When you have a limited time for your hobby, game intros are what counts the most. Either you get hooked up from the start, or after half an hour you come to a conclusion that it just isn’t worth it. However, if you applied this rule to Dying Light, you would give up on an excellent mix of horror and open world action. It’s what’s almost happened to me, because the game’s opening is, without a doubt, one the worst in modern gaming.
The game starts with an ‘infomatic’ sequence detailing the epidemic that devastated the city of Harran. Okay, fair enough — it’s not terribly well written, but at least it’s short and to the point. What happens next, however, is simply bad.
Staring at a wall
The first thing we see of the proper game is basically… a wall. Our character is sitting in an empty cargo airplane with literally nothing of interest to look at, while the voice-over provides a MASSIVE exposition dump. We learn that there’s an outbreak (which we’ve already heard about in the news sequence). Also, some incomplete and somehow harmful data has been stolen, there are warring factions etc.
The narrator is half way through the backstory, and you probably haven’t been paying too much attention.
It’s a lot to digest. Moreover, the intro starts in first person and suggests the player already has control over the game. It’s natural to try to look around and test what you can do, but this is all a non-interactive (and extremely static) cutscene. Before you realize it and absorb the disappointment, the narrator is half way through the backstory. And you probably haven’t been paying too much attention.
The most surprising thing is that the game uses this dry, visually boring method to introduce the bad guy and his dead brother, who are pretty much the entire reason for the plot to happen.
The issue here is the fact that we don’t see them. Well — we kind of do, because the villain’s and his brother’s generic faces appear as HUD thumbnails, but these are small, emotionless and decolorized.
We can’t get familiar with these extremely important characters, can’t get them, remember them. And these aren’t some elusive phantoms whose existence we need to confirm. We learn a lot about them — from a disembodied voice-over that tells us that yeah, they are just the meanest.
And why is this a problem?
Try to recall the way Darth Vader is introduced in A New Hope. Now imagine you just stare at a wall and hear the narrator talking about how Vader is bad. For a video game, the only interactive storytelling medium, it’s like a throwback to the 80s. It feels like the infamous intro to Bad Dudes, but insanely stretched out and lacking any visuals. It’s a 5-minute-long ‘Ninjas kidnapped the President, are you a bad enough dude to save him?’ speech.
Remember Darth Vader’s introduction in A New Hope? Now imagine you stare at a wall and hear someone talking about how Vader is bad.
It’s a mystery why this information hasn’t been conveyed through an animated cutscene. One possibility is that they had no resources. If that’s the case, why not use some kind of concept-art comic panels, like in The Witcher 3? Or, you know, the news montage they’ve actually made for this game? Or anything visual, instead of a dry exposition dump?
The way the game introduces its bad guy is boring, and the fact that there is no control over the character makes it even more problematic. Especially in the next part of the opening sequence.
When more isn’t better
At one point, the protagonist gets up and the airplane cargo door opens.
Which is also kind of a problem, because it’s the first visually interesting thing that happens, and it’s underscored with a loud noise of the door mechanism. Also, it takes place during one of the most important parts of the voice-over. Chances are you will be paying more attention to the door than to the voice explaining the goal of your mission. You also have a ton of icons on both sides of the screen, and as a result it’s hard to focus on anything.
Eventually our protagonist parachutes into the infested city. This would be great if the voice over would stop for just one second and allow the player to soak the moment. The view is amazing, so maybe let us appreciate it for a second? Build the atmosphere? Embrace it? No, the person over the radio just can’t stop talking.
We are briefed about the bad guy’s mysterious accomplice and lots of other quite crucial stuff. But who would listen to anything during such a visually stunning sequence?
The gameplay that wasn’t
We land, confirming the old truth that no parachute drop in a video game is ever successful, and we are welcomed by some survivors who don’t really appreciate our presence.
It’s not too exciting to just watch an action set piece that could have been playable.
The protagonist draws a gun — in the same way that gameplay usually starts in first-person games. We’ve seen the same thing in games since the first Call of Duty. When it happens, usually the player takes control. I expected at least a slo-mo quick time event, so I tried moving and shooting, but no — this is still a cutscene and the player has absolutely no input.
It’s not too exciting to just watch an action set piece that could have been playable.
When a developer makes the entire game first-person, including the cutscenes, it’s to allow the players to participate in story bits, if only by allowing them to look around. Remember Half-Life? The opening to Dying Light is like the intro to Half-Life, but with no control over the camera.
Well, at least something is going on. No more staring at a wall and listening to exposition. Let’s get back to the story.
Sense not included
A character dies, which incites no emotion at all, because he was gone before we even had a chance to take a good look at him. Then we wake up in a bed, in the survivors’ hideout.
The NPC’s sacrifice could’ve been used to establish some kind of a conflict between the hero and his rescuers. After all, their pal died for a total stranger! But nah. They’re fine with it. Their leader is a tiny bit upset, but he won’t argue too much. It’s like the death we’ve witnessed was totally gratuitous and had nothing to do with anything. It’s a zombie game. You have to show a guy getting eaten.
What happens next is pure nonsense. Our hero tries to make amends by looking for a lost person — in a mission so easy gameplay-wise yet so important for the community of survivors that it’s a mystery why they’d give it to a random stranger.
Let’s sum it up: a bunch of experienced zombie killers won’t search for their friend in their own fortified building. Instead, they’ll send a random (and wounded) stanger they’ve just met, who has absolutely no experience with zombies. Does it sound like it makes sense?
The task is a tutorial and proves menial, but the chief survivor is so happy with the result that he becomes our new best friend.
Because of course.
Just believe that the player is an intelligent being.
You might say: but modern games are complex and need tutorials. Well…
Press forward to move forward
You can safely assume, especially in the case of Dying Light, a PEGI 18 horror, that it’s not the first game ever for your target audience. The controls are similar to dozens of other FPS titles, and they are gamepad-ready, so it’s not like there’s a hundred buttons to go over. Just give the player a second, give him clear visual instructions where to go and what obstacle to overcome, and believe that he’s an intelligent being. He will try out every single button. He will work it out.
Instead, Dying Light repeats Blood Dragon’s obnoxious “Press forward to move forward” tutorial, but treats it completely seriously.
What’s worse, the game wastes even more of our time, making us go back to the bedroom and change clothes. Customization is a cool feature, but for Pete’s sake, why can’t it be something to discover when going through the menus? Is it really necessary to slow down the pacing even more, just to show us that there are sets of clothing that do nothing at all? Literally nothing. You can easily forget about this feature. Dying Light is a first-person game. You never actually see your character!
Just endure it
It’s worth to sit through the opening for the immense fun that follows.
It’s hard to believe this atrocious opening has been created by Techland. They aren’t the greatest developers out there, but their Call of Juarez series is known for its very decent storytelling. Techland knows how to introduce characters and storylines, how to reveal bad guys and plot points. Bound in Blood and Gunslinger were simply fantastic in this department.
Thankfully, when the introductory part is finally over, the proper game starts – and it’s awesome. Fun, tense, well designed. The story is a mess, full of old cliches and eye-rolling dialogue, but, surprisingly, cutscenes are brief and not that important. It’s like they’ve dumped it all on the player in the first 30 minutes and there was nothing left, so they moved to the fun part.
They say that the first chapter of any book is written for the author only and can be removed without any harm to the story. This rule surely applies here, so if you don’t have much time for gaming, don’t give up on Dying Light too quickly. It has perhaps the single worst opening among modern games, but it’s worth to sit through for the immense fun that follows.