scare tactics: game design of fear in dead by daylight
October has rolled around, which means Halloween and all the associated spooky celebrations. And since I’ve not been able to partake in many of my favourite Halloween activities, like pumpkin picking and costume making, I’ve kept up with the gaming side of things more than usual.
It’ll come as no surprise that I’ve been very much into Dead by Daylight around this time of year. This asymmetric multiplayer slasher game sees five players in a match, where one killer chases down four survivors. The survivors need to repair generators and unlock an escape gate to get away before the killer hooks them and sacrifices them to a being known as the Entity.
Dead by Daylight‘s enduring popularity is evidenced by the fact that since its 2016 release, there have been 17 DLCs known as chapters. These introduce new playable characters into the game (typically one killer and one survivor), and have expanded to include licensed characters from popular franchises such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, Evil Dead and most recently Stranger Things (released in 2019) and Silent Hill (released in 2020). Since Dead by Daylight‘s original release in 2016, the number of killers has increased from 3 to 21.
Dead by Daylight is fun to play and watch, ranking as the 21st most watched game on Twitch in the past month. And the fun in this case comes from the fact that Dead by Daylight is genuinely quite scary. The enjoyment mimics the enjoyment of watching a slasher movie (viewers), or the thrill of being scared by walking through a haunted house at an amusement park (players).
Designing Fear in Video Games: How to Scare Players
There isn’t one set way of scaring players, and games have their own ways of making us feel terrified. Next time, I’m going to discuss Phasmophobia‘s scare tactics, which are totally different from Dead by Daylight‘s. But for now, in this post, I’m going to discuss the techniques the game designers use to induce fear in the survivor players in Dead by Daylight.
1. Real fear
One of the designers’ main goals ever since Dead by Daylight was a prototype was that “Fear is Real”. The fear system that was developed continues to be core to the game today. This is the idea that players should be able to feel the fear for themselves, not have it be shown by a fear meter or UI element.
“We didn’t want any UI or mechanics that would show that your character is scared. We wanted to prove that the player would be scared and would make mistakes because he’s stressed.”
— Dave Richard, Creative Director of Dead by Daylight1
Video games are an ideal medium for creating real fear because they put the player in the position of the main character. In this sense, playing as a survivor is living through a first-person experience of being chased by a killer. This immersion is very effective at driving home the real fear that the designers hoped to achieve.
Speaking of immersion, creating the right atmosphere plays a big role in immersing the player in the game world. Any game benefits from great artwork, animations, lighting and sound design. In Dead by Daylight, all these elements work towards the scary atmosphere.
For instance, the realms are spooky by design, drawing on familiar horror tropes. You have an asylum, the woods, and an old Western town, all marked with signs of decrepitude and abandonment. Furthermore, the game now includes environments seen in horror movies, such as Silent Hill‘s Midwich Elementary and Stranger Things‘ Hawkins National Laboratory.
In all these environments, there is an unsettling familiarity that enhances terror through a sense of foreboding that something bad is going to happen. On the other hand, the procedural generation of parts of the level (such as where hooks, chests and totems are) create disorientation and provide a fun replay experience because every match is different.
One way to drive home fear is to introduce a sense of helplessness, a feeling that the characters are up against impossible odds. Dead by Daylight uses this aspect of the horror genre by making the killers genuinely more powerful than the survivors, and giving the survivors little they can do to retaliate.
Intuitively, the asymmetric 1 versus 4 multiplayer design might indicate that the killer has to be weakened for balance. But because the game also has asymmetric goals, where the killers chase survivors and the survivors try to escape, designers have a lot more freedom. For instance, the designers can make the killer seem extremely powerful, and therefore scary, while tweaking the survivors’ escape difficulty to balance the game.
There’s little to fear about a killer you can easily outrun, or one you can attack and defeat. So Dead by Daylight‘s killers move faster than survivors. While survivors can drop pallets in their way, they can’t turn around and start hunting the killer.
Combat and movement also add to the survivors’ feeling of helplessness. In fact, one of Behaviour Interactive’s prototype goals was “Visceral and Terrifying Conflict”.
“A visceral combat system, something very binary. The killer finds you and hits you, you’re dead, you’re done.”
— Dave Richard, Creative Director of Dead by Daylight1
Dead by Daylight‘s combat system is great at making the survivors feel weak and helpless. A single-damage blow from the killer puts them into a lower health state, from healthy to injured to dying. And the dying state in particular has the players in the most helpless situation, with their speed and animation reduced to a slow crawl as a timer counts down the four minutes they have left to “bleed out” and die.
Anticipation is the reason why classic horror jump scares are so effective. In horror movies and haunted houses, you already know what to expect, but the scary part lies in the tension of waiting for it to happen. Similarly, Dead by Daylight uses anticipation to create fear.
One example is the survivors’ progression in their tasks. As players repair a generator, cleanse a totem or heal another player, they enter an animation loop as a progress bar fills up. This simple process of having to stand still somewhere and wait to complete a task increases tension. The longer the process, the closer to completion and the higher anticipation and stakes of the killer appearing.
Finally, fear can be invoked by making players feel alone. Isolation is created in Dead by Daylight in a number of ways. First, there is no voice or text chat between the survivors during the match. This is an important part of the players’ immersion and also prevents them from being able to communicate with each other directly. In this way, individual players are left to their own defenses, as other players can’t discuss strategies or warn them about an approaching killer.
Furthermore, the game is designed so that survivors need to traverse the map on their own. Players spawn in different locations, and the generators that need to be repaired are spread out around the map, forcing players to split up. This increases the feeling of fear through isolation.
Techniques for Creating Fear are Effective Across Storytelling Media
Fear is central to the game design of Dead by Daylight, and I’m impressed by how the developers have stayed true to their vision from as far back as the prototype. The success of Dead by Daylight is a testament to the clarity of the game’s design goals and the tenacity of sticking to them. And though these techniques have been effective in developing a game about fear, they apply to creating other media that evoke fear in the audience, such as movies, novels and haunted houses.
In my next post, I will cover the game design of getting scared with friends in the co-op ghost-hunting video game Phasmophobia.