nguyen. There aren’t any buttons to press or controls to learn; each tap of the screen propels the titular bird a little bit higher, arcing it through a series of obstacles that appear from the right side of the screen as the character moves forward. It was notable at first for its simplicity and for its considerable difficulty, and later for the fact that its creator withdrew the game from the App Stores after it had already become wildly successful. This combination of factors explains both its explosion in popularity and its subsequent status as a target for duplication.

Thousands of Flappy Bird remakes have been produced to-date, employing all manner of variation. The game has been shown to only require 18 lines of code in order to produce a reasonable facsimile, so naturally it doesn’t take long for enthusiasts to make their own spinoff versions. Twitter user @somepx even organized an event called Flappy Jam in which participants were encouraged to make their own rendition of the infamously difficult game. It’s also interesting to note that Flappy Bird is ostensibly a clone itself, as this “tap to go higher” mechanic was also used in a prevalent browser-based game created by writer/designer David McCandless, simply known as Helicopter Game.

Despite the astounding and varied number of compelling Flappy Bird remakes that exist, there is another recent and independently-produced game that’s been replicated to an outrageous degree and is much more compelling to me as an example of this phenomenon: Five Nights at Freddy’s.

It’s a deceptively simple point-and-click horror game that has spawned three sequels and taken its developer from complete anonymity to overwhelming success in just under a year. The premise is that you are a security guard working the night shift at a family pizza restaurant, and warding off murderous animatronic mascots (which only move when you’re not looking). To survive, you must switch between checking possible hiding spots and toggling lights, doors, and various other defensive measures, all to prevent the monsters from reaching the “office” where the protagonist is hiding. If this happens, the game ends with a sudden “jump scare” by the enemy who managed to breach the player’s area. Surviving the five nights (which take about eight minutes of real time to get through) requires learning the behaviors of each enemy while frantic switching between tasks in order to stay one step ahead.

This simple format and the compelling lore Cawthon has concocted around the series make for both a terrifying experience and a rich loam in which an extremely varied swath of fan-created games have been born. Here are just a few that I have discovered and enjoyed, for a variety of reasons.

Five Nights at the Chum Bucket

At first glance, this one hardly looks like a Five Nights imitation. It shares very few recognizable trappings, save the idea that you’re defending a central office from a horde of creepy animatronics, which in this version are designed after characters from Spongebob Squarepants. The game’s title refers to the name of the restaurant owned by the antagonist in the Nickelodeon cartoon, but aside from the creature design and the title itself, there’s not much connection between this game and the kids’ show it’s loosely based on. The interface allows you to look around in any direction, as opposed to the limited forward-facing view enforced in the precursor. All of the enemies are fully animated and move fluidly, though still only when you’re not looking directly at them. This makes it even more nerve-racking when one of them leaps screaming into your face from the darkness!

Aside from some lackluster voice acting, Five Nights at the Chum Bucket is really well-made and fun, even if you’re not familiar with any of the material it’s based on. I particularly liked being able to look in any direction using the mouse, a freedom that made things so much scarier when the mechanical cartoon characters started showing up to ruin my evening.

Ten Scary Nights / One Night Two Crazies

This one is a bit harder to find, as it was only ever released on the Xbox Live Marketplace and seems to have been renamed somewhere along the line. It’s the same tried-and-true Five Nights formula: frenetic switching between camera views, creepy baddies skulking around when your back is turned, unexpected scares...the major difference here is that the game’s “graphics” are real photographs taken inside a person’s home. Everything about Ten Scary Nights looks low-budget and absurd, including the primary antagonist: an otherwise normal-looking person sporting a hockey stick and goalie’s mask, who leers into the security cameras and, if you fail to keep him away, appears suddenly in the room you occupy with a comical but startling guttural roar.

It’s a creative take on the guiding format, despite appearing to have been produced in a hurry. The animations are jerky and low-resolution, reminiscent of early CD-ROM games like Night Trap, and actually lend themselves to an unsettling experience. Furthermore, I got a laugh out of the lack of attention to “hiding the strings,” so to speak; it seems like something the creator made solo while stuck inside on a rainy day.

One Night at Flumpty’s

One Night at Flumpty’s manages to avoid being a strict imitation, even though its interface appears to be a hand-drawn approximation of Freddy’s that borders on parody. The same basic mechanics from the original are there, but developer Jonachrome created his own unique characters for his version, each with its own set of behaviors and strategies for countering them. There’s only one night to get through, but as you creep closer toward morning you can expect to find more new “friends” creeping slowly toward you. The artwork is all hand-drawn and contain lots of little hidden references , some of which are morbidly humorous caricatures from cartoons and advertising campaigns.

Flumpty’s became such a beloved interpretation of the Five Nights formula that Jonachrome released a sequel with an even greater degree of innovation in its design and execution. I haven’t played this second game yet, but I’d be doing myself a disservice to skip it considering how much I genuinely enjoyed the illustrations and creative explorations of the first.

Five Nights at Fuckboy’s

Five Nights at Fuckboy’s borrows a significant number of sounds and graphics from Cawthon’s work and spins them into a turn-based Roleplaying game. The plot focuses on the titular Freddy, who seeks a “radical night of hardcore debauchery” in the darkened pizza restaurant. As the title and premise would suggest, Fuckboy’s is perhaps the raunchiest sendup of the franchise made to-date, with an emphasis on cramming the greatest number of gags into the game without it losing playability. Despite vulgarity being its primary selling point, it has been a runaway success that has already inspired two sequels.

Though the brand of humor in Fuckboy’s is something I would have enjoyed much more when I was younger, the developer put such earnest effort into making a bawdy, off-color translation of the Five Nights lore that I couldn’t help but have a guilty appreciation for the endeavor.

These Nights in Heaven

The animatronics in Five Nights at Freddy’s are objectively creepy, but what if they just wanted to be...loved? The most significant departure I’ve seen from the precursory format so far, These Nights in Heaven is a dating simulator in which you spend your nights romancing the anthropomorphic robots from the formative game. Surprisingly, there’s no adult content to be found; These Nights in Heaven focuses on silly storytelling and character development rather than sophomoric jokes or even on startling the player like most of the other renditions. The graphics and animations are actually taken directly from Freddy’s but none of the horror elements remain; the malicious gaping grins and bulging eyes of the monsters are reimagined as expressions of curiosity and adoration via the accompanying dialogue and context.

Though I’ve never invested myself deeply into any single Dating Simulator, I maintain an appreciation for the more whimsical outliers of the gere. For example, I’ve invested a few hours of my life into the virally popular Hatoful Boyfriend, an interactive visual novel about finding love in a high school populated by talking birds. The notion of flirting with a supernaturally animated mechanical puppet was just too enticing to pass over!

The innumerable unlicensed spinoffs of Five Nights at Freddy’s are a phenomenal testament to the present-day nature of game cloning, and demonstrate that these contemporary ersatz copies differ greatly from the ones that caused so much legal fuss in previous years. While some imitations can be harmful to the creators of the original products when released as a commercially competitive product, modern “clones” such as those mentioned above are usually released free of charge, and make no attempt to hide their sources or cash in on the success of their forerunners. These appropriations are created by developers with a heartfelt appreciation of the games that inspired them, without the expectation of financial success. In this way, they are much more like fan art: interactive love letters to beloved games and to the developers who brought them into existence.

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