'Friday the 13th: The Game' is Unsettlingly Enjoyable

Credit: Gun Media

A night at Crystal Lake in a terrifying, twisted round of hide-and-go-seek with random strangers

A night at Crystal Lake in a terrifying, twisted round of hide-and-go-seek with random strangers

It's half past midnight on a Thursday in the real world and eternal night on a Friday inside the game. As far as the next several hours are concerned, it's the 13th of some warm summer month in 1979; Camp Crystal Lake is opening up again. "I hope I'm Jason," one PSN user is saying. "I hope I am, too," says another. Both have names like Obey-DJ420.

As it happens, there's no time for a sunlit dip in the lake with Kevin Bacon. No chance of an innocent game of strip poker, a dance by the fire, or even a quick smoke. It's already after sunset, and the big angry bastard in the mask means business. An ax to the spine takes one unsuspecting victim down before we know what's happening, and myself and the other six remaining counselors scatter, screaming into the night. A quick dissolve, then: Five minutes have passed, the screen informs me. My objective? Survive!

"I gotta find the others," my character says.

Friday the 13th: The Game was developed by Kentucky-based publisher and think tank Gun Media, under the working title Slasher Vol. 1: Summer Camp, then further built upon in partnership with IllFonic – neither of which I've ever heard of until now. I'm not a fan of horror games, generally, though I am fond of many horror films. I suppose some combination of the premise and a glimpse of the game being played live on Twitch drew me in.

Right away, it's clear there's something very different about F13. It combines the off-beat asymmetric bloodsport of recent games like Dead by Daylight and Evolve with the heavy baggage of a familiar movie license. The result is utterly unfamiliar, and I find myself forgetting about the lengthy matchmaking queues and all my preconceptions of what a horror game is supposed to look like. Sure enough, this is a slasher movie, recontextualized for our game-heavy culture in a way that gives a new and sudden depth to the tired, decades-old Friday the 13th property. A participatory commentary on the entire genre, perhaps, though born of the same trashy pedigree – horny teens in skimpy clothes fleeing death incarnate, the whole drama shot through with puritanical moralizing and more than a trace of irony. To the right audience, it's a thing of beauty.

About two minutes into the first session, my avatar (a scruffy dude in a red plaid shirt and khaki shorts) is alone in the campground's main lodge. A fireplace is lit, the radio's on, and there's a sound rising in my headset: ki, ki, ki . . . ma, ma, ma . . . I've just wandered in here in search of my six compatriots, represented on the minimap by six vague white triangles. But no dice. Ki, ki, ki . . . There comes a harsh crackling in my headphones. A wave of VHS distortion follows, rippling the image on my television and striping it with grayish lines. The radio goes quiet, replaced by a swelling minor-key synth soundtrack.

Shifting into high alert, I spot a towering figure at the edge of the frame: a looming charcoal monstrosity in a white goalie mask. The head of his ax becomes the brightest thing in sight, and I sprint into the nearest adjacent room. I see the closet before I notice the window, and, like so many silver-screen victims who met their fate at the hands of Jason Voorhees before me, I take the wrong turn. The machete in my hand does me no good; Obey-DJ420 cuts me down like a rotten tree.

True to the nature of the franchise, the story doesn't end when my character dies. Instead, it takes a voyeuristic turn into a kind of virtual filmmaking, courtesy of the game's spectator mode. From the afterlife, I watch my six teammates fight for their survival, the camera moving right along with them and rotating at my command. Press the triangle button, and you can hide the heads-up display to snap a proper screenshot, like a frame right out of 1982's Friday the 13th Part III.

Aside from the musical score and sound effects, there are two more tracks on the audio front: the prerecorded voiceovers and the in-game chatter of your surviving teammates. The fact that this is an all-online, multiplayer-only title means you not only experience the meta-humor – and sometimes authentic scares – intentionally written into the game by its developers; you also get to hear all the batshit things said by the people you're playing with. You might hear them cue up a YouTube tutorial on the proper use of a prostate massager, press play on their phone, and hold it up to their mic. Meanwhile, Jason's in the goddamn room with you, and the muscles in your gut are aching from laughter.

After cycling through several viewpoints, I settle on the archetypal sole-survivor brunette in the striped polo. (This is a slasher flick, more or less. Shame on me for hewing to tradition.) Her name is Jenny Myers, and she's about to break the game right before my eyes, all in the interest of staying alive.

Jenny's got a red flare gun in her hand, and she's running through the woods outside the Packanack Lodge – the setting of Jason's first massacre, as depicted in 1981's Friday the 13th Part 2. She makes her way back to the campfire where the mess all began, then hunkers down inside a yellow tent. Not to hide, despite first appearances, but to trigger a physics glitch, or "exploit." Once she emerges from the tent, Jenny sprints up the nearest incline and pivots to the right, suddenly soaring on the air, her feet skating along some artificial, unseen plane.

During another, similarly bizarre match, I repair a small motorboat parked at the docks and frantically fill it with gasoline, itching to make my escape. The Jason player explains that, on his screen, it shows him lifting me up by the throat and strangling me to death while I'm in the middle of pull-starting the engine. On my screen, I jet out into the water, home free. You survived, the game tells me. These sorts of agonizing bugs are rare, but Gun has pledged to continue working with the community to address any player-reported issues; I get the impression their work's far from finished.

It's a reminder of why, despite their timeless resonance and narrative potential, it can be hard to admit how much we love a good horror movie.

Several hours pass before I get the chance to play as Jason for the first time. When my turn finally comes, I'm standing in a run-down shack deep in the woods near Crystal Lake, the severed head of Mrs. Voorhees beside me on a candlelit shrine. "Make them remember, Jason," says Mama Voorhees. "Make them suffer." I retrieve a couple spare throwing knives from the walls of the shack, and set out to hunt my fellow hide-and-go-seekers.

When you're Jason, you lumber along with zero hustle, as befits a masked killer in a slasher movie (well, game). Jason can't sprint, he can't climb through windows, and he basically conforms to all the unspoken laws of the form: firecrackers will dazzle him into a stupor, a blow to the head will stun but not kill him. But he's a supernatural force – he can warp across the map to a destination of his choice, he can see through walls and enhance his hearing for brief periods, and he can "shift" across the terrain like a pissed-off phantom, chasing after the body-heat signatures or sonic blips of his prey.

I claim five kills my first round in the mask; two of the seven counselors in the session manage to escape, either by boat or by car. Among my first victims are folks with names like D-Bunny89 and Dozerz. Given my inexperience with stalking and killing teenagers in the woods, I'm told five's a pretty respectable number.

There's something deeply unsettling about how enjoyable this game is. It's a reminder of why, despite their timeless resonance and narrative potential, it can be hard to admit how much we love a good horror movie. However, Friday the 13th: The Game doesn't give you many chances to stop and dwell on the grotesqueries. Most of the time, you're simply having too much fun to care. The thrill of the chase, the primordial impulses of cat and mouse, the satisfaction as you land that last fatal blow – it's a genuine delight to experience in a group setting, with everyone wearing a headset and communicating, or taunting Jason, as you work together to round up a can of gasoline, car keys, and a spare battery to just get the hell out of there.

The slasher genre's always fascinated me when it comes to the movies. Smart, self-conscious stories that subvert our expectations – films like Scream (1996), You're Next (2011), and Hush (2016) – serve as reminders of the essential purity, and limitations, of the slasher flick. By setting the stage and then forcing the actors to improvise, Gun's Friday the 13th feels like the next bold step in that evolution.