In fiction as in life, dreams are powerful. For millennia authors have called upon them to bemuse, cajole, inspire and terrify their characters, as well as their audience. Dream sequences have been spicing up the stage since ancient Greece and have appeared in film since the early 1900s. It was only a matter of time before video games got into bed with them.
Like other works of fiction, video games are self-contained universes unbound by real-world rules. Dreams, however, can act as pocket universes free from the shackles of the logic upon which a fictional world is built. “Dreams offer a wider range of potential actions, feelings and outcomes than waking reality does,” says psychologist and dream researcher Jayne Gackenbach. “They are the place where we all stretch our realities every night.” With the seemingly limitless possibilities of interactive virtual environments, you might think that video games are perfectly placed to recreate the unreality of the unconscious. But the reality is, games have shown time and again that they’re not.
With their soft lighting, slow motion and blockbuster sound, Mass Effect 3’s forest-based dream sequences stir up an ethereal sense of place. But they don’t feel like dreams; they feel like a facsimile created in accordance with visual tropes. Dreams are scarcely as eccentric as video games would have us believe. Instead they possess a quiet incongruity that perhaps does not chime with the objectives of directors, developers and designers, who, in keeping with long-established cinematic traditions, tend to favour exhibitionist surrealism and hallucinatory effects to establish their dreamworld settings. There’s a checklist to consider. If dreams, as Sigmund Freud said, are the “royal road to the unconscious” then camera filters and surreal colours act as a convenient shortcut.
There is, however, an exception: a game whose mythos and mechanics make it more evocative of dreams – or rather, nightmares – than many of its contemporaries, despite not ostensibly taking place in the dream sphere. Welcome, readers, to Crystal Lake.
Friday the 13th is a dream game. Developed by Illfonic and based on the slasher-film franchise of the same name, the multiplayer survival-horror sees up to seven players assume the role of camp counsellor, while a randomly assigned player controls recurrent antagonist Jason Voorhees. Each match takes place in one of several fictional locations from the franchise. The counsellors’ goal is to escape the map, while Jason’s is to cut them off – literally. Jason can dispatch his prey in a variety of ways but to do so he must get within reach – and Friday gives him some devastating abilities with which to close the gap.
Typified by Michael Myers, the antagonist of John Carpenter’s genre-defining Halloween, slasher villains are slow-movers. Friday respects this rule – some Jasons can’t run, others can but not quickly – but levels the playing field by toying with time and space. Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu understood the temporal instability of the dream realm. In his 1871 novella Carmilla he writes of dreams as having the power to “come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones,” and that their “persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.” Friday possesses this same fluidity, and allows Jason to bend time to his advantage.
As each match begins, Jason spawns in his shack as player-counsellors begin their escape. Jason’s first move is critical. Using the Morph ability, the player can beam Jason across the map and thrust him immediately into the action. The Shift ability, meanwhile, allows Jason to cover shorter distances at extreme speed. When Shift is triggered the camera conspicuously moves from its usual third-person perspective to a first-person viewpoint. Shift is essentially a speed upgrade and could have been accomplished by upping Jason’s pace with the camera remaining in its over-the-shoulder perspective. Instead the game puts us in Jason’s eyes, elongates the onscreen picture and pitch shifts the sound. It’s as if Jason is tearing through time.
From the perspective of spectating counsellors, when Jason uses Morph or Shift he literally vanishes and reappears elsewhere. This is deeply incongruous in a universe that otherwise respects real-world physics. In dreams time, as the Scottish philosopher Robert Macnish puts it, “seems to be in great measure annihilated.” Jason’s abilities certainly make a mockery of it.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre talked of dreams as being a magical world. In the domain of dreams, he says, “doors, locks and walls are no protection against the threats of robbers or wild animals,” In Friday canny counsellors will often cower inside buildings and bar the doors. The Rage ability, however, allows Jason to effortlessly bypass such impediments – but not in the way a spectre might silently pass through a solid surface, instead Jason crashes through doors and walls, leaving splintered wood in his wake, locksmiths be damned.
This new Friday the 13th is a dream game, you get to scare the bejesus out of American teenagers and listen to them panic 10/10 pic.twitter.com/N2tf79qy46
— Richard Stanton (@RichStanton) May 27, 2017
As in dreams, then, in Illfonic’s game, borders are permeable. Jason’s violations of time and space mercilessly expose the vulnerabilities of the counsellors – as well as those playing as them. Herein lies the crucial difference between dream sequences in video games and those of literature, film and television: agency. While controlling counsellors, players are scared not because nondescript teens are being stalked by a nigh unstoppable killer – but because they are. The temporal instability that makes the counsellors’ predator almost omnipresent and the fact that that predator is also being controlled by another player and not a predictable AI conspires to instil in the player-counsellor a sense of helplessness prevalent in nightmares. They never know where the threat might materialise next.
Of course, Friday isn’t the only video game to feature teleportation. Overwatch, XCOM 2 and many others include avatars that can be beamed across their respective maps. Yet teleportation doesn’t make these titles feel dreamlike because they are set in worlds in which science and reason is already warped. “The physics in dreams can defy our waking physics,” says Gackenbach. “But more often than not they don’t. Dreams are much more ordinary than they appear to be.” In contrast to those games, Friday is grounded in reality; it conforms to real-world physics except when it doesn’t, which makes its incongruities all the more impactful.
It’s not just physics that are in flux in the dreamworld, people are too. In dreams identity is not bound by physical appearance. Instead personalities merge – your friend may possess all the attributes she does in the waking world, but appear in the form of your sister. Freud called this “condensation”, when multiple dream-thoughts are amalgamated into a single element, be it a person, place or symbol, and this phenomena is quietly echoed in Friday’s cast.
The game features counsellors whose identities are made up of traits cherry-picked from characters that appear across the film franchise. While Fox, Rob Dier, Sheldon Finkelstein and Tommy Jarvis are lifted directly from their respective films, Tiffany Cox is an amalgamation of twins Terri and Tina Moore from 1984’s The Final Chapter and AJ Mason appears to be a combination of JJ Jarrett from Jason Takes Manhattan and Violet from A New Beginning.
Friday’s very essence is closely aligned with dreams and nightmares too. While many video games feature overwrought dream sequences with enormous enemies and elaborate puzzles, Friday establishes a horrific – and horrifically simple – scenario that many of us have endured while asleep. “The most common nightmare scenario is being chased,” says Gackenbach. “We can all identify with that.”
Indeed, according to the Sleep and Dream Database, an open-access library of thousands of dream reports curated by religious psychologist and dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley, more than 80 per cent of people have dreamt about being pursued. “There’s a surge in chase-nightmares during adolescence,” says Bulkeley. “The slasher genre taps into that for good reason: that’s what their audience is interested in.” Bulkeley adds that slasher films mirror dream psychology in the sense that they establish narrative frameworks in which teenage audiences can work out anxieties about sex, aggression and the adult world. That the genre shares so much with such common dreams is what makes it so enduring and effective – it taps into a shared primeval fear made manifest in nightmares. Friday unlocks those same fears but, through player agency and its power imbalance, manages to feel more like a dream than most films do.
Though counsellors are vulnerable inside this nightmare, they are not defenceless. Player-counsellors can arm themselves with everything from frying pans to pocket knives and make use of traps to stun their assailant. This spirited fightback may make Friday more interesting but it’s one thing that could limit the game’s perceived dreaminess. In dreams, for the most part, we don’t fight back; most conflicts are resolved not through the dreamer overcoming their attacker but through waking up. “The slasher genre demands climactic moments and nightmares often end on them too,” says Bulkeley. “The killer has his hands around your throat or you’ve fallen of a cliff, whatever it is, it’s hit that peak of fear – and in many cases that’s what wakes people up. There’s a hyperarousal effect that triggers a distancing from experience and we try to leap conceptually out of the dream.” Gackenbach concurs: “For the most part people don’t conquer nightmares; rather, they wake up to escape them.”
There is, however, an exception – a group of people whose hobby sees them well practiced in the art of combat and conflict resolution: gamers. Gackenbach has spent years studying gamers’ dreams and has found that they demonstrate “fundamental structural differences”. Her “nightmare-protection” theory suggests that, if indeed one of the biological functions of dreams is to rehearse for threatening situations, then playing games may allow us to simulate danger in a similar way and leave us better able to deal with such instances when they occur in the dreamworld. It may be, then, that Friday doesn’t just feel like a dream but specifically the dream of a player – you.
Of course, there’s much missing from Friday. It lacks the latent content and symbolism beloved by Freud through which dreams are interpreted. But according to Bulkeley that absence of content might make it more accurate. “Friday may not have a whole lot going on,” he says, “but that’s all a chase-nightmare is reduced to: the relentless sense of pursuit.”
Perhaps the best argument against Friday being evocative of dreams is that, while playing Illfonic’s survival-horror, at no point do we wake up. Were the game a dream, conventional wisdom and cinematic traditions would have us expect a reprieve. Surely our counsellor should snap out of it and sit bolt upright in bed just as Jason raises his machete – Bulkeley’s climactic moment. But there’s no pull back and reveal here. Maybe Friday is not a dream, and was never meant to be interpreted as such. Or perhaps it is simply a nightmare from which the counsellors, and ourselves, can never wake up.