I’m playing Dying Light at the moment. It’s a first person survival zombie game set in the fictional city of Harran, which has fallen victim to a zombie outbreak. No one’s said zombies, not yet, but the shambling hordes filling the city are pretty clearly post-mortem. Dropped in to by a humanitarian organization to retrieve an embarrassing set of documents, you’re attacked, rescued and find yourself working for the group of survivors who saved your life. And the group who tried to kill you. And the organization who sent you in… I’m about six hours in at this point and enjoying it more and more. The reason for that, rather appropriately for a zombie game, has crept up on me.
A game like this lives and dies on two things for me; how much of a glass corridor it is and how stupid the plot expects you to be. Dying Light is an actual honest to God open world. You have a couple of kilometres of Harran to run across in the opening levels and there’s lots to see. Ruined buildings, cobbled together safe houses, mysterious thugs who don’t work for the same guy you do and little moments of humanity are scattered across the world. You can access a good chunk of them straight away and while the game has walls, those walls are implicit rather than overt. During the day you can survive on the streets as long as you have a weapon, you’re careful and you can grab some high ground.
During the night, the other zombies wake up.
The ones that track you.
The ones that can climb.
So you can go anywhere, and you can survive the night outside a safe house if you’re fast, or, in my case lucky. One ‘night’ I got trapped too far from any compound to make it back in time so improvised and found a power mast to climb. Night in the game only lasts about ten minutes but the sight of the lights still on in the distance was more powerful than I expected it to be. Harran’s a warzone, a quarantine and a nightmarish place to live. But people live there anyway. An untidy apocalypse, one defined far more by the people who’ve survived it than the tragic monsters that are its infection vectors.
That sense of untidy, pragmatic endurance is the thing I’ve taken away from every one of my experiences so far. An early mission sees you setting traps to help a night time supply run make it home alive. A later one sees you running errands for another survivor in return for the seizure medicine the lone survivor of the night run now needs. Still later a mission sees you traded to Rais, the game’s villain as part of an elaborate bargain. You have to travel across the various compounds, collecting protection money and, in one case, saving them from the Infected.
That’s the point where the game really started to click for me. Because the guy you’re playing hates it. He’s working for a humanitarian organization for what he thinks are the right reasons and is being forced to extort money from terrified survivors. Plus, he’s pretty good at it. It’s a rare, and difficult, thing for a faceless stand-in character like this to have an actual emotional arc but he does. He’s starting to realize just what sort of world, and game, he’s in and he doesn’t like either of them. Which, perversely, means I really do. In fact, the last thing I played was him making contact with his employers in secret.
For the first time in the game, he didn’t refer to ‘the survivors in The Tower’.
He referred to ‘us.’
Chestmeat Brotagonist, welcome to Harran.