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The tragedy of Friday the 13th: The Game

Still ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-mad about it.

Jason is dressed in a bloodied hockey mask in this screen from Friday the 13th
Image credit: Gun Media/Illfonic

If you’re reading this, I have to assume you’re a horror fan. Whether you’re solely into horror, horror films or horror games, you likely remember what it was that prompted your fascination with the genre.

For me, it was Friday the 13th: The Game. Prior to this, I was scared stiff by the very thought of horror. The idea of sitting down to watch a scary film wasn’t a pleasant prospect, in fact it felt more like punishment. Well, that was what I initially thought anyway. In the end, my love of video games ended up overriding my discomfort at the idea of gorey media.

Friday the 13th: The Game started life as a Kickstarter that raised almost a million dollars. There were many reasons this project commanded attention from the horror community, including the involvement of a few genuine horror legends. There was Sean S. Cunningham, who directed Friday the 13th, and make-up and prosthetics wizard Tom Savini, and Kane Hodder, who’s famous for playing the legendary killer, Jason Voorhees. The idea was to make a game that did justice to the films, in which a man in a hockey mask kills people at Camp Crystal Lake. And sometimes in New York. And space. It gets complicated.

Here's a trailer for the Switch version.Watch on YouTube

As a horror novice, none of this meant much to me at the time. But the finished game worked its spell very swiftly when I played it. Just stepping into the lobby on my first go, I was struck by the atmospheric music that created a sense of dread. From the off, the game primes you beautifully for a night of riotous slaughter.

In game form, Friday the 13th is an asymmetric horror like Dead by Daylight. You can play as Jason or one of a series of camp counsellors who are attempting to escape him and the map itself before the unthinkable happens.

I don’t really need to tell you how to play as Jason, do I? You hunt everyone down and kill them. As a counsellor, though, there are various routes to success. You can find a fuse and get the camp’s electricity working, which means you can call the cops. You still need to evade Jason long enough to then run to one of the two exits on the map where the police will be waiting for you. Harder than it sounds.

Jason attacks in a dark cabin in Friday the 13th
Jason appears in a cabin doorway in Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th: The Game. | Image credit: Gun Media/Illfonic

On top of that you can use vehicles to escape, namely a car and a boat. Jason hates it when you use the car in particular. Maybe it’s because you fixed it right under his nose, or because you can take other counsellors with you and all escape together. Whatever the reason, this big boy is going to teleport in front of you as you’re fleeing to force you to crash. That’s right. This man isn’t afraid of the car, the car is afraid of him.

You could also simply wait out the clock and that would count as a win for the counsellors. Beyond that there’s one more way of winning the game that I’ll talk more about later. It’s complicated, but boy is it satisfying.

New to the series as I was, I loved so much about this game almost immediately. I loved the semi-real world setting, which added loads more tension to the experience for me than fantasy would have. This wasn’t like Dead by Daylight where you’ve been taken by an otherworldly entity and thrust into horrifying hellscapes in order to be sacrificed over and over. Instead I was somewhere familiar and relatable, and that very familiarity let players know that Jason was not just a lord of nightmares but could get you where you felt most safe.

This sense of familiarity worked beautifully with the music, as well, which would often be low in the soundtrack as you were running around collecting supplies, but would spike and scramble, like an old television set searching for a signal as Jason appeared, and it would get louder the closer he came.

Jason swings an axe at a cabin door in Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th: The Game. | Image credit: Gun Media/Illfonic

Then there’s just the attention to detail. This includes the fact that certain counsellors are better at certain things. Some have extra stamina, some are less likely to be frightened and better at skill checks and sneaking across the map. I favoured the sneakier and smarter characters myself. I would main goth girl A.J. Mason, whose stats leant into that play style. (She was also played by Critical Role’s Marisha Ray and it took me way too long to figure that out.)

Different skills and stats also ties into the tactical thinking and risk-taking the game has always demanded. Sometimes you’d have to choose between damaging your health by crawling out of broken windows or facing Jason head on. Or maybe you set traps for him. Or maybe…?

The result of all this was a multiplayer game that created genuine stories. In other words, allow me to get overly dramatic for a second.

Picture it: I was the last counsellor left on the map, things were looking dire, but I was the actual Final Girl damn it, and I was going to make it out alive. I had squirrelled myself away in a cabin, barricaded the single door to the place and strategically set a beartrap on my side of the door.

I had opened the windows to prevent Jason from smashing them and costing me my health if I had to jump out and make my escape. I was crouched in stealth mode. I had a baseball bat in hand.

I was ready.

Eventually, Jason approached the cabin. I darted between rooms so that he couldn’t strike me down with his throwing knives. He decided that enough was enough and so he broke down the door and stepped into my beartrap. I think he knew it was there but he also knew it wouldn’t slow him down too much.

I smacked him with the bat and he fell. Didn’t see that coming! Then I made a break for it, conserving my stamina by jumping into the nearest locked cabin through an open window.

Of course, this is Jason Voorhees we’re talking about, I couldn’t outrun him forever. He caught me amongst the trees and he must have thought the game was over.

Little did he know…I had three pocket knives at the ready.

He raged, he cried, he got on voice chat and asked me to stop ‘juking’ him (true story).

I was ready to do that dance until dawn.

But then he disconnected, which was far less gripping.

As you might expect, the game had its flaws, and it had servers that were like the Wild West, and it had wild glitches. But the glitches, like so much else about this game, could be beautiful. You could end up on roofs, glitch into places Jason simply couldn’t get to, and sometimes you flew up and off the map to meet Jason X in space. Sometimes the map would spawn with a bunch of trees inside the buildings. It was surreal and kind of gorgeous.

And it was funny, too. The glitches could be annoying to Jason players and counsellors alike, but, for me, it was hard to be too scared of Jason when he’s riding on the hood of your car and can’t get off. These are the kinds of memories only video games can create. Film and novels can’t get you there.

Yet silly and broken as it could sometimes be, Friday the 13th stayed true to its source material, and this is never clearer than in that final complex victory method I teased earlier. If you work together as a team really well, you can do one better than escaping Jason - you can finish him off.

It’s tricky. To do this you have to knock his mask off, have a female counsellor act as Jason’s mother and then coax him into a vulnerable state. If Tommy then lands a hit on him it’s all over. You won. Horror stories are weird.

Stuff like that is a reminder of how much love went into the creation of this game, and how much room it had to grow. But fate had other plans. Just as Jason loves to ruin a summer holiday, a rights argument and lawsuits lead to DLC being cancelled and development halted. Friday the 13th is just about playable today, but it’s glitchy and broken and I wouldn’t recommend it.

But listen, isn’t that classic Jason too? Just when you think he’s dead, he comes back to life. And maybe this series, which opened up the whole world of horror to me, will have another chance to make it as a game. If so, I’ll be there waiting. And I’ll make sure to stock up on pocket knives, because you never know.

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