Released less than two months ago, Gun Media’s Friday the 13th: The Game, developed by IllFonic, has already achieved considerable buzz among gamers and horror enthusiasts. I bought it on the PS4 as soon as it was released and have enjoyed my time with it immensely. While the game is admittedly rough around the edges, I’m actually quite impressed with what such a small studio has accomplished within a modest timeframe and more importantly, they seem committed to patching the game post-release to ensure the experience only gets better.
Regardless of those inevitable, indie-related growing pains, Friday the 13th represents precisely the type of interactive experience developers and publishers should be examining closely, if not outright cribbing. I recently had a conversation with a friend after he had an opportunity to play the game and we both agreed it was astounding that it had taken this long for something like Friday the 13th to get made and perhaps even more mystifying is that larger developers and publishers aren’t currently scrambling to follow suit.
The central conceit of the game is succinctly brilliant: a group of online gamers are assigned the roles of camp counselors and one person is randomly designated to play as Jason Voorhees. The gameplay takes place in a semi-open world map replicating key locations from the franchise and the counselors must essentially survive or flee as they are hunted, individually, by Jason, who is in possession of a myriad of abilities that make him persistently lethal. The counselors, while given some offensive options like weapons and distractions, are by design grossly underpowered. The best they can do is slow Jason down and try to escape or avoid Jason long enough to make it to the end of the gaming session.
When distilled, Friday the 13th is basically an interactive version of hide-and-seek, which emulates the thematic arc of the franchise exceptionally well and also creates a genuinely tense and evocative horror atmosphere. As previously mentioned, the game has some technical issues and its presentation reflects a relatively modest budget, yet none of this dilutes the enjoyment of the simple, direct premise, which is to play through a truncated version of a Friday the 13th episode as either the victim or Jason.
However, there’s a broader takeaway from this game, specifically that the premise is so effectively simple yet undeniably engaging that other games based on existing horror franchises could very easily be made, with larger studios dedicating more extensive resources into creating these types of titles. Judging by the word-of-mouth and overall response to this game, there appears to be a largely untapped market emerging and I would estimate the demand for this type of software will only increase as trailblazer developers help to further define what it is that consumers want.
To be fair, Friday the 13th isn’t entirely without contemporaries. Dead By Daylight, created by Behaviour Interactive, operates on a similar premise and even has an additional level that mimics John Carpenter’s seminal classic Halloween, allowing a group of online players to be stalked by Michael Myers in a level that astutely replicates Haddonfield. Also, while markedly different in terms of gameplay, developer Creative Assembly released the much-lauded Alien: Isolation back in 2014, a single-player game largely defined by having to run and hide from the infamous xenomorph. There are also examples like Evolve, where a single player assumes the role of a large monster while the remaining participants band together to take it down.
But even with these handful of games occupying space and mindshare in the marketplace, the reality is that Friday the 13th still manages to differentiate itself for several key reasons and these reasons are precisely what other studios and their publishers should be examining more closely.
First and foremost, it’s clear that developer IllFonic loves this movie franchise and understands it, a fact that is readily apparent in every facet of the game’s execution. Developed in tandem with Kane Hodder – the quintessential cinematic Jason – and horror icon Tom Savini, this game oozes with fandom credibility and reflects the genuine passion of those involved. This is crucially important because when examining the history of videogames based on pre-existing intellectual property, it is astounding how many of those games were clearly made by people who had little emotional investment in what they were creating. And while this game is most certainly a product, it’s a product made by people who obviously adore the source material and their desire to accurately emulate the look and tone of the films is why – regardless of a smattering of technical foibles – the game is largely successful at doing just that.
Perhaps even more compelling however is how perfectly suited gaming is to further the horror genre. Videogames are predicated on interactivity – they require proactive, concerted involvement rather than passivity. Horror is perfectly situated to become a dominant genre within gaming because the nature of horror – usually founded on the exploration of the unknown or the survival of a character against insurmountable odds – lends itself perfectly to a playable construct.
As soon as you find a match and begin playing Friday the 13th, you are struck immediately by the atmosphere. Yes, there is silliness abound, be it other players doing puerile things or occasional glitches, yet there are also moments that can only be described as sublime horror at its finest:
Walking through the forest with tendrils of fog swirling about.
The sound of your footsteps as you move through an empty cabin engaged in solitary exploration.
The iconic Jason music echoing abruptly in your ears, causing you to glance wildly around and forcing you to consistently look over your shoulder.
Lastly, I think it’s important to note the impact of Friday the 13th being an online-centric endeavor. I’m personally not a huge fan of online multiplayer and tend to gravitate towards solitary experiences but the multiplayer aspects of Friday the 13th are crucial, as it lends to the proceedings two very interesting and important components, namely that the game often requires collaboration with others to survive and that communal aspect of the game is both intriguing and unique within a horror setting. Also, while I’m sure having a CPU-controlled Jason would be plenty fun, having him controlled by a person who is hunting you down is quite thrilling. Most game AI still hasn’t reached a level yet where it simulates a flexible intelligence and rapid adaptation to situations but a person in possession of these attributes makes every encounter very unpredictable, which subsequently amps up the tension and scare factor.
When tallying these intriguing components, my mind swims with the possibilities for other horror-related games:
Imagine a Nightmare on Elm Street game where players are thrust into a dream world where they are not only stalked by Freddy but must endure and survive an environment that can be directly manipulated by their nemesis.
Envision a Hellraiser game where players must navigate the seemingly endless labyrinth of Hell, piecing together clues to escape or attempting to find and solve the Lament Configuration.
What about a Predator game where a group of humans are pitted against the eponymous extraterrestrial hunter and must unite to take down a vastly superior foe?
Or a JAWS game where a collective of players hunt the beast as it stalks them from beneath the waves of Amity?
Ultimately, Friday the 13th is a legitimate game-changer and the lessons that other studios can and should glean from IllFonic are numerous and potentially very profitable.
Let’s hope the right people are paying attention.