Dying Light and the survival renaissance

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 23 February 2015 13:45 GMT

Dying Light just goes to show that the market is hungry for games that challenge. Luckily, the industry looks set to deliver.

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Dying Light

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From TechLand, the creator of Dead Island.

Features a day night cycle wherein zombies are far more dangerous at night.

Parkour parkour PARKOUR.

Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.

Let’s be real, Dying Light got pretty lucky releasing in January. Absolutely nothing else came out worth mentioning, and resting in solitary splendour on the “new release” shelf no doubt gave an early sales boost to TechLand’s zombie parkour sim.

But that only accounts for one week of sales, and Dying Light, despite having a definite end, is proving enduringly popular – even before the modding scene kicks off and potentially makes it immortal. It is succeeding on its own merits, and people are enjoying playing it and talking about it.

I feel like I should have been able to predict that Dying Light would strike such a chord, because it has several features in common with a number of other popular games.

I’m talking, of course, about survival games. There are several definitions for what constitutes a survival game, but I’d say the essential feature is that the players is granted limited, non-replenish-able resources – ammo, or health – without which they will likely reach a game over screen.

Although they were obviously popular before it, ever since DayZ blew up, gaining a huge following even while it existed in the reasonably niche world of a PC-only mod, survival games have been big time. We’ve seen scores of imitators – The War Z (now Infestation: Survivor Stories) comes immediately to mind, but there’s no point pretending H1Z1 is anything but a DayZ follow on. State of Decay actually predates DayZ, having been announced in 2011 as Class 3, as does Dead State, which was announced in 2010, but both have similar themes.

Outside of strict zombie sandboxes, and arriving variously before and after DayZ, there’s Rust, Fortnite, The Long Dark, Frontiers, The Forest, Nether, Miasmata, Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Sunless Sea, Don’t Starve, and any number of imitators.

There are many, many more, both big and small, which I could mention. If you want to stretch the definition, any number of rogue-likes feature survival elements. Heck, you could even argue that the Souls series has survival elements, and there’s certainly been a resurgence of interest in survival horror after a few very poor years.

Dying Light in a nutshell

Many of the games I’ve listed are quite different from each other, and the extent to which they utilise survival features and manage difficulty varies. This has the effect of making “survival” as a genre less useful to us in communicating what exactly we mean when we use the word.

This isn’t the first time a genre has flourished and consequently sort of dissolved into meaninglessness, at least temporarily. I’d like to draw a parallel between what’s happening to survival games and what happened to RPGs several years ago: the genre hit a sudden peak of popularity and developers and gamers alike grew enamoured of certain features.

For a while, every game was arguably an RPG, featuring levelling, customisation and progression; later we started referring to “RPG elements” to distinguish “real” RPGs from the increasing number of games leveraging their mechanics; and finally it has become so common to have these features that we stopped mentioning them at all, and really only notice when a game doesn’t have them and we feel cheated.

I think we’re seeing the same thing kicking off here. Just as almost every game now has you earning XP to level up (your character, your car, your pet store), soon every game will have you gathering and carefully managing limited supplies of resources, approaching problems with multiple options.

Just as the emphasis on character didn’t make the jump to every other game with RPG XP bars, so too some of the other defining features of survival games probably won’t be embraced by the mainstream in their entirety. In particular, I think permadeath and very high difficulty will remain relatively rare.

So while survival elements will creep into other genres, there will always be a few core unwatered-down survival games for serious fans to enjoy.

“We might never see permadeath in, say, Assassin’s Creed – but I wouldn’t surprised if we saw increased resource management and higher difficulty.”

In fact, I don’t think there’s a downside at all; the dissemination of survival elements is good for everyone. It gives developers more tools to work with in crafting interesting experiences for triple-A, where it’s difficult to take risks with untried mechanics. It means more games offering that little edge of delight for survival fans.

Dying Light is a perfect example of a game with some extra survival mechanics grafted on. It grew up out of Dead Island, a first-person RPG, but it differentiates itself from its progenitor with new mechanics and features. There’s all the parkour business, of course, but there’s also the day night cycle and the effect it has on zombies, as well as the way you gather and use loot.

Dead Island was a series of safe hubs with hostile zones between them. You could career around outside taking out zombies and exploring on your own, but in general, the best way to move forward was to take quests and explore areas designed for specific missions, using the reward weapons for the next challenge.

Dying Light is more freeform, while still distinguishing itself from a sandbox like DayZ by having a quest structure. There are reasons to go out and interact with the world, and you can find and utilise your own safe spots while looking for loot and levelling up, rather than being entirely dependent on the story.

These are small, subtle changes to the formula and I’m in no way saying Dying Light is a hardcore survival game as opposed to a first-person RPG. But it’s definitely edging towards something more like survival than Dead Island was.

As, it seems, is the rest of the industry. We might never see permadeath in, say, Assassin’s Creed – but I wouldn’t surprised if we saw increased resource management and higher difficulty, for example. Survival is the new black.

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