Fox is cornered in the barn. She’s the last one left. Everyone else is dead. Lightning flashes, followed by the crash of thunder. Harry Manfredini’s score rises as Jason runs in, ax in hand. Fox climbs out a window and sprints for the nearest cabin. She enters the structure and bars the door behind her. Jason appears outside a window and shatters it. He moves to another window and breaks that one, too. Then he disappears as the VHS tape skips, showing signs of wear. Fox picks up a machete and paces back and forth.
Where is he?
Without warning, Jason walks through the barred door, smashing it into pieces. Fox dives out a window, injuring herself in the process. She limps through the rain, keenly aware that she is about to die. Jason approaches, the music rising again. Fox makes one last stand and swings the machete into Jason, stunning him. It only buys her a few seconds and when he approaches again, this time she’s defenseless. Jason picks up Fox and crushes her in a bear hug.
Jason stomps back to his shed, where his mother’s voice calls him to the candlelit shrine he built for her severed head.
Beat for beat, this sounds like a Friday the 13th movie; like maybe some lost version of Part 3. But it’s not. It’s the tail-end of a round of Friday the 13th: The Game, and a shining example of why it’s the greatest use of a licensed property in the history of gaming.
Video games based on licensed properties generally have a bad reputation because there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. The most famous early example of this is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 although, if you want to talk about horror specifically, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the Atari 2600 was also a very real thing. (To be fair, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was never buried in a New Mexico landfill, though it probably should have been)
The point is, licensed video games are too often hastily designed shovelware with our favorite intellectual properties slapped on them in order to make a quick buck. That’s why when a truly inspired licensed game comes along, conversations surrounding it are typically cushioned in assurances of “No really. It’s actually pretty great.”
Anybody who has played Friday the 13th: The Game and then tried to sell somebody else on it knows what I’m talking about.
And ‘pretty great’ doesn’t even really do it justice; that’s a tempered description I would use in order to avoid hyperbole. The exact terminology I inevitably settle on in any extended discussion about Gun Media’s first game is ‘the greatest use of a licensed property in the history of gaming.’
I’m very particular about this specific language. I’m not saying ‘the greatest licensed game in the history of gaming’ because that’s a bold claim up for a heated debate. If people wanted to draw lines in the sand, many would probably argue for Batman: Arkham Asylum or Spider-Man 2 if for no other reason than these were robust triple-A titles, each fully playable on Day 1. Friday the 13th: The Game, on the other hand, is an indie title with some notorious growing pains coming out of the gate. I’m saying ‘the greatest use of a licensed property’ because growing pains aside, no IP has ever been treated with this sort of slavish devotion and reverence.
The immediate presentation alone is impressive. From the opening Gun Media tag, which is manipulated to give the appearance of having been recorded on a VHS tape of questionable quality, to the Harry Manfredini score playing gently over the main menu, you immediately feel drawn into the series’ 80’s-era prime. But that’s just nostalgia-feeding sleight-of-hand, right? The true measure of whether a licensed property does justice to its source material is in what happens after the game starts.
Most people probably know the premise behind the game at this point, but if you don’t, one player is Jason Voorhees, seven players are camp counselors, and they’re thrown together into various locations from the Friday the 13th movies. Jason’s mission is brutally eviscerate the counselors, and the counselors’ mission is to avoid that fate via escape, killing Jason, or simply running out the clock.
A major criticism of this game is that if you want to play specifically as Jason, the odds are stacked against you. In a full game, you’ve got a one-in-eight chance of spawning as Voorhees. And it makes sense people would want to play as him; he’s a lot of fun to play. His robust power set includes teleporting around the map, sneaking up on counselors, and smashing through walls, making him a virtual death god, and raining terror down upon your nearly defenseless opponents is a joy. Of course, if you’re playing as Chad and your sole special ability is to rock a cardigan, it might seem like Jason is a bit overpowered. But that’s kind of Jason’s whole thing, so what might feel like a broken balance issue in any other game feels entirely appropriate within the context of the franchise. Throw in Kane Hodder in a mocap suit and a plethora of recognizable skins representing Jason’s various incarnations and the murderous man-child has never been better depicted outside of film.
But as much fun as playing as Jason is, the satisfaction of seeing near-helpless victims bodied because they wandered onto the wrong campground is only a part of the cinematic Friday the 13th experience. The rest is the thrill of seeing near-helpless victims almost get bodied because they wandered onto the wrong campground, but live to tell about it. And that’s where the counselor side of the game comes in.
If you can set aside that momentary disappointment you might feel when you spawn as a counselor instead of Jason, and really let yourself become immersed in the world Gun Media has painstakingly created, this is the closest you will ever get to living (or dying) through one of these movies yourself. The urge to survive is strong, and being on the wrong end of a Friday the 13th chase sequence is a harrowing experience. Once Jason comes near you – and that incredible, iconic score lets you know it – you only have so many ways to prolong your life, and most of the time it’s going to boil down to putting distance between yourself and an unstoppable murder machine. Run. Jump through windows. Bar doors. Set traps. And this stuff only buys you seconds at a time. But if you can keep it up long enough, you might just be one of the few who makes it to the end. It’s a nerve-shattering experience worthy of the franchise. I’ve put a hundred hours into the game and when Jason is at my heels, my stamina is low, and the nearest cabin is still fifty yards away, my heart still pounds. It’s that good.
But that’s just the gameplay. It’s true, if you slapped different music and skins onto the game it’d still be solid. But the unmitigated fanservice is what makes it such an astounding use of the property. The little details, like the inclusion of Tommy Jarvis, or Pamela’s sweater, or the infamous Ki ki ki ma ma ma audio cue aren’t just random references. They – along with almost everything else – are not only used in ways that make logical sense within the series’ established lore, but also in ways that service the gameplay itself. One dead player can respawn as Tommy if he’s been called over a radio. Pamela’s sweater can be used to distract Jason long enough to set him up for a killing blow. Even the Ki ki ki ma ma ma signals to players Jason’s acquisition of another ability. For the real sticklers, there are calendars on the walls indicating the current date is actually the 13th, and it’s Friday. The game is soaked with that sort of detail and goes to great lengths to successfully recreate everything the series is known and loved for.
If you’re a fan of the Friday the 13th series, and you’ve been sketchy on the game because licensed games have a bad reputation, or because you’ve heard it’s got some issues, I hear you. I had the same doubts. And the game still isn’t without its issues. You’ll still encounter random bugs, though nothing like at launch. It’s best played with people you know because otherwise, you’re going to run into a Jason that screams homophobic slurs at you. But Gun Media is still updating and improving it all the time. They just added Fox, Part IV Jason, the Jarvis house, rain effects, and coming down the pipe is some kind of new ‘Who’s the killer’ Paranoia mode inspired by Roy in Part V. It’s a great game that just keeps getting better, and is the kind of faithful adaptation fandoms wait forever for and almost never see.
No, really. It’s actually pretty great.