Opinion: "Forget graphical grunt, atmosphere is more important"

Firing up Dying Light the other night, I didn’t expect to be impressed. I’d quite enjoyed it at a few preview events over the last year, but was never convinced it would deliver more than a couple of weekends’ goofy, undemanding, zombie-smashing fun upon release. But then it booted up. And I heard something. And I got really, really excited.

Dying Light’s soundtrack delivers something special. Not the same generic, orchestral bombast I’ve long-since become bored of hearing and insta-forgetting, but an understated, all-pervading wave of pulsing, ambient synth. And not just any synth. 100% authentic, genuine imitation ’80’s John Carpenter. A particular brand of minimal, affecting, cold, ungodly moody electronica à la Escape From New York.

Far from dating Carpenter’s films, it makes them timeless, the unique tone and precise, low-fi delivery creating a distinctly brooding atmosphere that bonds all of the director’s work with the same weighty vibe. These may be bleak, blunt tales of action, horror and decay, but their music gives them real texture and power. And so it is with Dying Light.

I can already tell that in pure gameplay terms, the game is decent fun but no classic. But it isn’t the throwaway experience I expected, either. By making the smart nod to Carpenter, by aligning itself with that particular faction of ’80s genre cinema, it elevates its schlock horror beyond the superficial fun of its parts. The sense of oppressive desolation transforms the ineffectual shamblers into a genuinely ominous sight.

The first nocturnal ‘mission’ – the negotiation of a very long stretch of town, above vast throngs of stubbornly disinterested zombies – is, objectively, threat-free filler material, but with that soundtrack accompanying me, it becomes an impactful, ambient experience.

Not enough games consider the importance of tone. It isn’t about angsty dialogue, or graphical fidelity. It’s about the texture you give your game. Its personality, and how that affects the player. Tone can change everything.

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