Every time I see a video, screenshot, or news story detailing Dying Light, I laugh.
I don’t mean to imply that Techland’s upcoming action-survival zombie title isn’t promising. In fact, Dying Light has a few intriguing ideas, the best of which is the dynamic transformation of the undead over the course of its realistic day-night cycle. Still, it’s hard not to chuckle when I think about how Warner Bros’ advertising arm is billing it: a parkour-focused open-world zombie shooter with light RPG elements. It’s a buzzword singularity.
How many video games in recent memory have featured free-running, a post-apocalyptic setting, or experience grinds? How can new zombie games hope to compete with recent masterpieces like The Walking Dead: Season 1 and The Last of Us? Dying Light seems to take a handful of modern gaming conventions and squishes them together like a child (read: me) taking 5 Starbursts and squeezing them into a single Uber-Starburst. Hell, even the initial trailers seem to depict a generic athletic white male protagonist. The only things that seem to be missing here are a damsel in distress, a Christ corollary, and the sudden appearance of space marines donning mech-suits.
In February, WB Games and Technland released a story trailer that brought to light another all-too-common video game theme: the ever-important struggle between good and evil. What ever would society do without clearly-defined heroes and villains? Sure, there seems to be some attempt at making the undead seem more human than ever before, but that seems to be undermined immediately by the dialogue following it.
In the same two minutes, we heard the narrator note that, “We were doctors, teachers, fathers, sons…but so were they,” before noting that, “We’re all that’s left, and we fight every day to hold on to what made us good, what made us human.” There’s a right way and a wrong way to humanize zombies. Doing things correctly would give Dying Light‘s undead the chance to show off some of their former personality traits or even vocalize their pain (a la early Infected The Last of Us). The more likely scenario is some incredibly high-definition enemy costume variation and an emphasis on that off-putting idea that not being a zombie somehow makes you the “good guy.” Survival is strongest in the absence of morality.
It’s impossible to talk about how trope-laden Dying Light is without bringing up the gaming community’s new found obsession with parkour-based traversal. 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, a cult hit that has aged surprisingly well, came at a time when free-running was novel, but parkour mechanics are everywhere in 2014. Titanfall gives us wall-running and double-jumping, Sunset Overdrive orients every aspect of its gameplay around constant, flowing motion, and Assassin’s Creed Unity revamps its notorious parkour system to improve the controls. When he isn’t warping across vast distances with his Shadow Strike ability, Talion gets around Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s sandboxes by climbing every mountain, cliff-face, and ruined building in sight. Delsin takes free-running to even crazier extremes by augmenting his movements with flight and super speed in Infamous: Second Son. The days of simply walking and running are apparently over, so why wouldn’t Dying Light include parkour?
Looking at Dying Light‘s overabundance of clichés, I can’t help imagining the meetings that must have gone on at the studio:
Boss Man: Okay team, this spiritual Dead Island successor needs something to make it feel fresh. Any ideas?
Hip-with-the-Times Employee: I think human people are into guns and running on surfaces that aren’t floors. That’s mostly what I see them doing with their time.
Boss Man: Brilliant! Parkour, violence, and zombies! Any other ideas?
Employee Who Likes Fairy Tales: We have to make sure the story involves a ‘good guy’ and paints the zombies as ruthless killing machines while feigning the idea that they once were people through the use of tattered dress shirts and uniforms. Also, white males should play a prominent role.
Boss Man: I think we have our game, team.
I hope Dying Light winds up being an incredible game; after all, nobody wants to spend their precious time and money on something sub-par. Parkour is generally fun when it’s done properly, and zombies are the second most hate-able video game enemy behind the Nazis. First-person melee combat can be a blast if the controls are tight and the animations aren’t disgustingly long, so there is definitely promise here. Unfortunately, until we see the final product, it’s going to be hard to move past the cliche casserole that is the game’s premise. The best case scenario involves phenomenal gameplay, a vibrant setting, and a touching story. Worst-case: we’re left with the video game equivalent of a Puu Puu Platter.