Video games based on movies don’t come along very often these days, and when they do, they’re nowhere near as ambitious as Friday The 13th: The Game. Ever since its run on Kickstarter, this multiplayer take on the slasher classic has had the attention of several horror-loving A.V. Club staffers. Now that it’s finally been released, we got together virtually to check it out and see how those ambitions shaped up.
Let’s start off with a confession: I’ve never made it through an entire Friday The 13th movie. As a kid, I was simply too scared by the whole slasher concept to stick it out, and as an adult, the bare-bones, teen-slaughtering formula of the franchise didn’t carry the same appeal for me as the surreal head trip of Nightmare On Elm Street, or even the more artsy ambitions of Halloween. So I’ll give it up to IllFonic, the developer of the new Friday The 13th game, for making Jason Voorhees a legitimately frightening figure, even for somebody who’s not intimately familiar with his work.
Essentially one big, gory game of hide-and-seek (with a little bit of “scavenger hunt” thrown in to make things harder), the game pits seven camp counselor players up against another player acting as Jason, equipped with all the typical slasher villain tricks—offscreen teleportation, insane resistance to damage, the ability to magically know where his prey is at all times. When everything comes together, it’s an incredibly tense game of cat and mouse, forcing players to flee in terror from the advancing, murderous juggernaut.
Much of that attendant fear comes from one of the few aspects of Friday The 13th that feels like an inarguable success: the sound design. Its use of that iconic Harry Manfredini score is nothing short of brilliant. When Jason’s far away from your harried counselor, everything stays calm and quiet. When he’s close, the soundtrack goes nuts, all screeching violins and chaos. The most brilliant touch is the way Jason’s player can even weaponize his own scare music, cutting it off with his “stalk” ability, allowing them to set up jump-scare ambushes galore.
Friday The 13th is at its best as a generator of those memorable moments. Setting up a bear trap outside a window, then spooking a teenager into diving directly into it. Standing your ground, weapon ready, while your friends make a spectacular escape. I even managed to recreate a perfect Friday The 13th moment, stealing Jason’s mother’s sweater from his gruesome cabin and using it to distract him just long enough to run like hell to the cops.
It’s weaker, though, in the long-run, with the human element being its biggest failing point. (Not that the launch was a technical marvel, but most of the glitches—including one that sent my counselor flying into the air, moonwalking over A.A. Dowd-as-Jason’s impotently swinging ax—seem to have gotten themselves worked out.) But there’s a reason the most satisfying games I’ve had were the ones I played with my fellow A.V. Club staffers, in which we successfully communicated with each other, worked as teams, and all seemed committed to a common goal of having fun. The world of “Quick Play” has been a lot more depressing, full of rage-quits, self-serving behavior, and Jasons who would rather wipe a team as quickly as possible than go for cinematic, inventive kills. (Why else play a horror game where you get to be the killer?) There’s a pretty great game hiding under all the screaming teenagers populating the game’s servers at the minute, but wading through them to find it has been enough to make me want to grab a machete myself.
William, I think you hit on a big part of what makes both the game and the film franchise work. Namely, it’s a collective pleasure. I come to the game with the opposite experience of Friday The 13th: I’ve seen every film in the series, most of them multiple times. I own the DVD collection, at least one knick-knack related to the movies, and as I write this at the office, I’m staring at a Camp Crystal Lake patch taped to my glass cubicle divider. So it’s fair to say I have at least a passing investment in successful adaptations of the source material.
When you get into the reasons why the anonymous players you get paired up with when playing alone hurt the game by having no interest in the group experience, it hits at the heart of how this character and universe work. Let’s be honest: The majority of the Friday The 13th movies are not very good. What makes them fun is watching with other people. It doesn’t have to be a sleepover or midnight movie, though my experience watching Freddy Vs. Jason with an eager and slightly tipsy crowd in Minneapolis one evening is a memory I’ll treasure forever. But as with many slashers, the movie is almost always improved by the shared experience, everyone being caught up in the same moments of gratuitous violence. When I was playing with my co-workers, we had a blast discovering the map, teaming up to try and fool whoever was Jason, and implacably tearing into our friends’ bloodied avatars when put in the antagonistic position. It was everything the game developers probably hoped it would be (albeit glitchy, as we played together fairly early in the game’s release).
When I played alone and was paired up with randos online, I had much the same experience as William. While it certainly taught me some survival techniques I might not have otherwise been forced to acquire, it was more than canceled out by the many, many players who treated the scenario like we were in a grudge match in Destiny, charging full-speed ahead, unconcerned with anything but their own survival as a counselor, or grimly determined to kill everyone as quickly as possible as Jason. What a joyless way to play the game.
That being said, I’m more than happy to talk about what the game does right. William covers some of it—the offscreen teleportation, the ability to know where everyone is as Jason—but I was more into the limitations placed upon you as a counselor. Most of the time, Jason killed everyone, and that’s as it should be. Replicating the “there’s no escape” feel of a good horror flick is an essential part of a game adaptation, and by having your options so limited as a meager teen, it forces you to really pray you do the right thing. Whether calling the police or trying to get the car running in order to drive away, there’s still a massive element of crossing your fingers and hoping that whoever is controlling Jason is distracted elsewhere. And again, it makes teamwork a crucial part of the strategy. I’m curious if anyone else ended up preferring being a counselor to Jason, as I did to my great surprise.
I’m with you, Alex. I, too, prefer playing as a counselor—mostly, though, because it takes the pressure off. As a counselor, I’m basically expected to die. Dying is what wimpy, terrified teenage counselors do in the unforgiving world of Friday The 13th. Every little accomplishment feels like a major victory when you’re playing against Jason, because the odds are so cruelly stacked against your survival. Get the battery and the gasoline into the car, only to catch an ax in the torso while looking for the keys? That’s okay, you almost got away! Successfully hide from Jason for most of the game, only to have him find you squeezed helplessly into a closet during the final couple minutes? Hey, at least you stayed alive longer than some of the other counselors! Close doesn’t just count in horseshoes and hand grenades. It’s a consolation prize for those facing the deliberate, diabolical unbalance of Friday The 13th.
As you can probably guess, I haven’t quite mastered the fine art of being on the other side of the machete. If playing as a counselor sets the bar very low, playing as Jason comes with a kind of implied expectation of success: You can drop anywhere on the map, sense the movement of your prey, and fell other players with three blows, so you better butcher at least 75 percent of them. It is, I have to admit, enormously satisfying to pull off a real rampage; nothing has beat the spike of dark delight I felt after successfully yanking some stranger out of an idling car, then immediately teleporting to the lake to pull two counselors trying to escape by boat to their watery doom. But more often than not, donning the hockey mask leaves me fully aware of how much worse I am at simulated mass murder than the real teenagers I’m playing online, who often greet my clumsy attacks with derisive laughter, before sprinting to safety.
Still, being crappy at video games has never really prevented me from enjoying them—and I’ve had a ball with Friday The 13th. Like Alex, I grew up on this lowest-common-denominator slasher franchise, and the folks behind Friday The 13th have done an excellent job recreating the general look and feel of it, from the tacky, nondescript cabins in which you spend most of your time cowering to the over-the-top fatalities. To some degree, they’ve also one-upped their inspiration in the nerve-wracking scare department: Whereas the kills in the films often arrive like quick punchlines of gory death—think of an unaware Kevin Bacon getting garroted through the throat in the original—each successful slaying in the game tends to arrive at the end of an epically protracted cat-and-mouse pursuit, as you crash through a window after Jason chops his way into your barricaded sanctuary, sprint through the woods, dodge throwing knives, and almost make it to the police posted up at one side of the map, only to have the big guy appear suddenly in front of you at the last minute. Imagine if the movies were so relentlessly intense.
I think my favorite touch has to be the voyeuristic ability to spectate the other players after you die. Toggling among the survivors, tracking each of their separate escape attempts in crosscutting parallel, adjusting the camera to see what they don’t (like Jason silently appearing behind them in “stalk” mode)—it’s like having final cut on an especially feverish custom slasher movie. Friday The 13th is almost as much fun to watch as it is to play—though I’m glad I actually can play it, now that the developers have ironed out a lot of the truly unacceptable server issues that plagued the game in its first week and change. The primary source of suspense here should not be whether you’re going to have to wait more or less than a half hour to get into a match…
Dowd, you hit the nail on the head for me: The game’s more fun to watch than to play. Unquestionably my favorite part of every match I played was the moment at the beginning when Jason saunters through the woods and you get the same cut scene of this goggle-eyed fuck wheeling around in plastic-faced terror:
Following that, it was, as Dowd said, the points when my hapless attempts to stay alive ended and I could sit around laughing as the rest of the camp counselors crouch-walked right into Jason or glitched out into some four-dimensional netherworld.
This isn’t, in and of itself, a criticism of the game. Much of the fun of horror video games comes from watching them. Look at recent successes like P.T. or Until Dawn, both of which traded traditional game mechanics for experiences that played out much more like interactive films. In doing so, they were able to more tightly control the aesthetic experience, which is paramount for any horror film. When games try to go the other route, mechanizing terror through their very systems, they typically use silent, predatory supervillains, like Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head, the Resident Evil Nemesis, or pretty much anything in the Amnesia games, as well as the terse item management and futzy controlling of, well, all of the aforementioned games.
Friday The 13th takes a little bit from all of these—it controls like shit, and Jason is infinitely more powerful than the camp counselors—but by making it a full multiplayer experience, it robs them of any real terror. It doesn’t seem interested in telling bespoke stories (à la P.T. or Until Dawn) or tightly controlling the mechanics to create terror via fussy systems, so what you’re left with is a game that doesn’t particularly feel good to control and isn’t particularly scary. The story is, roughly, the same every match. This may be a sheer conceptual failure: What should a multiplayer horror game look like? How could multiplayer survival horror work? The only successful multiplayer horror game I can think of is Left 4 Dead, and that game succeeded primarily as an action experience, not a terror one.
The way I see it, Clayton, that the game doesn’t fall in line with the isolation and fine-tuned tension we associate with today’s horror games is part and parcel with its source material. Like William, I’m not very familiar with the Friday The 13th films; the only ones I’ve seen are the original and Jason X. This might be a sacrilegious thing to say given that fact, but I don’t think they’re very scary either. While they certainly share aesthetics and ideas, horror games and horror films exist in entirely different experiential universes, and the deep, primal terror of pursuit and confusion—the kind evoked by the games you’ve cited—is so unlike what I, and I assume many people, feel when watching a horror movie, especially an old-school slasher like Friday The 13th.
All of which is to say that, no, the game isn’t very scary, but I also don’t think that’s the point. It is, foremost, that game of cat and mouse that everyone laid out earlier. And while it’s really clunky when you get into the little details, it works so great on that macro level. I agree that the game is just as, if not more, fun to watch as it is to play—an opinion that a lot of the internet seems to share, if Twitch’s viewer numbers are any indication—and it’s in spectating that I was really able to see all those pieces come together. Jason seems like an omnipotent killing machine, but at the end of the day, he’s still vulnerable to the most powerful threat of all: human error. It leads to these funny, cinematic scenarios, like escaping out a cabin’s back window while Jason stands around inside, pointlessly stabbing mattresses. In the moment, it feels like a scene straight out of a slasher movie, but when looking back at it, it’s an evocative example of how cleverly designed this game is.
I also want to give the developers credit for playing up the idea that, like Dowd said, as a counselor you’re pretty much expected to die. Because this is a game released in 2017, you get experience points at the end of every match and eventually level up. The thing is, counselors get experience points for everything—setting traps, barricading doors, fixing phone boxes, you name it—and that really plays to your role as hopeless punching bag. Sure, you got impaled on a coat hanger, but you tried your best and you got a little something for the effort.
And even in death, I often have to sit back and give it up to the team at Illfonic for the real thought that went into the many whirring gears that keep the game’s slasher simulation going. It’ll be a long time before I forget valiantly sacrificing myself as a distraction for Dowd-Jason and luring him away while you guys gassed up your escape car. I eluded him long enough to reach a bridge, at which point, I started thinking, “This is totally the moment that Jason teleports in front of me, standing under that single lamp before lumbering forward and tearing me in half.” God bless Dowd for having the vision to do exactly that, and the developers for giving him all the tools to make it happen.