When social horror game Dead by Daylight began, the characters were nice and simple. Max Thompson, for example, was a neglected son who was locked away by his parents, as they were ashamed of his deformity. Thompson eventually broke loose and killed his family with a chainsaw and hammer. Straightforward slasher story.
But in 2020, the horror stories surrounding Dead By Daylight killers are on a whole new level of wild. Check out the fan wiki entry for Talbot Grimes, also known as the Blight, a character who can move and hit victims at an inhuman speed. Here, we learn about a childhood sickness that fueled him to become a chemist, working for the British East India Company to supply the workers and make them as productive as possible. But then he found himself brutally kidnapped and faced with the grisly corpses caused by his own work. Grimes then got experimented upon himself until he carved open his own flesh and opened a portal to an unknown, enticing realm.
That realm is the game of Dead by Daylight, and Grimes has to endlessly stalk survivors in a world of fog and horror to appease a deadly spider god of emotion known as the Entity. Things got pretty complicated all of a sudden there, huh? You might have questions — and that’s the point, because Dead by Daylight lore is a never-ending maze of wild revelations and murder that all takes place in an evil realm of existence.
In Dead by Daylight, four potential survivors are pitted against a single killer. Each of those five characters is controlled by a player who is put on a randomly generated map. The survivors work together to fix generators and open gates to escape, while the killer tries to hack them all down and hangs their bodies on meat. It’s an endlessly repeatable format that has made Dead by Daylight popular on Twitch.
When Dead by Daylight was just starting out in 2016, the team began with game mechanics, and once that foundation was laid, it came time to build some kind of story around it. “It was important that the player had a basic understanding of where they were,” says Dave Richard, creative director on Dead by Daylight. “So they had extra motivation to play these characters. At first, it was very minimal.”
Even though the developers began to introduce licensed characters fairly early on, starting with Halloween’s Michael Myers, it was all contained within an original universe. According to Richard, the team works diligently with the property holder to come up with a story that’s compatible with the original universe’s lore — even if it requires things like alternate universes, parallel lives, or spider god superpowers. Dead by Daylight’s setting is a purgatory, and the characters are all ripped out of different time frames, from ancient Babylon to a small Canadian town in the ’90s. So now, Pyramid Head can kill Stranger Things’ Nancy Wheeler, and it’s all canon in the story of Dead by Daylight.
Originally, characters had short biographies that covered the basics. But the developers planted seeds elsewhere too, like in item names, or the progression systems for both survivors and killers. The titles on keepsakes and abilities hinted at new characters, old events, and a bigger world. That was all the developers had the resources to do; the rest of their attention had to go back on the game.
But the fan community caught onto these seeds. It helped that the lore itself was presented as a puzzle that needed to be decoded. What seemed to be gibberish descriptions on items were actually an unknown language that seemed to be urging the killers onward — and fans are still trying to decode that alphabet, years later.
It became a feedback loop; fans liked the lore and posted on forums and social media about it to try and uncover the secrets, so Behaviour responded by giving them more to dig through. Benedict Baker, an unseen character, apparently writes mysterious lore entries. Behaviour also added an Archives mode, where a new character known as the Observer peers at everyone’s memories through a tool known as the Auris. Who is the “Observer” figure that the game keeps teasing about? Well, fans still have yet to figure that out.
In the game, survivors have to retain some measure of hope, or they’ll burn out and be cast into absolute nothingness. So even though the game is seemingly static, there’s an ongoing meta plot of good vs. evil. One survivor, Claudette, spends all of her time in the present day running through a murder nightmare, but players can explore her 8th birthday party and childhood troubles via the in-game archives.
By many metrics, the game’s lore shouldn’t work. It’s a surreal world in which Freddy Krueger hangs out with an Irish outlaw, and a talk show host can team up with a painter, an esports gamer, and the cop from Saw to try and thwart a Babylonian priestess.
But Dead by Daylight has attracted millions of players across PC, mobile, and console. The setting progresses, but there’s a universal constant that’s soothing. Fans debate the motivations of each killer, and why they’re working with the Entity, in depth. Artists paint their favorite killer, or draw them having a nice time. They create animated intros for hypothetical Dead by Daylight shows — which then receive over a million views on YouTube.
Dead by Daylight’s lore has turned it into the perfect horror game for a creepypasta generation. Much like Overwatch accomplished with its popular characters, actually playing Dead by Daylight is completely optional if you want to be in the fandom. In this case, many people experience it through their favorite Twitch streamer.
Whatever the source — whether that’s YouTube explainers or actual playtime — the lore is rich enough that it inspires everything from romance fanfiction to a Family Guy-style animated sitcom on YouTube, which has collected tens of millions of views. Some fans even mash it up with other games.
Polygon’s own Petrana Radulovic doesn’t play but does read the fan-maintained Dead by Daylight wiki. “Reading horror tickles my desire to be thrilled without making it an uncomfortable experience,” she explains. “The wiki is free and just there and offers a whole lot of thrilling and creepy stories — and often they are so massively unrealistic that it never actually terrifies me the way reading about true crime does.”
It’s true that the stories of cannibals stealing away innocent school girls and killers donning the Ghostface garb from Scream coming together in a world of endless murder isn’t realistic. But who cares? It’s fun.