Developed by the Polish studio Techland, “Dying Light” is an attempt to perfect a game template begun with their earlier “Dead Island” games. The game opens with an agent from the Global Relief Effort parachuting into Harran, a fictional patchwork of Brazilian favelas, Moroccan bazaars, mansard-roofed apartments, and glassy downtown skyscrapers, all connected by the joyless concrete infrastructure of a Soviet satellite state.
Playing as Kyle Crane, you’re instructed to cooperate with the last remaining survivors. Your mission is to find Kadir Suleiman, the group’s former representative who cut off communication and changed his name after the GRE refused to evacuate his dying brother.
After a bungled crash landing, Crane is rescued by a small band of survivors led by an expatriate parkour instructor. From the embattled 19th-floor base in an abandoned apartment building, Crane begins his career as Harran’s little helper, running across town to collect lavender herbs for a man repulsed by the smell of corpses, looking for a lost pair of eye glasses, and collecting tissue samples from a nocturnal zombie for a scientist.
Within a few hours, the urgency of the main story is overwhelmed with errands and curiosities, many of which are more creative and affecting than the double-crossing, agent-vs.-agent story arc. In one corner of the city, you’ll find an old man in a wizard hat who’s convinced a kindergarten full of kids he has magic power and will be able to protect a diabetic student in dire need of insulin. Another side story has Crane helping a shopkeeper get a gun so he and his family can risk the trip to a secret exit from the quarantine zone only to later discover he used the gun to kidnap his son and abandon his wife.
Between the story nodes, the game is a repetitive mess, running through the clutter of a failed civilization with blood-hungry monsters impeding your path. “Dying Light” was built around an elaborate parkour system that lets a player climb walls, vault abandoned cars, slide under fences and shinny up light poles. It’s an elegant system that’s constantly malfunctioning against the clutter of the open city. Sometimes it works as intended and other times the player is left hopping up and down against the invisible collision box of a car hood while the zombies are rushing from behind.
The combat system is equally finicky, relying on a scavenged array of baseball bats, table legs and meat cleavers to use against the zombies. Swings must be manually aimed, precisely timed and used at the right distance in order to make contact, which is fine in concept but feels haphazard in execution.
All combat is governed by an economy of exchange. Each swing degrades a weapon’s durability until it breaks, which makes early combat feel uselessly slow and unproductive, while the availability of more powerful scythes and swords in the second half trivializes combat with zombies that can be killed in one or two swings. All of these irritations are coerced through the exchange value of mission rewards, which are tied to an index of risk. The earned points are used to buy new character skills, weapon blueprints or cash.
Harran itself is a place that steals its reference points from other countries and cultures without giving anything back, its city quarters separated by bodies of water and confined by a magic circle of mountains. The game’s most beautiful moments come from its most privileged heights, where one can gaze at half-finished skyscrapers smoldering against what seems to be a permanent dusk from the top of an old radio tower or through a shattered window of another high-rise. It feels like a genuine comfort to see this world on fire, falling back into the earth after decades pushing back against gravity.
At ground level, the voyeuristic intimacy of rummaging through abandoned spaces is swept into a system of artificial needs. Curiosity is quickly curbed when the secrets in every home end up being boilerplate, the same rubbish popping up everywhere, inescapable parts of a larger crafting system economy that makes medkits, Molotov cocktails or flares. The city is reduced to an arena for commodity foraging, an irritating process of opening closets and metal trunks looking for a bottle of rubbing alcohol to make a medkit but finding only cigarettes and gauze. Even the combat and parkour are driven by the utilitarian momentum of gathering the experience points given for each little action. These points later buy new skills that should be second-nature to a paramilitary agent willing to parachute into a zombie apocalypse.
“Dying Light” is a game of needs nested within needs, each framed by an economy of points, cash and commodities distributed across an imaginary architecture of people who’ll let you into their private lives so long as you bring them the right things. And when they’ve got nothing more to ask of you — no new quests, weapons, experience points — there’s no reason to stay. It’s ultimately the story of a man who keeps leaving people whose base function is to empty themselves to ensure his perambulations seem necessary. The zombie is the perfect antagonist for this kind of interactive delusion, always justifying new abandonments by threatening another victim, a cycle which goes on until the entire world has been infected and stands in the streets, needed by no one, and with nothing left to want.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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