Sympathy for the Killer in Dead by Daylight

The unique narratives that arise out of each session of Dead by Daylight ask players to acknowledge the humanity of their opponents

Written by Daniel Motley / Published on August 26, 2017

Horror movies, as romantic comedies, survive on specific tropes like fire in the presence of oxygen: the serial killer chase, the haunted house/object, and supernatural creatures seeking to destroy humanity—to name a handful. Since early modern gothic writers birthed what we know as horror today, these plot lines (with subtle differences that help to set them apart from one another) are the staples of the genre.

"Dead by Daylight’s ability to swap between killer and survivor ends up encouraging us to think about the person on the other side of the controller"
Horror games have seen little change as well. Although the player feels a sense of agency in supernatural game worlds, the plot lines have continued to stay the course. Zombies and Lovecraftian elements are prominent (Bloodborne being a standout title). What makes these games terrifying, in contrast to similar films, is the control that is afforded to the player as he or she endures these nightmares. Rather than watching characters run from or anticipate encounters with otherworldly creatures and forces, players are interfacing with these forces themselves.

Dead by Daylight, the 4v1 horror multiplayer game from Behaviour Interactive, embraces horror tropes without apology. Simply put, you are either the lone serial killer or one of four potential survivors whose task is to escape the map by successfully cranking five generators before the killer can hook you and your squad up in preparation for a sacrifice. The killer has special powers that help him track down potential survivors easier or slow them down. The survivors can utilize special items and objects to make the task of cranking generators quicker or increase movement speed, among other enhancements.

I jumped back and forth between the two sides to get a feel for both the killer’s mode (of which there is a variety of killers to choose from) and the survivor’s (also a few different characters to try). Starting off as a killer, I quickly found my work cut out for me: the survivors have the ability to hear my approach using a heartbeat audio cue and I was only able to hook one character. My downfall was my inability to jump over crates which the survivors threw down during a chase. Being hooked on one for a few seconds meant that the survivors were able to make their getaway without a scratch.

Playing as a survivor, I’d use the same trick to evade my pursuer. This led me to discover a feeling I’m sure the developers did not intend—empathy for my killer. As I ran from the Trapper or the Hillbilly or any of the other freaks set on delivering me up to the dark gods, I’d have two emotions upon laying down a crate while in pursuit: thanksgiving for extending my survival and then a small bit of sorrow for the person playing the killer: “Dang, I know how much that sucks.” Movies like the Halloween remake attempt to evoke feelings of sympathy with the murderer through revealing his backstory as the product of a bad home. I’m still hard pressed to identify with Michael Myers, however, since he still goes on to shove a machete into somebody’s chest and choke an innocent pooch.. However, Dead by Daylight allows me to empathize with my killer because I know he’s not actually a raging redneck out to saw me in two—he’s just somebody from Kansas looking to have fun. That is, until I drop a crate in his path.

At its heart, Dead by Daylight is a party game that seeks to play up the horror tropes that inspire it. However, we bring our real emotions into games that often have nothing to do with what the developers are trying to inspire in us. Dead by Daylight’s ability to swap between killer and survivor ends up encouraging us to think about the person on the other side of the controller and to better understand his or her emotions when chasing down a survivor or cranking a generator. There isn’t a particularly deep narrative framework to Dead By Daylight  but its ability to evoke emotional responses from players results in each session weaving its own memorable narrative. These moments are a testament to videogames’ capacity to tap into our emotions in unexpected ways—which is oddly redemptive when we come to empathize with the killers.

Although I still plan on throwing down those crates when I hear the chainsaw revving.

About the Author:

Daniel Motley is the Baptist Product Manager at Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He and his wife have played through a Legend of Zelda game every summer since they met. You can reach him on Twitter at @motleydaniel.