Friday the 13th is as Good as Licensed Games Get

By Rich Stanton on at

I've never been a superfan of the Friday the 13th but it's one of those series that, somehow, you can't help but be aware of. I'm not even sure which ones of the dozen films I've seen, but I know they were both late night affairs on Channel 5 or similar, and as these things go they're fun enough. In each a seemingly-unstoppable and mute killing machine called Jason stalks various hapless victims around a given setting, and every so often catches and eviscerates one. They're pretty well-produced in the context of their genre but there's not really much else to them: they're slasher flicks.

It's no coincidence that the first thing Friday the 13th: The Game does is play on this, with the opening logos that precede the title screen flickering and warping to evoke some VHS nostalgia. This is the first clue you're about to play something special, and it's an aesthetic that bleeds into the game itself — but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The game is asymmetrical multiplayer survival. One player is cast in the role of Jason, and up to seven others play as camp counsellors — who at the start of each match are gathered around a jolly campfire, before the killer turns up and scatters them. The game then starts, with Jason's spawn fixed but each counsellor spaced-out across a medium-sized open map full of buildings and objects of interest. There's a round limit of 20 minutes but none of the matches I've played have reached it. Either Jason kills all the counsellors, or some escape, or all escape.

Jason is a fantastic hunter. He's larger and stronger than any counsellor, the first one you have is capable of sprinting endlessly (there are different Jasons available, unlocked through play, with different perks), and is basically a melee fighter: he'll have one of several various brutal weapons, like an axe, as well as limited throwing knives and bear traps.

On top of this he can 'see' the sound effect of players moving too quickly, and has a range of abilities that — in almost any other context — would be super-overpowered. He can warp to different areas on the map. He can 'sense' counsellors out in the open, showing their bodies picked out in bright red hues, and any building containing people glows bright red. He can use a 'shift' ability to rapidly cover ground within an area, effectively appearing out of nowhere on top of unaware counsellors. He can 'stalk' players, quieting his movement and allowing insta-kills. And finally he can enter a 'rage' state, where he can crash through walls like it ain't no thang and takes more damage before being stunned.

It's not quite as unbalanced as that sounds, because these abilities have decent cooldowns and gradually unlock over the course of each match. In the opening minutes Jason can only warp around the map, and it's several minutes more before he can begin to 'sense' the counsellors, then another few before 'shift' and so on. The effect is quite brilliant, giving each match a definite rhythm as the killer's abilities escalate — after you've played a few matches it's rare to die quickly, because even if Jason finds you at the start it's much easier to lose him. But if you're deep into a round and he turns up, you know you're going to have a much tougher time.

It's the interplay between Jason and the counsellors that makes this special. The counsellors are obviously much weaker, but they can fight back, and there are all sorts of items and environmental aspects that help them frustrate the pursuit and survive close encounters. Melee weapons, everything from frying pans to machetes, can temporarily stun him. The rarer shotguns and flare guns can stun him for longer, but only offer a single shot. Bear traps can be disarmed and used against him, radios turned on to confuse his echolocation, doors barricaded, and so on. It is possible for a team of co-ordinated counsellors to do enough damage that they 'kill' Jason and win the round, but this depends on the kind of interplay you almost never see online. Everything's about delay.

On top of this, the counsellors get scared, and here's something really special. When they see a dead body, their fear goes up and the camera zooms in on that spot for a split-second as they exclaim (a sound, naturally, that Jason can hear). As their fear increases, and seeing Jason does this too, they become more likely to stumble when running, and can't stay quiet in hiding spots. The reason I love this feature so much is not just what it adds to the pursuit, but how the faces of the counsellors reflect their current emotional state: if you see someone running out of a forest, no great biggie, but if they're wide-eyed and screaming then you really pay attention.

This is perhaps why Friday the 13th really captures something of the horror flicks that inspire it. Being stalked by Jason is terrifying, and is especially enhanced by various 'VHS' screen effects when he's nearby — your vision begins flickering with a buzzing sound for just an instant, and you know he's close. This effect repeats in various ways, never enough to obscure what you're doing but plenty enough to crank up the tension, especially in concert with Jason's own creepy theme. The screen will darken at the edges, your map and inventory disappearing as everything focuses on the thing nearby and how to get away from him.

There are very few feelings like this in games, because the pace is relatively slow. You'll almost always see Jason before he kills you, but the next minutes are a futile attempt at escaping something bigger, stronger and faster than you — and on top of that he can see through walls. There are times I've been in a house, heard his music, and just knew I was fucked. When the end comes it is nearly always gory and nasty, befitting the source material, but this isn't why the game is genuinely scary. It's that feeling of wanting to get away from Jason, trying to throw him off countless times, and he just keeps on coming. There's nothing like stunning him, making a dash for it, and seeing him appear in front of you 30 seconds later.

The secret sauce, the aspect that elevates this game to a great height? You can hear other players, and as Jason you can hear them too. This next clip is why videogames can be so amazing: the design is all there, but it's the voice that makes it delicious.

Two things I especially love: his barely-interested mate saying 'good luck' and how the victim says something totally bratty before I strangle him. Surely he's a bit too young for this game anyway.

Friday the 13th has rapidly acquired popularity on Twitch and it's because of the potential it contains for scenes like this. It's a great game to play but it's also an amazing game to watch, and the following applies both to streaming and to how you spectate matches after dying. Asymmetrical multiplayer designs often have trouble finding an audience (hello Evolve), but this is inspired in the elements it's using and how it combines them. The loving use of the movie aesthetic in game elements is one thing, but then this also functions like a mini-survival game for the counsellors, and as an all-powerful monster game for the Jason player, with a peak in excitement and tension every time the killer finds a potential victim and starts hunting them. Put that in an open map full of randomised items, allow the players to overhear each other's voice chat in proximity, and it can be incredible viewing.

So few movie licenses have resulted in great games, but Friday the 13th shows how it's done. It focuses on the feelings that the movies are meant to evoke rather than caring about following a specific plotline: fear, shock, tension, a bit of body horror. Then it recreates them in an interactive context, with all the parts taken by players. This game might look from the outside like mere schlock, and in certain respects it surely is, but the feelings above are also immeasurably more powerful in an interactive context.

As Jason closes in on your wounded counsellor, and you're out of tools, and you know it's over, you keep on running anyway. Your character starts to stumble as they run, gradually slowing down as their stamina depletes, but you keep pressing forwards and can't quite bring yourself to turn the camera and look back. Those wonderful VHS effects skizz through your vision with increasing frequency, all you're doing is delaying the inevitable, but every time I run till I can't run anymore. He always hunts you down.

The executions are bloody, but it's not those I mind. And I don't care about 'dying' or losing in a videogame. It's just a visceral feeling somewhere in my stomach. I don't want him to catch me.