You Must Choose, But Choose Wisely

By Jonathan Barnes, 1 year ago
Kyle Crane is a drone, an errand boy, and the protagonist of Dying Light. From the outset, he is dropped into zombie-filled Harran on a mission from a generic, quasi-governmental organization to recover data on the zombie infection. Things go sideways quickly and Crane soon finds himself in debt to one the more benevolent factions in the post-meltdown quarantine zone... who gives him another series of errands to run. Those errands then have him cross paths with the other, less benevolent, faction in Harran and he is tasked with a new set of errands. Throughout the course of his trials and tribulations, Crane is a Labrador Retriever, fetching things that are asked for, finding people who are lost, and generally doing tasks that are either too mundane or dangerous for anyone else to do. This type of gameplay structure isn't new in the open-world super genre... in fact, it's almost rote. What makes Kyle's plight interesting is that, just like a subservient dog, he has little choice in any of these matters and follows the orders of all masters without any type of choice mechanic.

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For the past generation or two, many developers have eschewed a linear narrative in favor of branching ones that allow players to have an impact on the story in which they participate. From the choice between Megaton and Tenpenny Tower in Fallout 3 to the myriad of choices that shaped the Mass Effect series, gamers have become accustomed to having some impact on the narrative that games are presenting. Dying Light is not one of these games. While Crane may express displeasure at being tasked to do something that he (and, by proxy, the player) finds morally questionable, he is unable to NOT do it. Sure, Crane may give voice to his displeasure and express outrage at the things he is being "asked" to do, but the player is literally forced into action to progress the story. Upon finishing the task, Crane is given new orders to do a new thing for (possibly) a new master, and the process repeats, grumbling being the only thing that is optional.

The most interesting facet to this narrative device is that there are places in the game where a choice mechanic might have been beneficial: do you side with the underdog "good guys", the domineering "bad guys", or go it alone and just finish your mission? At a certain point in the story, one of your compatriots is kidnapped. Do you rescue them to please one faction or leave them to finish your mission? The entire story is full of binary (or larger) options that could have allowed for a branching storyline and a customizable story experience, but Techland was either uninterested or unwilling to add them.

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That isn't to say that Dying Light isn't without customizable variety. Three skill trees are present that allow the player to customize Crane's skills to their liking. Each skill tree also tracks experience points differently. If you engage in combat, you gain combat XP. If you run, jump, and climb, you gain mobility XP. Do you help others by doing side quests or advance the main storyline? You get survivor XP for that. Furthermore, the game map is littered with those side-quests to the point where choice becomes overabundant in one sense while completely negligent in the other. There is so much "stuff" to do in the game that it makes it hard to prioritize what is important and what is not. This creates an interesting dissonance: the game wants to give you choices except where those choices matter in terms of the narrative.

In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz asserts that too much choice can lead to anxiety and unhappiness. Schwartz cites one particular study from Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University who found that, when participants were presented with a smaller number of chocolate options, they were happier with their final choice than those who were presented with a larger number. In a certain sense, Dying Light litters its experience with far too many options while neglecting to engage in any meaningful ones. I couldn't help but sympathize with the participants in Iyengar/Leppar's study, no matter what I did in Dying Light I felt unsatisfied and thought that I might have been missing out on something better. It also does the opposite, providing no choice in the main narrative and railroading gamers into the predetermined narrative.

The abundance of side quests combined with the lack of narrative interaction calls into question respect for the player's time. While many players are more than happy to spend hours upon hours running errands for side characters (and will praise a game for providing a longer experience), I found them to be little more than a time-padding chore. For instance, one early side quest has you tracking down chocolates and a movie for a survivor so that you can exchange them for medicine. This quest took me almost completely across the first area map (no easy task given the size of the map and early state of my skills and weapons), then had me back track to two different locations, dispatching zombies, grabbing the items, returning back to exchange them, and then coming all the way back across the map to my original quest giver. While this is nothing more or less than what many games would task of a player, it struck me as inessential (and uninteresting) padding. After about 20 hours of "taking my time" with the game, leveling up, completing side quests, and advancing through about half of the main story, I found myself tired and bored of Harran. I was losing interest in the world, even though my skills were growing. This encouraged me to focus on the critical path and plow through the main story to completion.

But such was my choice.

Op-Ed 1

At the end of my experience, I can't help but agree with our review in which Andrew states, "It feels like the story is nothing more than an artifice to get the player through the game, moving from point A to point B, encouraging them to explore new areas, and introducing new elements in the world." Throughout my time in Harran, I couldn't help but feel the amazing technical aspects of the game were being held back by game's story and baffling use of choice. Similar open world games have thrived on a sense of space and narrative, creating a world that you want to save... a world you want to belong in. I think Dying Light's biggest failure is that Harran was neither of those things. I didn't care about any of the characters, I didn't care about Harran, I had no impact on the world at large, and while the gameplay and technical nature of the game could be seen as fun, they didn't draw me deeper into the world or make me feel like more than an errand boy.

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After over thirty hours (according to my achievement page... which I feel may be low), and a moment-wrecking series of QTE's that felt utterly out of place in the game (cue a completely different, 1,300 word editorial here), I stood over the Dying Light's antagonist holding the answer to the world's problems. Crane then looked down upon the defeated megalomaniac and declared himself in charge and that he was making the rules now. I couldn't help but laugh at the disingenuous nature of the statement. In one sense, Crane was finally fed up with being everyone's dog, but in another, I knew that I (as the player) would have no choice in what happened next. Sure enough, moments later, Crane's original pseudo-government employers were squawking in my ear about what I wanted to do with the data. Rather than offering a choice, the game simply ends, which I found all too fitting.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.