Making a puzzle game where you kill and maim sounds like dark territory as opposed to a silly bit of fun.
Doing so while using a famous slasher villain like Jason Voorhees sounds even harder, yet that’s exactly what Blue Wizard Digital set out to do with Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle, a block-sliding game about helping the ruthless killer murder his victims. So how does one take murder and make it light and silly?
“As with Slayaway Camp, we were aware of a fine line when doing comedy this dark… it can easily cross over from gross-but-funny to just nasty. We were mostly going for the slapstick vibe of something like Evil Dead, where the violence is so over the top you can’t help but laugh,” says Nate Schmold of Blue Wizard Digital.
Elements of cuteness, slapstick comedy gone almost too far, and a careful look at the character of Jason allowed Blue Wizard to find a middle ground where the deaths were silly rather than sickening, creating an experience where dealing death was a lighthearted mechanic despite doing things like pushing characters into woodchippers.
With Schmold working with slasher villain Jason, how did the developer even begin to find a lightness in their game? How would they find a kind of silly comedy in this lethal murderer?
“We chatted a bit with Derek Mears, who played Jason in the most recent Friday the 13th in 2009, about the character," Schmold says. "The big thing we took away from that was that you can’t make fun of Jason: he always has to be badass. You can make jokes about everything and everyone else around him, but he has to remain a frightening, powerful villain. So even when he’s in this cute, cartoony world, he still has to be an unstoppable killing machine.”
This put Schmold in a difficult position right from the start, as their killer had to be unsettling and frightening at all times. There would be no playing around with who the character was in order to make things silly and light. However, there are elements that, while not pleasant, could still add an element of silliness to Jason’s character that other slasher villains wouldn’t have.
“We did emphasize the one aspect of Jason’s character that makes him a bit more likeable to fans, which is his relationship with his mom,” says Schmold. “Ultimately, Jason is a deformed, abused child with the power to take revenge for his mom’s death, which is more sympathetic than some other famous slasher characters, like Freddy Krueger, who’s basically a child molester, or Michael Myers from Halloween, who is just this complete cipher. So, we did a lot with Pamela’s decapitated head, giving Jason advice and hints and so on. It’s cute, but still pretty demented.”
It was a start. Through having the player receive hints from a severed head, Schmold could begin to attach a certain goofiness to proceedings. Not that a severed head isn’t gross or discomforting by default, but there is also something cartoonishly silly about it as well.
Put another way, the violence in horror movies can be done in over-the-top ways, or with elements of slapstick comedy. The Three Stooges hitting each other over the head with hammers, while a violent act in another style or setting, is played up for comedic effect in their shorts. People are capable of laughing at violent acts by playing around with the context. A cute little killer talking to his cute severed head mother creates a humor in what might normally be gruesome.
This started to give Schmold that grip on silliness that would keep the game’s actions from churning its players’ stomachs, but there was still work to be done.
Killing people by choking them with a baguette is still kind of disturbing, in its own way, and so Schmold and Blue Wizard Digital still had their work cut out in how to present the kills in their game in ways that would make the player laugh rather than feel unsettled. To do this, Schmold tried to look at things from a different perspective.
“Young children, strangely, are very interested in violence and death, and often gravitate to things like Roald Dahl or grisly fairy tales," says Schmold. "I think, to them, these are still playful ideas, because in a sense they’re a way to come to terms with the idea of death and mortality. It’s only as we get older that the full weight of horror and tragedy start to become obvious to us. So, we’re definitely taking that more innocent approach to all the murder here, where it’s all pretty weightless and without real consequence. We’re not trying to make people care about the various victims or anything… they’re all just interchangeable cartoons.”
This childish look at death, where it’s all played more for silliness and humor, required a cartoon-like feel, where even if the actions were serious, their aftermaths were not. Over-the-top ends, like in many of the more laughable horror movies, can shift a gruesome act into comedic territory, allowing the audience to more easily accept the actions they see on the screen as funny rather than unsettling.
Not that getting to this point was easy for Schmold. “There were still some death scenes we had to tweak because they just felt too sadistic," he says. "Asphyxiation by baguette or toilet plunger, I remember, just was really ghastly because it seemed to go on forever. We shortened it a lot, but that’s still one of the more disturbing ones.”
Schmold was still presenting some shocking deaths with his game, from people being shoved into woodchippers or other bloody ends. To keep them light, Schmold went through several iterations of many of his kills, working to make sure they felt more fun rather than lingering in the animations, would might encourage a little more thought on how awful it would be to be killed with a plunger rather than the silliness of killing someone with an absurd weapon like a plunger.
This thought line also resulted in developing rules about some of the things players could kill with. “We did have some pretty firm guidelines on what to avoid, though," says Schmold. "For instance, no firearms, and nothing with religious or political overtones, like crucifixion. But woodchippers were fine!”
Through focusing on a child-like look at death in cartoonish, over-the-top ways, tweaking animations to keep players from lingering on unpleasant elements, and trying to keep some more complex aspects out of the means of death, Schmold worked to make murder a bit more silly as opposed to sick throughout Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle.
Deadly puzzles might not have seemed like a good starting point to bring humor into the game, but they encouraged thinking that not only improved upon the sliding block puzzles Schmold wanted to create, it also helped strengthen that silliness that would make things all the easier to stomach.
Schmold was already a bit of an expert in making death funny through work on his previous title, Slayaway Camp, another sliding-block game focused on murder. By taking what he had already learned from his past title, he could more easily create a game of lighthearted kills.
One way of accomplishing this was through the various weapons that were added to the game. Slayaway Camp had featured many different killers to choose from, allowing for variety in kills to keep the player engaged, but in Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle, the focus would be on one killer: Jason. This meant Schmold would need to do something to add that same variety, which is what birthed things like beating characters down with a fish or baguette.
“The biggest addition was the whole weapon system, which allowed you to earn, trade, and equip over 100 different weapons for Jason,” says Schmold. “Since we couldn’t really swap out killers all the time as we did in Slayaway Camp, we wanted to find some new system that would let you earn and experience lots of different cool kill animations.”
“Letting the player equip different weapons at will was the solution for that. It did create a lot of interesting challenges mixing and matching the different death animations with different weapon types… for instance, there are at least a dozen ways you can kill someone with a machete. But not all of those will look right if you’re using, say, a baguette,” he continues.
While not all of them would look right, the idea of killing someone with a loaf of bread carried that child-like silliness into the game, ensuring it kept players in that playful mindset rather than see the more upsetting aspects of their actions.
Even the horror angle could be used to play into that silliness, using some of the genre’s goofier elements to play up the game’s humor over horror. “There were some other gags that were directly inspired by horror films, like the phones you could call to re-arrange characters, or the cats that can’t be killed without violating the unspoken horror movie rule about killing cats or dogs," says Schmold.
Murder also, as it turned out, worked out well as a sliding block puzzle, adding some elements that made for some intriguing challenges for players.
“While sliding block puzzles have of course been around forever, we did spend a lot of time working on mechanics that were appropriate to our theme," says Schmold. "For instance, making the victims run away from the killer was a big change that made them feel more like real characters than just objectives, and which led to other fun mechanics like scaring them into traps or other hazards."
With characters running off, it added a new element of challenge to the game that could stump players. This left Schmold in a difficult spot, as a puzzle game developer. “We wanted to keep adding new challenges as you played, so we came up with a large array of mechanics that we gradually introduced as you worked through the levels. Some were more challenging or potentially confusing than others, like teleporters, light switches, and so on, so we kept those in reserve until later,” adds Schmold.
“It can be hard to maintain a good difficulty curve for a puzzle game… there are some puzzles that one person will just be stumped by that someone else will solve in 10 seconds. We tried our best to do a lot of user testing so that we didn’t throw too many total brain-busters in too early, but ultimately, we wanted to make sure there was a good hint system that people could access,” he continues.
Where could hints come from, and how could they play into creating the game’s light mood? By talking with a certain severed head, Schmold could keep more of the game’s absurd humor in place while also making things a little easier for players.
“In this day and age, of course, spoilers are readily available via the internet, so it seemed pointless to heavily penalize people for getting hints," says Schmold. "We just wanted to make sure they had an option to get a small hint before jumping all the way to a complete spoiler, so that’s how the system of getting a short and sometimes cryptic hint from your mother’s head evolved… if that’s not sufficient, you can go ahead and get the full walkthrough.”
Talking to a severed head is unsettling, but receiving hints for a puzzle game from one? There’s an absurdity in this action, an over-the-top sensation that draws from the overly-sickening nature of the action that makes it funny. Like choking someone with a baguette or playing a puzzle game about killing people, it’s just so completely outlandish that it becomes funny, even if it’s an act that would normally be abhorrent.
It took a great deal of work to dance that line between upsetting and ridiculous, but through looking at the lighter elements of a deadly killer, honing in on the absurdity of lethal player puzzles, and pushing the envelope in outlandish ways, Schmold could create a game focused entirely on killing in brutal ways, yet make it a source of laughter despite its dark subject matter.