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Dead By Daylight is a cooperative masterclass

The kindness of strangers

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I’m hanging from a hook, struggling and kicking as the claws of a dark cosmic entity close around my skull. Not by choice, you understand. The bastard thing that placed me here is nearby, pleased with the sacrifice but also hoping to use me as bait. To my horror, the plan works and I see someone approaching, inching forward through a cornfield, trying to stay hidden. She’s going to get herself killed and I guess I’ll be adding survivor’s guilt to my list of ailments.

“Stay away!” I want to yell, but my voice has been stolen, and it wouldn’t make a difference anyway. In Dead By Daylight [official site] people usually try to do the right thing, even if they’re risking their life to do it. It’s a horrid game that cleverly encourages good behaviour.

A lot of you are probably already playing this fantastic asymmetrical slasher sim and wondering why I’m so late to the party. Quite simply, I tried the game at release and didn’t enjoy the first couple of rounds I played, and then never found the time to go back to it.

“Too gamey”, was the criticism I levelled at it, which often seems like an odd complaint when writing about games. What I meant is that it seemed more interested in hard rules and some level of balance rather than the sort of thematic flourishes that I wanted from a multiplayer game about slasher films.

When Friday The 13th came along, one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much lay in the differences between it and Dead By Daylight. Wherever the latter was a little too tidy and tactical, the former was loose and messy. It’s easy to flip those qualities around and to see how the tidy and tactical game might be superior to the loose and messy game, but they can happily co-exist without competing directly for my attention, even though they have obvious similarities. I wanted something that felt chaotic and unpredictable when playing as a survivor though, and Friday The 13th fit the bill.

I’ve drifted away from it, mostly because of a few bad experiences with survivor players helping Jason, presumably because they’re real life friends or simply mischief-makers. Because my enjoyment of the game relies on people buying into the illusion, and role-playing to a certain extent, that kind of inconsistent behaviour doesn’t just annoy me because I lose in a way that feels unfair, it breaks my desire to play entirely. Imagine watching Halloween and seeing Laurie directing traffic, leading her so-called friends into dead-ends and then loling with Myers after every kill

By design, Friday The 13th opens itself to unhelpful antics simply by dropping players in a miniature sandbox where they can either scurry around trying to help one another or simply disrupt the entire flow of a round. With Dead By Daylight, which has just stolen an entire weekend for me, I found the opposite to be true: everyone is making the game a better place to be.

The genius of Dead By Daylight is that you inevitably help the other survivors, whether you intend to or not. There’s only one way to escape (until a hatch opens when there’s only one survivor left) and that requires survivors to repair five of the seven generators randomly scattered around the map. So even if you’re a lone wolf, anything you do to facilitate your own escape helps the other three survivors as well. And not just in terms of completing objectives but by distracting the killer, because whenever a repair is completed, the location flashes up in the killer’s view, potentially bringing them to that part of the map hunting for the perpetrator.

Even if you’re having a really bad round, and I’ve had many of them, and can’t shake the killer off your tail, you’re helping the cause; if you’re being chased and murdered you’re creating a lull in the hunt for everybody else, and they can use that free-time to work toward an escape.

There’s no voice chat, which seemed strange at first, but the design of the game is so tight that there’s no real need for planning Instead of relying on instructions and panicked orders, you use the visual cues that the game provides, whether that’s the location of a wounded or soon-to-be-sacrificed ally or the brief glowing outline of the exit gate. Everything is happening at breakneck pace in a claustrophobic space where death might only be a heartbeat away, and the entire structure of the trial guides everyone toward useful actions.

“Trial” is an important word. Dead By Daylight isn’t a conventional slasher script. It takes place in an abstract space where the survivors are trapped by a shadowy entity, and the killer is trapped in there with them. This isn’t Camp Crystal Lake, it’s more like Cabin in the Woods and that neatly explains the uncomplicated rules. Killers and survivors are, within the fiction, playing a sort of game.

Let’s go back to that opening story, when another player risked everything to save my life. I’ve been every character in that story – the saviour, the victim and the killer – and they’re all great roles to play. Sometimes I figure that people are only helping one another because they get points for doing so, and points mean prizes (in the form of skills and items from a randomly generated web of unlocks). It doesn’t really matter why people are playing to the game’s strengths though and making it a pleasant place in which horrible things can happen – if it’s only the promise of rewards from a higher power that leads them to help their neighbours, that doesn’t really matter in the heat of the moment.

The simple fact is that Dead By Daylight has the best multiplayer community I’ve spent time in since Rocket League. Both games reward what I’ll describe as good sportsmanship, and neither waste time or energy berating people who have a bad round. I haven’t got the hang of playing as any of the killers yet but when I fail miserably, I suspect the survivors feel like they were awesome and that they outsmarted me rather than suspecting I spent a whole lot of time running around in circles.

Coming to the game late, it’d be easy to feel lost but even though there are a few different killers, they both work to the same basic rules. They find you, they chase you, they catch you, they hook you. Their unique abilities are wrinkles in the rules rather than changes to the foundation of the game, and the same is true of survivor skills and items. Aids rather than game-changers.

It’s a superbly designed game and I’m kicking myself because I wish I’d realised that this time last year. I’d be a super-survivor by this point, the kind who is the last one standing in the first film and comes back for a cameo a couple of decades into the franchise. As it is, I’m still finding my feet and spending a lot of time hanging from those dreadful hooks, but I’m having a blast.

What a surprising place to find such helpful people, and what a pleasure to find a game that is so carefully designed to promote cooperation and kindness in between all the slaughter.

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Adam Smith

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