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A screenshot of two workers in Lethal Company standing just outside the space ship. The ship has landed in a dark and wooded forest.

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Lethal Company was bound to blow up — and now it’s everywhere on social media

How an indie creator released a viral hit

Image: Zeekerss
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Just like the gangly, spider-like monsters that scurry through its industrial corridors, Lethal Company appeared to come out of nowhere. Created by a solo developer who goes by the alias Zeekerss, the video game became an absolute sensation on platforms like Twitch and garnered more than 239,000 concurrent players on Steam within months of its October release.

The game appeared to take many by surprise. 2023 was one of the most crowded and competitive years for game releases in a while. Many of these games were massive in scope and created by established studios — but suddenly, a game created by a single person blew up online. However, the success of Lethal Company is no surprise. Both the work history of its developer and the way the game plays set it up for viral success.

Why is Lethal Company so popular?

Lethal Company is a first-person co-op horror game where you work for a mysterious entity known as “The Company.” Forget about workplace injuries; in this game, you’ll be lucky if you survive. Each day, you and up to four friends will suit up and explore dangerous alien worlds in order to collect scrap materials and trinkets to sell back to your cruel employer. Each world features its own unforgiving biome and sports a bestiary of monsters that bring a sense of danger to each and every workday. The game blends more thrilling traditional horror elements — this game contains plenty of jump scares and dark corridors — with slapstick comedy vibes where you can goof around with friends.

Though it may seem like an overnight success story, it’s the culmination of the developer’s longer history of work. Lethal Company developer Zeekerss created games on the platform Roblox and later in Unity, according to a report from games consulting firm Naavik. The report mentions that the developer also drew upon existing worlds and mythologies, and “cleverly” used the SCP universe, a collective fan-run fiction project, in its world-building.

Playing the game, you can really get a feel for all of its influences. The game’s visuals blend popular PlayStation 1-era horror aesthetics with a goofy animation style I would associate with Roblox. (I love the way the characters’ arms stay fixed at 90 degrees when they run). The game marries its horror and comedic elements wonderfully. Items like the clown horn might not protect you from a monster, but at least you can die honking it as many times as possible while a friend screams and runs away.

A screenshot of a worker in Lethal Company in the space ship. The person is holding a clipboard that says, “Service Manual.” Image: Zeekerss

Zeekerss also implemented Lethal Company’s online co-op elements in a smart way. An key aspect of the game is that it contains in-game proximity chat. So if you’re standing in a room with another player, you can hear them talk just fine. However, if the person runs a few rooms over, their voice will move with their character and sound quieter. Proximity chat was a popular mod for another viral game, Among Us, and now Lethal Company has similarly harnessed its potential for comedy.

I like being able to talk to whoever is in my room, and not get bogged down by a general voice chat. Also, it adds its own comedic elements. There is nothing quite like hearing the screams of your friends as they run toward the ship and away from an evil, doglike monster.

How Lethal Company became a meme machine

Overall, this game seems perfectly engineered to get clicks on social media. Its horror and surprise elements pair perfectly with its slapstick antics, making for great content on platforms like Twitch. Since release, other social media platforms, like TikTok and YouTube, have been flooded with funny clips of people playing the game, and the “lethalcompany” hashtag on TikTok has more than 2.4 billion views at time of publication. Whether it’s an unceremonious death due to quicksand or the sheer thrill that comes with barely escaping a monster, the clips have generated a ton of interest in the game.

Other aspects, like its offbeat creatures, have also gone on to inspire jokes. The hoarding bug, called the “lootbug” by fans, has become an immediate fan-favorite creature and inspired videos and fan art that highlight cute moments. On top of these other elements, fans have also released several mods that have added other comedic elements to the game, like more emotes or Maxwell the cat. These mods are also perfect for creating viral moments.

The game might be too scary for many to play it, but streamers, clips, and mods have all led this one horror game to become a major cultural phenomenon, and its story isn’t over. Zeekerss has already released an update to the game, so only time will tell if all the factors that led to its popularity can sustain a longer interest in the game.