If you grew up a gamer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, buying a bad licensed game was a rite of passage. Sure, even young gamers could detect a bomb like Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit! for the SNES from a mile away, but at a time before game reviews were easy to find online, it was natural to hope that the new X-Men game might just be good enough to take a chance on.
The situation was especially rough for horror movie fans. I owned the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th adaptations for the NES and at least tried to finish them. It’s not that I thought they were good, but at a time when licensed horror games (not to mention major console horror games) were few and far between, the opportunity to face off against my favorite movie slasher was too enticing to ignore.
The industry eventually learned to embrace horror in a meaningful way that resulted in some all-time great gaming experiences, but the slasher movie icons of the day remained tragically underutilized. While original horror series like Silent Hill and Resident Evil expanded the storytelling potential of the medium, Chucky was reduced to starring in a Temple Run knock-off.
In the minds of many horror fans, the hope for a great game starring Micheal Myers, Freddy Krueger, or Leatherface lingered even as passable adaptations of those characters eluded us for decades. Where was the disconnect?
“I think it probably extends from the fact that they are two very, very different mediums and two very, very different ways of telling stories,” says Mathieu Coté, director of Behaviour Interactive’s hit slasher multiplayer game Dead by Daylight. “The reasons why slasher movies are so successful, and why they make you feel the way that they do, are extremely difficult to translate into gameplay mechanics. I think that probably that’s the root of it.”
The earliest examples of slasher movie games certainly support that theory. In 1983, adaptations of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were released for the Atari 2600. They offered wildly different experiences (Texas Chainsaw Massacre saw you mow down victims for points while Halloween was all about evading Michael Myers), but each was so bad that you’d sooner be caught smoking weed while having sex at Camp Crystal Lake than playing either for more than a few minutes.
Even as technology and game design advanced past what was possible on the Atari and NES, slasher icons were still being butchered in ways that would make these killers proud.
“It often felt as if [licenses] were either tacked onto an existing product that didn’t fit or it was just shovelware where the attitude is ‘make a thing and put the name on it,’” Coté says. “Oftentimes the people holding the licenses, and again it’s a matter of those two mediums being so different, but the people holding the licenses to the movies, they know about movies. They don’t know about games. That can make things difficult.”
With Dead by Daylight, Coté’s team sought to capture the essence of the slasher movie and translate that into fun gameplay that actually made sense for the genre. The asymmetrical multiplayer title sees one player assume the role of a killer tasked with eliminating four player-controlled survivors trying to escape the terrifying scenario. Since its release in 2016, Dead by Daylight has been embraced as the definitive horror multiplayer experience.
Given how difficult it has historically been to make a slasher title, much less one featuring licensed characters, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Dead by Daylight’s origins can be traced to a much simpler concept that didn’t even start out as horror.
“There was a designer working in basically a silo somewhere making little prototypes, and one prototype that he made at some point was literally hide and seek,” Coté remembers. “It was one character that’s trying to accomplish a goal and there was another character that was very powerful. If he touched you, you’re dead.”
An equally simple tweak would reveal the prototype’s incredible horror potential.
“We put cardboard in between [split screens] and went ‘Oh, my God. This is super fun,” Coté recalls. “The idea of creating a game in which you could play the fantasy of being the villain in a horror movie, that’s a longstanding one…if we put that with the fantasy of a villain in a horror movie, we have a winner.”
The idea of pairing the basic structure of hide and seek with a horror movie villain shows team’s vital understanding of what makes the slasher genre so entertaining in the first place.
“A lot of effort is put into these [villains], so of course they’re more appealing,” says Dead by Daylight creative director Dave Richard. “I think that’s why we started rooting for them, and we have this enjoyment and guilty pleasure of rooting for the villain. I think that we all have this inside of us at different levels. We’re embracing this macabre thing.”
The team’s fascination with the macabre would slowly turn their experiment into a fully-fledged horror game.
“The original prototypes showed survivors as literally beheaded silhouettes wearing different colored t-shirts with phrases like virgin, stoner, and jock,” Coté explains. “That’s something that Cabin in the Woods did very, very well, and the early prototype was based on those tropes.”
While Coté and Richard reference meta-horror movies like Cabin in the Woods and mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as early inspirations that helped them contextualize the genre’s key elements, they ultimately turned to foundational films such as Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when crafting the game’s environments, characters, and other design elements. In those early days, though, few believed that Dead by Daylight would eventually host some of the stars of those films.
“There were dreams and ambitions, but I don’t think there were thoughts,” Coté says. “We barely expected it to break even after a couple of months. When it started to really explode in the first month or so, we started looking for opportunities.”
The earliest of those opportunities happened to involve arguably the most important slasher of all-time: Michael Myers.
“We were lucky enough to get in contact with some very nice people who are the owners of the original version of Michael Meyers,” Coté explains. “Being able to get the rights to bring in that character and the original Laurie Strode into Dead by Daylight was kind of a big deal. It set the stage because it legitimized us in a certain way.”
For anyone who has followed the history of licensing rights and copyright law (not to mention the aforementioned history of slashers in games), the fact that the team was able to add Michael Myers as a playable killer must conjure an image of a developer clawing their way out of licensing hell with one hand while holding on to Myers with the other. Yet, it sounds like the process wasn’t all that complicated.
“I wouldn’t call it [licensing] hell,” Coté says. “Most of it is actually super interesting, and most of the licenses that we have…we’re dealing with people who get what we’re trying to do. The people who are, as I was saying earlier, more into movies than into video games, tend to trust us to do the right thing.”
Securing Michael Myers was one thing, but now that they had him, the team was faced with the same dilemma that had ruined even noble attempts at building games around these characters in the past.
“We first had to ask ‘What is the fantasy around that character and what is so interesting and unique about these characters?’” Richard recalls. “Of course, most of them have a weapon and they kill, but what’s their special sauce?”
As Richard explains, Freddy Krueger has a “dream world” and a “fantasy that’s easier to get.” By comparison, Michael Myers is often portrayed as a guy with a mask and a knife. How do you translate that into a game in a way that makes him feel unique?
The answer to that question came in what Coté rightfully describes as a “stroke of genius.”
“I remember that meeting where we were talking about Halloween and how to make [Michael Myers] unique,” Coté explains. “They pitched us the idea of a killer that would just watch you. We’re like, ‘What?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s just going to stand there and watch you,’ because that’s what Myers does in the movies. That’s what he does, but it’s an action game. People want to chase each other…We all thought, ‘Oh, you’re an idiot.’”
Yet, when Coté got the chance to actually play an early build of Dead By Daylight with Myers as the killer, he immediately understood what the team was aspiring to achieve.
“The very, very first version of the prototype I remember playing and repairing a generator and looking over my shoulder, and I see him standing on a hill and just watching me, and I go, ‘This is the creepiest thing I’ve ever experienced in this game,’” Coté says. “It’s super creepy, especially knowing it’s an actual other player right there. He could attack me right now, but he chooses to just watch me…that kind of thing made me realize the liberties we could take with the gameplay mechanics to really create something that would be unique and special.”
For the next few years, that’s exactly what the team did. They bent the rules of the game to incorporate other famous slashers. Freddy Krueger dragged Dead by Daylight players to dream world while Saw’s Amanda Young turned the game’s traps into a gambling proposition. Leatherface’s devastating attacks impacted a survivor’s ability to carry on and Ghost Face’s playfulness and humor distinguishes him from one of his major inspirations, Michael Myers himself. Through it all, the team’s goal was to stay true to the legacy of these characters and give them a proper home.
“I love Mortal Kombat, but whenever a character gets imported to Mortal Kombat, they all turn into martial artists,” Coté says. “When you put Jason in Mortal Kombat, he becomes a martial artist and he hacks people, and then he does a finishing move and it’s awesome, but that’s it. When you take Michael Myers and put him in Dead by Daylight, he’s Michael Myers.”
Of course, Dead by Daylight’s roster of killers doesn’t just include an array of adaptations. At launch, the game boasted three original killers: The Trapper, The Wraith, and The Hillbilly. The Trapper was, by the team’s admission, based on Jason Vorhees and The Hillbilly certainly resembled Leatherface. It was in The Wraith, a desperate figure whose pursuit of a job saw him become an unwilling executioner, that the team found their first truly great original creation.
“For us, it was important that one of the killers was inspired by more of a cultural idea, and that was The Wraith,” Richard notes. “You don’t see The Wraith archetype in movies. It really comes from horror culture and cultural monsters more than movies.”
That desire to explore every corner of horror rather than just retread film successes is a big part of the reason why Dead by Daylight’s original killers are among its most popular. In fact, the team draws inspiration from such a wide array of sources that it’s possible some players may feel the impact of these original creations more intensely than others.
“The Huntress is heavily inspired by Eastern European folklore and mythology,” Coté says. “For some of our players, especially Russian and Ukrainian players, they were immediately, completely freaked out because she’s humming a song that their mothers sang to them when they were a kid. It was really like it hit way too close for some of them, and it was great. It made them feel things, but for Japanese players or Brazilian players who had no cultural link to that, it was still an impressive and terrifying character because what scares people is visceral and universal”
While Dead by Daylight’s original killers stand tall against horror’s heavyweights, the game’s most impressive contribution to the slasher genre may just be its emphasis on the personalities and attributes of its survivors. Early builds of the premise portrayed survivors as Merrily We Roll Along rejects wearing self-identifying sweaters, but the game eventually began treating survivors with the same reverence as killers.
“Survivors have been the learning experience, to say the least,” Richard confesses. “When we created the original characters, we wanted them to have real stories and personalities, but also to be relatable. I’m going to say a word I don’t like so much, but it’s almost like they’re shells that the players can identify with and easily become.”
Dead by Daylight’s emphasis on the unique qualities of its survivors helped it outlive (pun proudly intended) other asymmetrical multiplayer games, but even Behaviour Interactive found itself having to reckon with some of the stereotypes that plague even the best slasher movies.
“The fact is that a lot of those [early character designs] are stereotypes that convey, let’s say, cultural tropes that don’t need to continue to exist in today’s society,” Coté admits. “For us, it was more interesting to create characters that feel like someone you could stand behind in a coffee shop and not blink because they’re regular people. They’re people you can relate to.”
While Dead by Daylight’s roster of survivors features a few imports (such as Halloween’s Laurie Strode and Evil Dead’s Ash), the team reveals that “licensed survivors are much harder to find than killers,” largely because they still want the game’s survivor’s to feel overwhelmed by the stalkers. Coté specifically notes that it wouldn’t make sense for someone like John Wick or Arnold Schwarzenegger to be hanging helplessly from a hook. Yet, they also don’t feel like the legacy and value of a horror hero should be defined by their ability to play offense.
“All of them are serial survivors,” Coté says of the game’s characters. “They continue to win, which is impressive, given the challenges they face.”
Besides, as millions of fans who have shouted at the screen at a horror film can attest to, the fates of Dead by Daylight’s survivors really come down to the players themselves.
“We always wanted to make it so that if you die in Dead by Daylight, it’s because you did something dumb or you panicked and didn’t stick to the plan,” Coté says. “Obviously the killers are extremely powerful, but most of the time [survivors lose] because someone panicked or was careless and got cocky and didn’t make good decisions.”
The ability to test your mettle against a slasher legend is one of Dead by Daylight’s more interesting examples of meta brilliance, but its most notable meta mechanic is the presence of The Entity, the invisible hand that pulls characters from different horror universes into the game. It’s a subtle, yet vital, story component inspired by another horror legend.
“The main inspiration for The Entity was actually The Dark Tower,” Richard recalls. “Many of us on the team are fans of the work of Stephen King, and when we deep dove into The Dark Tower, it was a favorite. The way every book in the Stephen King universe links together and is tied up with The Dark Tower was the inception of the idea of The Entity.”
The Entity is the core component of the game’s surprisingly strong lore, which not only offers compelling backstories for nearly every survivor, setting, and killer but even adds a few new chapters for licensed universes like the Scream series.
In many other multiplayer games, that lore would be little more than an easter egg debated over on Wiki pages and fan forums. But in Dead by Daylight, the commitment to meaningful storytelling is a core component of the ambition which defines Behaviour Interactive’s mission.
“Every time we create more of our lore, we solidify what Dead by Daylight is and the universe around it,” Coté explains. “It’s not just to be able to bring in anything, but to be able to create a universe into which all of these things can exist and make sense.”
While the team’s commitment to lore may help bolster their pitches to rights holders, their commitment to ensuring that Dead by Daylight’s growth adheres to an internal logic also speaks to the team’s confidence that they can give nearly any slasher a home.
“I’d say that a few [killers] still elude our grasp, and it’s mostly due to the fact that someone thinks they can make a standalone game for them, or they are working on one,” Coté says. “Anybody who’s got a little bit of experience in video games can tell you that recreating the magic of Dead by Daylight and that sort of balanced chaos is a terrifying prospect. It’s certainly not a simple thing to recreate.”
There’s a sincerity to that statement which encapsulates so many of the reasons why Dead by Daylight was not only able to secure slashers and survivors who could easily star in their own games but do justice to them within the framework of an experience that wasn’t designed to accommodate those legends in the first place.
After all, if the bad old days of slasher games and adaptations were defined by limitations and indifference, then Dead by Daylight succeeds because it takes nothing for granted. Its team carefully crafted a scenario that invoked the pure pleasure of the slasher genre and then spent years studying the ins and outs of these characters and worlds in order to better understand what makes them work beyond the superficial pleasure of their mere presence. It’s an involved process that doesn’t work for everyone.
“We’ve had a couple of cases of people on the development team that, maybe after a year or something, they go, ‘You know what? I think I’ve had enough.’” Coté admits. “Especially 3D artists who keep looking at references of grizzly things all the time, and most of them, they’re just having a blast…but I’m thinking of one or two examples of people who were like ‘You know what? I need to go and work on something with unicorns and kittens.’ That’s fair. That’s absolutely fair.”
The amount of work that goes into a game like Dead by Daylight may ultimately scare off other developers who would dare give legendary slashers their own games, but as long as we have Dead by Daylight, at least a few horror icons will always have a home.
“It used to be that we were hoping that people who hold the licenses to these legends would allow us to bring them into our world,” Coté says. “Nowadays, the conversations oftentimes revolve around asking them if they’re big enough to make it into the hall of fame that is Dead by Daylight…It’s the place for horror to come by and live.”