One day, we will look back upon the last decade and come to realise that the greatest trick developers pulled this generation was in convincing players that they had any agency over the virtual worlds that they inhabit.
Our fascination with even the most rudimentary inclusion of choice and consequence metrics makes complete sense; we feel empowered when we feel as if we are in control, be it over the direction of a branching narrative or the characters that populate them. But, the truth is, many of the choices that we make in so many video games are binary. Pick between a thinly veiled Option A and Option B to immediately receive a reward or response. Basic morality systems leave us to deliberate over the concept of right versus wrong in an arena that is free of any real consequence. Systems bend around colour-coded sliders, having only the most tangential impact on the direction of a story or the way in which a game is played. There has to be another way, right? Techland believes that there is and it's putting it on full display in Dying Light 2 (opens in new tab).
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If you listen to Dying Light 2’s producer Kornel Jaskula tell it, the studio has one hell of a pitch for the future of open-world sandbox design. “We believe that Dying Light 2 is the first game of its type. It’s going to be a game where your choices will have genuine consequences, from how the world looks, to how the game plays, to the events that occur throughout the story. This is an open-world game where you should treat the narrative as a gameplay mechanic.”
As far as statements of intent go, this one piqued my interest. The studio is attempting to build a game world that is forever shifting underfoot. Techland has set out to “create a complex matrix” of choices that constantly feeds back out into every facet of the game. This is an experience where you will feel the weight of every one of your decisions, each of them reflected in the narrative, game and visual design. “Everything can change,” Jaskula teases. “The state of the world is always the result of the decisions that you make. The choices you make allow you to make your own version of this city."
Making a dream a reality
To make this dream a reality, Techland has poured resources into constructing new proprietary technology, a necessary expense (and headache) to engineer something as ambitious as Dying Light 2. “You could say that it has been quite the challenge,” Jaskula laughs. “All of this has forced us to change the technology behind our games. We created a brand new engine – the C-Engine – to support the focus on choice and consequence that runs through the story and the gameplay.”
But all of this will be for nought if Techland can’t sell the concept of its ‘narrative sandbox’ to prospective players. The truth is, it’s incredibly difficult to demonstrate something so inherently systemic. The entire game is layered in such a way that even the smallest interactions, decisions and actions can feed back into the simulated world at large. If every one of your actions feeds into the wider scope of the story, as well as the gameplay opportunities that pervade the experience, simultaneously, how do you possibly convey that idea to the players?
The best way to think about the structure, Jaskula suggests, is if you cast it in the context of going rogue with a LEGO set. “The player does have an overall goal in Dying Light 2, but it’s up to you to decide how you get to it,” he tells me of the overarching narrative, one which sees you charged with trying to locate an object that can potentially turn the tide of the zombie apocalypse in your favour. “It’s like having LEGO bricks and being given the goal of building a house. We give you the bricks but not the original set – you don’t have the instructions that can take you through it step-by-step. You only have the goal and it’s up to you to decide how that house will look by the very end – but it is going to be a house. It’s up to the player to figure out how the bricks can connect, how they influence one another, and how the building and its interior takes shape…”
Building a better world
As far as analogies go it’s admittedly a little messy, but I think it works. Take the demo shown to the public late last year; In it, you’ll see a group of smugglers seize control of a water tower in a dilapidated district of the city and begin rationing resources that are vital to survival. One of the local factions, The Peacekeepers – the last bastion of law and order – send us in to investigate after an emissary goes missing. Assist The Peacekeepers in eliminating the squatters and the area will evolve accordingly as a result, introducing new gameplay and narrative opportunities to you.
The Peacekeepers may begin to gradually move into the district and bring their considerable wealth and influence with them, which in turn could give you benefits such as free health stations and new traversal options to better assist your movement when night falls. Decline the offer and choose to side with the smugglers, on the other hand, and you’ll have to pay for clean water like everybody else, but you will get a monetary cut of the illegal businesses that begin cropping up in the area and may even see new hubs appear, such as black market retailers selling high-end weapons and rare crafting materials. You could choose to ignore this strand of the game entirely, forcing a whole other set of opportunities to unfurl.
Techland confirms the grappling hook is back for Dying Light 2 (opens in new tab) and it promises it won’t break the game (this time).
If the choice seems clear-cut on paper, Techland is keen to assure us that this is still a world of grey areas. There are no clear ‘right or wrong’ decisions; The Peacekeepers are authoritarian by their very nature, so while the area may become more overtly safe – shifting the locations of Dark Zone areas and hordes of zombies, for example – the group will begin to crack down on any behaviour that doesn’t fall in line with its own. Siding with the smugglers, on the other hand, will turn the district into a criminal den, but it won’t be under the iron fist of the government, giving you more freedom to move and space to act as you please.
Every faction in Dying Light 2 has its own goals and motivations; They have their own enemies, friends and plans for the future. Interfering with any of these elements will have an impact on something else in the city, with the game working behind the scenes to constantly generate new scenarios and world states, all of which will steadily lead you towards the end-game objective. Of course, little of the change in the city will happen overnight. Techland wants the city to feel like a living, breathing space. For this to work, Dying Light 2 has to feel as if it is being constantly shaped by player-driven decisions, rather than being altered by scripted moments triggered at pivotal points in key quests.
The shifting space of the city
Some of these changes may be immediately apparent, while others will be smaller and established over time – such as gradual alterations to the topography of the city, a change in population types, or the location of human and zombie enemies, among other things. As we said, every decision yields a different result, and it is only as these outcomes begin to layer up on top of one another that you will begin to see them manifest in the world as completely different combinations of gameplay, story and visual elements. “Changes aren’t immediate,” Jaskula reaffirms. “They can take some time to manifest because they aren’t binary changes… when we showed how the vista of the city changed [in the E3 2018 demo] it wasn’t based on any one decision, there were many decisions that the player would have to make leading up to that moment and each of those decisions can create something different.”
Techland doesn’t know exactly how many different branching and divergent paths Dying Light 2 will have just yet, or if it does it isn’t saying – it must be, after all, difficult to pinpoint. To support this direction, Techland has had to create, frankly, an incredible amount of content. “We are designing the game with the foundation that some of the players will miss content and we are okay with that,” says Jaskula. “It’s almost like we are creating several games worth of content right now. But, thanks to the variety of stories, of missions, content and assets, we believe that it will make players want to play the game again and again or try to play with other players in co-op to see their worlds. That’s something that we established as a foundation at the very beginning, it’s one of our design goals, and it’s something that we still keep in mind.”
All of this work is being done to give you the opportunity to build your very own world and story within Techland’s sandbox. In theory, that means every player’s experience will be unique. Dying Light 2 is designed to increase depth in open-world action adventure games in a way that we haven’t quite seen before, and it is purpose-built to cause conversation and enact storytelling sessions between friends.
Or, better still, you’ll be able to jump into a friend’s world and experience it for yourself if you want to. “Of course, Dying Light 2 will support co-operative gameplay. It’s in our DNA,” Jaskula confirms, before revealing how the four-player co-op system will bend to each player’s unique world state. “Whoever plays the game, it is their game. You can join my game – with your experience, your skills, your equipment – but it’s going to be my world, built by my decisions and I’m going to make the decisions that continue to shape it. But I can then join your game and it’ll be completely different, with completely different outcomes shaped by your decisions.” If you’re looking for the word to describe all of this, it’s ‘wild’.
The unlikely success of Dying Light
So what has emboldened Techland to take on such an evolutionary stance to game design? It probably has something to do with the unlikely success of the first Dying Light; a game that seemed to arrive out of nowhere, from the ashes of Dead Island, to prove that there was still work to be done in the open-world space yet. In fact, since its release in 2015, Dying Light (opens in new tab) has become something of a cult classic of this generation.
The game may well have eluded the attention of the media for the last three years, but the players have certainly taken notice of Techland’s dedication and responded in kind. “We haven’t been talking to the media! We have been talking directly to the players, so maybe that’s why it has been such a success,” he says, laughing. “No, no, the truth is, we have this huge community now. If you compare the original title, when it released three years ago, to how it looks and plays today, it’s almost like it’s a completely different game. We made a lot of changes and gave it a lot of support – a lot of additional content, most of which was free. That has gotten us a lot of support from the players and we just want to give them more freedom and more of what they want.”
I recently had the opportunity to view a fresh behind-closed-doors demonstration of the game in action and I was, honestly, left in awe of what the studio is attempting to put together here. It’s also gave me cause to reflect on the last three years – on the success of Dying Light and how that passionate community has pushed the studio to broaden its horizons.
By pouring so much time and energy into supporting Dying Light, Techland had the wits to gather key feedback on the minutiae of its creation by entering into an honest and open discussion with the players. The huge variety of content on offer, from smaller-scale DLC such as Cuisine & Cargo and The Bozak Horde to larger standalone expansions, such as The Following and Bad Blood, has effectively given Techland the time and space that it needed to properly process what a full sequel could or should look like.
As proof of its commitment to this process, Techland even put Hellraid on hold back in May of 2015 (much to the dismay of some corners of the community) to focus on serving the burgeoning Dying Light community. All told, all of this extra work has been instrumental to get Techland to where it is today. “Our community has a voice,” continues Jaskula. “That’s why we are still supporting Dying Light even now, four years after its premiere. There are still more than half a million players playing the game each week. They have given us a chance to gather important feedback – we are constantly talking to the community. We are getting this feedback from them and we are putting it all into this bold sequel to the original game.”
‘Bold’ barely covers it. While a lot of the studio’s creative energy has been focused on creating the engaging, dynamic world and narrative that we’ve just scratched the surface of, it has also spent considerable time improving upon the core pillars of the original game.
Expanding the scope of play
The size of the new urban play area is huge. Remember, Dying Light took place over two huge sprawling open-world maps, which was later expanded to a third in The Following – which was actually twice the size of the previous two combined. Well, Techland is promising that the new city will be coming in at some four times the size of the map found in the original Dying Light, it's an impressive accomplishment. “Not only is the city bigger at a 2D level, but it’s also more vertical – it’s higher, you could say because it’s like a European metropolis,” says Jaskula of the principal differences between the new city and Harran. “There’s also a lot more space to fight on the ground now, especially against human enemies. We needed more space to really challenge the skill of player fighters.”
The movement has been entirely overhauled, with Dying Light’s famously slick traversal now made even better by the inclusion of double the number of parkour moves – navigating this open world should be an expression, Jaskula tell us. As too should the technical combat, with Techland pushing to ensure that its robust melee, weapon crafting and AI systems work in tandem to create memorable and engaging experiences.
Techland gives us an exclusive look at the new zombie types of Dying Light 2 (opens in new tab).
This, we’re told, is a perfect example of how feedback has influenced the development of Dying Light 2. “We’ve been watching a lot of PvP matches of Dying Light to influence our direction. We observe how the players behave and react to each other’s actions, and,” Jaskula explains, “we are creating our AI systems to be as reflective of real players in PvP matches as possible. We want you to feel like you are fighting real players instead of AI.”
Combat is heavier and more deliberate as a result. Encounters with battle-hardened human survivors – Dying Light 2 takes place 15 years after the original infection, this city is the last that humanity has – will now be real challenges to survive. Enemies fight smart and look to overwhelm, pushing you to block, dodge and work for your openings. If that should fail, you’ll now be able to unleash parkour attacks, allowing you to traverse more aggressively than before or utilise physical objects in the world as part of your combat strategies. And should that fail, well, you’ll still be able to add a litany of ridiculous makeshift improvements to your weaponry – the studio estimates that more than 50 new customisable effects can be added to your custom builds.
This is still just scratching the surface of Dying Light 2. The day and night cycle has been completely re-worked, as to has the artificial intelligence of the infected and the general progression systems. All of this is impressive, but we’re still struggling to pull our attention from what it is trying to achieve with its intertwined story and gameplay.
Dying Light 2 is first and foremost an open-world action game, there’s no doubting that. It's fast and ferocious, a game that still derives real joy out of its free-flowing movement systems and kinetic combat. But it’s an action game that draws from RPGs in a way that we weren’t expecting. This isn’t about micromanaging stats or skill trees, nor is it concerned with having you pick through rudimentary dialogue choices or in making you sit back and watch as a game reacts and shifts to your decisions in a cutscene. Dying Light 2 treats its narrative design the same as it does its gameplay – this is a sandbox, a true sandbox. It’s a game about choice and expression, about feeling like you’re in full control of your character and their destiny, in a world that is constantly reflecting your successes and failures, no matter how large or small they may be.
It can be easy to scoff when Techland announces that Dying Light 2 might indeed be the “first game of its type”. But after seeing it in action, after speaking with the team working so diligently behind the scenes, we’re honestly struggling to find ways to argue with the assertion.
Stay tuned to GamesRadar+ for more news and coverage of Dying Light 2 later this week, or check out our guide to the best new games of 2019 (opens in new tab) and beyond.