When Dying Light released back in the winter of 2015, it managed to leave a mark by bringing something fresh to the still-tired zombie genre and by building up a community that's sticking around almost four years later. The game's Polish developer Techland told Polygon that the game is still seeing 500,000 unique players per week and has racked up over 13 million players total. That's a lot of people digging on zombie parkour. So when Techland announced that not only was it building a sequel to the game, it was also bringing in industry veteran Chris Avellone to work on the story, we sat up and took notice.
During E3, we had a chance to sit down and talk to Dying Light 2's lead designer, Tymon Smektala about what makes this game different and what Avellone's guidance means for the game.
At the core of the story is the idea of the "modern dark ages."
"This [idea] transfers itself to basically everything that there is in the game," Smektala said. "The narrative has traces of things that you would expect from medieval times – intrigue, betrayal, infidelity – basically, Game of Thrones in the Walking Dead universe."
That's a bold comparison.
"Then there's the visuals. Civilization has gone back to medieval times as well as the rules and morals that govern us," Smektala explained. He conjured up the image of a shopping mall, filling with shacks and being built up with fortifications. The zombies outside have a look inspired by largely medieval afflictions like the black plague. The humans inside wield melee weapons created from modern materials. In this world, Smektala says, guns are largely absent – ammo has been used up, and firearms have been destroyed or repurposed. A gun is "almost like an artifact from a previous life."
This setting is perfect for the narrative sandbox. That's where Chris Avellone comes in. Avellone's list of games with big, branching narratives is long. He sstepped into roles of writer, lead writer, lead designer, and the like on games including Fallout 2, Fallout New Vegas, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Pillars of Eternity, Planescape: Torment, and Torment: Tides of Numenera. In his games, choice matters. The things you say and do matter.
With Dying Light 2, Avellone has been involved almost from the start, and Smektala says the sandbox they're building should be one you can interact with the same way you might a physical sandbox, where you can see the outcomes of your movements in real time.
"What this game does is that it gives you simple rules to understand. If you see a boulder on a hill, you push the boulder down and it crushes everything in its path. Easy to understand. With sandbox gameplay, you understand this, so you try to use that knowledge, that rule to your advantage, to create a gameplay outcome that you want," Smektala explained. "And so we take this same approach to the narrative."
You come into a world you know nothing about, but you'll learn the rules of it.
"Those guys don't like those guys, but these guys like those other guys, those guys only come out at night, those guys don't talk to anyone who's infected, and when you learn those rules, you can try to use [them] as you make your decisions in the narrative to generate the outcome you want."
If you want one faction in the game removed from a region, you might work with the other factions to strengthen them.
"They become this formidable force and make the other faction [want to] escape because they're surrounded, now the say 'okay, we don't want this region anymore."
In other words, you'll be manipulating the world to your whims, Smektala says, Machiavelli style.
"If you visit our studio, we have a wall twice this size," he said, referring to the huge wall of the E3 meeting room we were chatting in. "All of the connections are mapped out by printouts, sticky notes, et cetera, in the room of our narrative team. This is quite complex."
Smektala isn't underestimating the value Avellone brings to the team, though.
"The experience of Chris is something that helps us not to lose our minds in all of this, because he's used to working with these nonlinear narratives. He knows this stuff and he's really willing to share all of this with our writers. We have our internal team… which has tripled in size compared to Dying Light, we have people that worked on the [Dying Light: The Following expansion], some writers quite known in Poland, there is a team of experienced writers… that works under the guidance of Chris."
Honestly, that sounds exciting. The parkour of the original game was refreshing and fun, but the story drove me bonkers with how predictable and hackneyed it was. Dying Light 2, on the other hand, has a clear vision informing how the world works, and the team is clearly committing a ton of resources to making the narrative both interesting and interactive. I keep saying I'm bored of zombie games, but this one is on my watch list.
Dying Light hits PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One sometime in 2019.