October Horrorshow: Dying Light

There are more good and great games out there than a person has the time to play — especially if they don’t get paid for the privilege. A good game can grab a player and immerse them in a story that takes just as long as a novel to resolve. The very best games allow a person to explore the reaches of the game’s construction and the player’s imagination, making playing it more than just play, but creative expression (I’m looking at you, Minecraft). Most games, like all things, fall into readily recognizable categories, breaking little if any ground. But, as with all things, it is not necessary for a game to be wholly original for it to be a good game, or fun to play. And isn’t ‘fun’ the whole reason for playing a game in the first place?

The open world style of video game has been with us for two decades or so at this point, and there are many things about it that are tired and old. For one thing, while core gameplay elements can vary wildly from title to title and generation to generation, mission structure is essentially the same throughout the majority of titles. The player goes to location A, where they receive a quest to go to location B in search of item X. The player goes to location B, kills a bunch of baddies, presses a button or follows a sequence of button presses, obtains item X, then returns to location A and collects a reward. This boils down about half of the meaningful playtime of any open world game. It’s fetch quests. And if those quests vary little, then the game becomes boring.

The other half of open world games is the world itself. The best open world games have environments that reward a player putting aside the assigned quests and exploring. As the generations continue to progress and machines can handle more and more complex environments, the complexity of the spaces away from the story have shown themselves to contain their own treasures. For one thing, it takes a lot of work to fill out a city or countryside in a game where probably less than 5% is used for the story. That takes dedication from games’ creators that is unusual in the entertainment business. The movie equivalent would be being able to step away from John McClane and go exploring the Nakatomi building floor by floor, without worrying about missing any of the story. The incentive to provide this type of immersion to the gamer is slim, yet so many developers choose to do it.

I bring this up because today’s open world games require a serious time commitment from players in order to experience the game to the full intent of the developers. Therefore, when a reviewer, like myself, has dedicated not just one, but six, playthroughs to a single game, then a reader can be rest assured that I think the game is worth playing.

Dying Light comes from Techland, the Polish development company that produced the two Dead Island games. Like Dead Island, Dying Light is a zombie game. The player uses mostly melee weapons to take on hordes of the undead, while engaged in a story that will both rid the world of the zombie threat, and punish those responsible. In many ways, Dying Light is just another variation on the work Techland did in Dead Island. But, this title feels more mature, in both gameplay and story.

Rather than taking place in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Dying Light takes place in a fictional Middle Eastern city called Harran. If I had to guess, I would say Harran is in Turkey. The game consists of lots of generic brown people with generic Semitic accents. The game walks a fine line between trying for political correctness and failing so spectacularly that its offensive. But honestly, at this point, setting any sort of video game in a third world setting is going to catch shit from some people. In fact, I’m not all that interested in being delicate about this game. It takes place in a third world shithole. The first half of gameplay is in an area called the slums, with cheap concrete and cinderblock structures dominating the area, and rivers of sewage running through open viaducts. It is reflective of real places in this world, and it’s a fascinating place to host a zombie apocalypse.

Unlike the Dead Island games, which almost exclusively relied on melee as a game mechanic, Dying Light introduces an agility element in the form of Parkour. All those low-hanging awnings and balconies in the game are not just dressing, but objects the player can jump and grab. It’s a satisfying feeling to engage the sprint action and bound from building to building in the slums — all the deadly, threatening undead left below on the street, too slow to react to, or even discover, the player’s trespass on their territory. Parkour adds fun and speed to the Dead Island model, and it’s such an effective gimmick that Dead Island seems empty of possibility by comparison.

But the best part of Dying Light isn’t the combat or movement mechanics. It’s the nighttime. When night falls on Harran, the city, devoid of reliable power because of the disaster, becomes a sea of blackness. No streetlights, little solace. The bad guys still roam the streets and alleyways, and they are joined by enemies that only appear in the game after dark, called Volatiles. The player, then, becomes the hunted, doing their best to avoid pursuit and bloody murder by these beasts of the night. The game is designed to make the Volatiles hard to kill and hard to avoid, and for new players, they provide genuine moments of terror.

When it comes to zombie fare, games can be every bit as enjoyable as films, if not more so. When it comes to Dying Light, the nighttime mechanics did something that no zombie film, no matter how good, has done for me in a while — it scared me.