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Dying Light’s sublime sense of Panic

Dying Light is a game I played over the course of a full year, originally buying the violent zombie Mirror’s Edge on launch day back in January 2015. While I normally play through a game in one go, Dying Light had so many pacing issues in the first quarter of the game that I had to take breaks for months before I felt like returning to the game. I loved much of the promise of the game: during the (60-minute) day a freerunning agent running through a zombie-infested (Turkish?) city, setting traps, completing missions, setting up safe zones and saving survivors – and during the (10-minute) night, desperately sneaking through the dark, quietly avoiding the nightmares that exist within it, the hunter turned the hunted.

But Dying Light also suffers from every possible design issue you could run into in its design – odd checkpointing, bulletsponges to deal with the almighty player, finnicky controls at the worst moment and escort missions. The worst offender, however, and one that’s hard to avoid in a open-world game, is a difficulty curve that starts the player helpless, and then evolves the player into something so powerful only one-hit kill exploding zombies and earlier mentioned bulletsponges can form any danger to.

In that difficulty curve, then, naturally, has to be the sweet spot – and that part is magnificent. It’s where the player has started to gain skills and weapons that are useful and don’t continuously break and is slightly weaker than the average zombie. Accidentally making a loud sound attracts the zombies, and every time you do so, you run for your life. The (gorgeous) sunset feels terrifying, the phone calls to warn you it’s about to get dark instill genuine worry and the alarm of your watch informing you night has fallen is a beeping terror.

It’s during this part of the game I ran across a moment that I played wrong, but it also shows how perfectly Dying Light sometimes executes its premisse. Tasked with retrieving a video in a side-mission, the player has to navigate the city to a video store. This video by ZackScottGames below gives a pretty accurate impression of the scene as I played it – you can stop watching as soon as the ‘video tape found’ prompt displays.

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As you approach the store, there might or might not be a number of zombies you can dispatch of, distract or sneak around. You then have to quickly lockpick the door through a minigame, after which you enter the store. As soon as you take a step or two into the store, the alarm goes, the short delay surpressing the players’ response of backing out of the store. The alarm will be attracting a large number of nearby zombies to the store in the next few seconds, and the player can opt to lock the front door. Then, the game suggests you find the tape manually, by having the player character utter ‘C… C for Charly’. So as the zombies gather around, rattling the store you just locked yourself into, you have to keep your calm, look around and find the tape. If you look carefully, you’ll notice you can shut the door, you’ll spot a bright orange light that is actually the alarm switch (you can turn the alarm off), and a back door you can escape through. The panic is enough to instinctively focus the player on the tape.

In the games’ best moments, it’ll repeat similar tricks, but always messing with the most powerful obstacle the player needs to manage: distance. Dying Light is continuously throwing off the players mental mapping of distance. Something that’s relatively close suddenly feels very far when the sun starts setting. An easy jump before a short run can turn into a terrifying distance to cover if your landing is too loud, and the ceiling gives way. Increasingly loud sounds make five meters feel like a hundred – but at night, running past a trap you placed during the day can turn a hundred meters into a short walk. Dying Light’s most masterful showcase of using mental distance is in its delays before scares and panic increases, because distance behind a player always feels longer than distance ahead of them,

Any moment can go from calm and controlled, from feeling powerful and jumping from building to building with accurate movement, to sheer panic and scrambling around with the smallest mistake, and Dying Light is perfectly set up to create those moments organically. Until you become too strong. Or you die and respawn. Or you realize Dying Light features a ‘hunterdetectiveeagle vision’ equivalent – one of my most hated game design tropes – that totally removes this moment, but thankfully I didn’t think of using it.

But for those moments in that sweet spot, and in its best side-missions, Dying Light creates a sublime sense of panic.