“I’m not interested in Dying Light,” a friend recently told me. I arched an inquisitive eyebrow. “Why?” A few seconds later, his response flashed on screen. “Because it doesn’t look that original.” For a few moments, I struggled to compose a response.
Finally, I asked him a simple question: “Why should that matter?”
Techland’s Dying Light is an excellent game. It’s got great mechanics that blend together well, putting its players in a cool world with a great sense of space. The entire package, from design to narrative, is exceedingly well put together, with just a few minor exceptions.
Around the time of the game’s release, however, a great number of friends and acquaintances decided that Dying Light was not worth spending time on because it was not “original.”
Playing Dying Light, I found myself asking a lot of questions about originality, specifically what it is and whether it matters. Dying Light is a first-person open world parkour game set during a zombie outbreak. Well, we’ve played first-person games. We’ve played open world games. We’ve played parkour games. We’ve played zombie games. Taken as separate entities, none of these concepts are new.
Even in combination, we’ve seen them before. First person and parkour? Mirror’s Edge. First-person open world? Far Cry. Open world and zombies? Dead Island. First person and zombies? Dead Island and ZombiU come to mind. Open world and parkour? Assassin’s Creed, sort of.
So what’s Dying Light about? Why might it work, even if it isn’t original?
If you’ve played Dying Light, you know that none of the games it’s compared to match up precisely with what it attempts to accomplish. While Dying Light is often described as “Mirror’s Edge with zombies,” that’s not accurate. Mirror’s Edge has this very precise, planned flow. To succeed, you have to be meticulous in your play, or, in all likelihood, experience a massive break in the flow where you die over and over and over again.
Consider another zombie game, Dead Rising. Capcom’s super-fun zombie series is commonly thought of and advertised as a zombie game, but in truth, it’s about time management. Players are given a handful of competing, time-based tasks and asked to figure out how to complete them. It’s a game about learning the game’s space and event times, then resisting the temptation of just going to town on every zombie you see. A good Dead Rising game is at its best on subsequent playthroughs, when players know everything that’s going to happen. It’s almost a Groundhog Day
In contrast, Dying Light uses zombies as a sort of “the floor is lava” approach. The tasks are not time-based, but each zombie type influences the way the player interacts with the environment. They encourage players to stick to the rooftops, parkouring around the environment. The dynamic nature of the zombies ensures that you will seldom take the same route more than once.
Dying Light isn’t about learning to get good at a particular mode of traversal, nor is it about becoming an omniscient hero capable of saving everyone. It’s about creatively moving through the game space, with most of the tools in the game empowering the player to do just that.
Dying Light is best compared to 2012’s Far Cry 3. Where Mirror’s Edge is about moving from A to Z without stopping, Far Cry 3 is about the intelligent use of one’s environment to solve problems. Dying Light takes that a step further. Many of the game’s tools help with this: the grappling hook helps you make impossible jumps, firecrackers or explosives can be used to manipulate zombies, ziplines transport you quickly from one space to the next.
The Far Cry design ideal is there, but it’s been taken to its logical extreme. You can climb on anything, go anywhere, and tackle objectives with a greater deal of finesse than you could in any Far Cry game. This emphasis on player agency and creativity creates a really solid, enjoyable game experience. If you’re feeling tired of a particular strategy, that’s fine! Dying Light will support whichever strategy you wish to use.
Not only that, but in Dying Light, every skill feels as if it matters. There’s nothing pointless here—each time you level up, a new ability is added to your arsenal, keeping the game experience fresh. Starting to get bored of climbing all the time? Cool, here’s a grappling hook. Wish you had a way to increase your jump height? Here’s a skill that lets you use zombies as a springboard.
Just when you get comfortable with the game’s first map, it gives you a second one that’s much tighter. Parkour goes from being something you do part time to something you can do all the time. Some of the most fun I’ve had gaming in the past few years has been combining zipline, grappling hook, and rooftop movements for lengthy marathons across Dying Light’s cityscape.
Play how you want—the opportunities are almost endless.
If that’s not enough, Dying Light features enemies that help move you around the map as well. Virals encourage players to flee, volatiles and night hunters encourage players to run toward light sources, spitters require a careful attention to player surroundings, and on and on it goes. A player running from volatiles is likely to be using ziplines, lights, and firecrackers, while a player trying to sneak up on bolters is probably wearing zombie camouflage and keeping as quiet as possible.
Dying Light has a lot in common with Far Cry 3. Rather than simply imitating Ubisoft’s great open-world shooter, however, Dying Light seems to delight in commenting on Far Cry 3’s design philosophy.
If you’ve never played Far Cry 3, first, go do that; it’s a wonderful game, storytelling aside. Far Cry 4 is great as well, and improves on most non-storytelling areas of Far Cry 3, but considering that Dying Light released just two months after Far Cry 4, I think it’s more likely that Far Cry 3 was was the source of inspiration, so that’s the comparison I’ll be making.
From Far Cry 2 onward, the big Far Cry games have always included two world maps. Both maps feature virtually identical gameplay. It feels as if the developers include the second map just to give the player more places to go to rather than expanding the gameplay options. Dying Light also has a second map, but unlike the slums and factories of the first map, the second map is set in a dense, urban environment with a lot more rooftop traversal options. It’s a delight to get to—the slums are cool, but Oldtown recontextualizes all the skills players have developed up to this point in the game.
In many Ubisoft games, players are unable to view the world map until they climb to a vantage point in order to see what’s out there, and Far Cry 3 is no exception. Dying Light features towers as well, but of the four towers to climb in the game, two are part of the same quest, one is simply an unlockable safe zone (safe zones are all different from each other), and the last one can be found in a quest late in the the game.
More importantly, climbing these towers is used as a way to encourage players to think about and apply their climbing skills. Far Cry 3 never offers a reason to think about climbing outside of the towers. Dying Light’s towers are just another expression of the climbing mechanics found throughout the game. If anything, they actually make sense in the design. Not only that, but one of them is used as a joke about Far Cry 3’s towers—get up to the top to switch it on… and there’s nothing there.
It’s as if Dying Light is saying to Far Cry 3: “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
Dying Light has some of the best quests I’ve come across in an open world game, partly because it so frequently subverts expectation. Some children ask you to kill the “troll” that’s bellowing so loudly it keeps them from sleeping at night. When you find and kill what you presume to be the troll, their caretaker informs you over the radio that you’ve killed the wrong troll. A few seconds later, an even bigger zombie bursts through a wall as the caretaker screams “that’s the troll!” and you have to deal with yet another monster.
The quest that sends you to the first tower challenges you to climb and switch on a transmitter, but once you’ve got there, you discover that the transmitter’s been stolen. Heading to the next transmitter introduces you to some non-player characters, unlocks a previously-inaccessible base, and, yes, has you climbing a tower again and switching things on, which has some repercussions in and of itself.
A man begs for a gun to save his family, but then he runs off with his boy, leaving his wife behind. It’s one of the first sidequests you can access, and the ramifications keep showing up throughout the game. Eventually, the man succumbs to the zombie virus, sacrificing his life for his son’s, and it’s your job to dispatch him and save his child.
Too many games with open worlds feature quests are some version of “go here, kill this or retrieve that.” Dying Light has a few of those, but even then, they’re still pretty good. One series of missions simply drops you into a fight with as many zombies as possible and gives you a weapon that kills them in one hit. It’s supremely fun. Others test your ability to navigate through environments. Most of the missions directly tie in with the game’s core of movement and planning.
One series of sidequests, for instance, is about building a bomb, but far more importantly is the fact that the bomb must be planted in a nest of volatiles. The mission is early enough in the game that volatile zombies are still new and extremely dangerous to the player. Tackling the mission properly requires using tools and skills that, early on, don’t appear to be that useful. I never understood the value of firecrackers in Dying Light until I used them on the volatiles.
In other words, Dying Light’s missions aren’t just a series of fetch quests, they’re about telling interesting stories, subverting your expectations, and, most importantly of all, helping you become a better player. It’s got a real sense of substance.
In the years since gaming’s indie revolution, I’ve seen people talk about how, say, all AAA games play it ‘safe’ and don’t try new things, so indies are the future, or how indies are all about cashing in on popular trends, and the real artistic spirit is found in ‘altgames.’
Many of these arguments bring up originality, as if an original game was inherently a good game. That’s a challenging proposition to accept. After all, I’ve played a great many indie and altgames, and in my experience, Sturgeon’s law that 90% of everything is crap is in full effect. Something might be new, but that doesn’t mean it will be good.
Is originality even possible? Most game mechanics are simply representations of things we can do. Cook, Serve, Delicious! is about making food. Forza is about driving cars. Payday is about robbing banks. Suffice it to say, I don’t think there’s a single human action that a game hasn’t endeavored to replicate in some way. It’s part of the reason we saw so much originality back in the ‘80s and ‘90s—back then, game designers hadn’t made games about bank robberies, car racing, or cooking food.
These days, game creators have covered all the basic bases of human behavior. It can be challenging to come up with some behavior that hasn’t already come up in another game. Most “original” mechanics out there are simple twists on previously-existing mechanics, after all. It just might be that originality isn’t even possible these days. Entire philosophical systems, like post-modernism, argue that there is nothing new under the sun, just remixes of the same ideas.
But even if we were confident that originality still existed, would it matter? I can’t help but think we’ve fallen prey to the marketers. For decades, advertisers have put bullet points on the back of boxes, saying “our game does something nobody else has ever done!” Games were bought and sold based on the almighty bullet point, and I think that, because of this, our value system, as gamers, has shifted toward the originality that marketers have promised.
Instead of talking about whether any given game is good, marketers frequently point us towards the new things it does.
Ever been to a new restaurant and ordered a steak, only to find it’s the best steak you’ve ever had? Restaurants are more often valued on the quality of their dishes than whether or not those dishes are original. Offer someone a choice between the best steak they’ve ever had and, say, pickle and fish stick-flavored ice cream, and more often than not, they’re going to pick the former. Some ideas are bad, even if they are original. Some meals are great precisely because they’re really well-executed classics.
Good game design is about taking disparate elements and putting them together in a cohesive whole. Each component of the game, whether it be mechanics, systems, art assets, sound design, or anything else, should be carefully considered and put together in a way that makes sense. Even with the same ingredients, you can still end up with different dishes—cookies and shortbread have the same bases, but no one would confuse the two.
In other words it’s the synthesis of a game’s elements that matter, not whether they’ve been used before.
Dying Light is like a great recipe or well-prepared meal. Yes, its ingredients have been seen elsewhere. Mirror’s Edge is a first-person parkour game. Dead Rising is an open world zombie title. Far Cry is an open-world first-person shooter. But the thing is, Dying Light is just plain good at what it does. It’s got parkour for completely different reasons than Mirror’s Edge, zombies that don’t work at all like Dead Rising’s, and an open world that, in some ways, is a grand improvement on the already-excellent Far Cry 3 and 4.
Nobody turns down a great steak because other people make steaks, so don’t pass up an opportunity to play a great game just because it sounds familiar. You owe it to yourself to play Dying Light. It’s a well-made game, one that I definitely valued my time with. I think you will too.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon. For more of his Kotaku work, check out the GBB tag.