Dying Light 2 takes parkour zombie slaying to a new city, and there’s a reason for that. Where the first game, released in 2015, was about dealing with a viral outbreak in real time, the second will deal with the aftermath years later.
Infested creatures are just another environmental fixture of society post-collapse in Dying Light 2, to be released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in 2019. The new game places more emphasis on how to build a better world out of the ashes, versus simply surviving in the original. Based on the short demo that Techland was showing at this month’s E3 Expo, that means more player choice, and , not shying away from the political implications of those choices.
While hopping through windows, running along the side of walls, and bouldering up buildings to escape the hordes below looks like it will still make up the bulk of the new game’s action, Dying Light 2 seems to to be more narratively mature than its predecessor. The city, and the conversations I saw take place there, felt more akin to Dishonored than Dead Island, the studio’s other big zombie game.
One likely reason for that is Techland’s tapping of Chris Avellone of Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment fame to help write the game. Avellone, whose recent work has included the maze-like meta-narrative in Into the Breach, is there to help guide the team as it works on creating branching stories for the new game, a Techland rep said. The stories will be based on players’ freedom to decide how to react to different situations, which will have consequences down the line for the larger world and the characters within it. The studio also said it has some former CD Projekt writers responsible for The Witcher 3’s winding and nuanced Bloody Baron questline working on the game., This, if nothing else, at least shows what Techland imagines to be an ideal story beat in its game—tragedy compounded by more tragedy.
The example in the demo, which was hinted at in the game’s reveal trailer at Microsoft’s E3 press briefing, had to do with exploring a water tower, getting up to the top by solving platforming puzzles. Once there, the player needed to negotiate with someone as to how the water supply should be distributed. The men on the other end of the conversation were scavengers, and siding with them would mean selling the clean water for a profit. But talking them down or killing them outright would mean calling in the peacekeepers, a fascist militia who would give away the water for free but rule the area around it with an iron fist if invited to stay.
Both outcomes are imperfect, and may well affect what can be achieved in other areas of the city. At least, that’s Techland’s hope, that all of these interconnected trade-offs will lead to a vibrant but conflicted world the player feels emotionally, narratively, and perhaps even morally invested in.
“There are some places, some regions, some choices that present you with two different philosophies on how this world should progress,” Tymon Smektała, the game’s lead designer, told Kotaku. The lack of resources, pervasive hunger, and constant threat of zombie attacks mean questions about who gets what, and who will be protected, will often be at the forefront of the decision-making in what Smektała calls “probably the last human settlement on planet Earth.”
That location, informed in part by Techland’s home in Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland, is something of a mixture of East meets West, said one of the game’s writers Bogdan Graczyk in an email. The history of that place gets forgotten with the “End of the World” that occurred in the first game, Graczyk said, but the player will have the opportunity to at least partly unearth in Dying Light 2.
“[The city] used to be a welfare state with widespread social protection for everyone,” said Graczyk. “The downfall of a protective state and its institutions is really brutal for the individuals.” Since the city now acts as a last refuge for humanity set 15 years after “The Fall,” the people you run into will be drawn from all different ethnic backgrounds, religions, and social outlooks, said Tymon Smektała, including representation of the LBGTQ community.
There is a sense of the Dark Ages that Techland wants to come through strongly in the game’s aesthetic and world building, but one it also wants to go beyond the usual Hobbesian state of nature—“nasty, brutish, and short”—depicted in lots of popular post-apocalyptic art. Rather than just invite you to overthrow the evil tyrant who’s risen up amidst the turmoil, Dying Light 2 appears to be concerned with actually having you reforge the institutions and power structures necessary for a society of diverse, and not always agreeable, individuals to function.
“The city of Dying Light 2 is a great case study of extreme mindsets,” said Graczyk. “They’re like a parasite to the city, creating a complex living and breathing organism, and we give the player tools to apply a therapy of their choosing.” In broad strokes, he described these approaches as either restoring hope or leaving behind scorched earth. It’s still an open question whether there will be other situations in the game that don’t simply come down to deciding when and where to apply violence, like in so many other games which purport to place a premium on player choice.
Techland seems to not be shying away from the larger ramifications of what the player chooses. It’s often the case that how you decide to treat another character in a video game results in a certain ethical rating, but in Dying Light 2 the developers claim it will feed into the very fabric of society—not just in who is willing to talk to you or fight alongside you, but who will have food in their bellies and how that will affect the character of the world around them.
Beyond just navigating the infested, who roam the streets mostly at night, Techland is aiming for an ever-changing balance of power between rival factions scattered throughout the map. Deciding to help lawless scavengers in one section may provoke or also potentially weaken the peacekeepers somewhere else. There will also be characters with crucial supplies like flashlights and weapons crucial that might not always be freely given up or traded away. “When you know how all of this is laid out, you can almost play like Machiavelli,” said Smektała.
Invoking Niccolò Machiavelli, the Renaissance philosopher whose name later became synonymous with a cynical brand of politics in which expediency trumps all else, points toward a certain underlying logic in Dying Light 2. However much say the player will ultimately have in rebuilding a city, their actions seem likely to be judged according to a certain zero-sum notion of realpolitik. Smektała stressed that while the choices being shown in the demo were binary for illustrative purposes, there would be more multifaceted ones in the final game. Whether that dynamic more closely resembles the conflicts in something like HBO’s The Wire or the more stripped-down chess game of HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones remains to be seen.
In either case, Smektała feels that there’s something about “the state of the world in general right now” that’s had an influence on these aspects of Dying Light 2.
“It wasn’t a 100 percent conscious decision on our side to create a political game,” he said. “But when I look at the game right now and I see the quest that we have, the story that we have, the narrative that we have, the relations between various factions, I think you just cannot escape those things.” When seeing the choice between running a water utility for capitalist gain or handing it over to an armed militia who gives it away for free but executes anyone under its control without judge or jury, it’s hard to disagree.
Unlike some of its thematic peers at this E3, however, Dying Light 2 has the advantage of taking place in a nebulous, made-up European city. When The Division 2 shows people in military-style gear executing people in front of a torn American flag, the allusions to a particular political moment are impossible to ignore, no matter what its creative directors claim. In a Tom Clancy game, the deck will always be stacked in favor of a certain type of patriotic machismo. But Dying Light 2, by virtue of not dealing in particulars with clear analogues to the present, could potentially go much farther.