Dying Light & 1st Person Platforming

I’ve never been much into zombies. While they are not something I purposefully avoid, I don’t find myself drawn by media revolving around them. Before playing Dying Light, the last game I played involving zombies was Death Road to Canada. There is an interesting similarity with how both games handle the zombies hordes; that is, as something that should be avoided wherever possible. In Death Road to Canada, a 2D indie roguelike, there’s not much to do but try and kite around the zombie, keeping as much distance between them and you as possible. Dying Light, a full 3D, 1st person open world game, uses a parkour mechanic to let the player jump, climb, and run high above the zombies’ reach. And it is some of the best use of platforming I’ve seen in a 1st person game.

Platforming in 1st person games is nothing new, of course. Doom had “platforming” elements in 1993 by asking players to run across gaps in the floor. Half-Life had the infamous Xen levels, where the player was expected to platform across an alien planet. Mirror’s Edge was a 1st person game built around freerunning and parkour in 2009. Even more modern games like Doom (2016) and Titanfall 2 use double jumps, ledge grabs, and wallrunning to add a sense of platforming to set them apart from other FPSs. But none of these games have the openness and freedom to explore as Dying Light offers.

Set in the fictional city of Harran, the game is split into two large maps: the Slums and Old Town. The Slums are made up of buildings and shacks closely confined together. There is a giant highway overpass above and cutting through the map. Old Town, on the other hand, feels more like a Mediterranean city, filled with narrow streets, taller brick buildings, towers, and chimneys jutting out of slated roofs. Both maps are tightly packed, sometimes even cluttered, and they would have been frustrating to navigate in another 1st person game limited to the ground, but the close proximity of the buildings in Dying Light makes it easy for the player to jump and climb, saying off the zombie infested ground.

The design of the maps focuses on the freerunning. There are routes specifically designed not to break the player’s flow with street lights placed the perfect distance apart to jump to, boards curving around building corners, and ramps to jump from lead you open windows or piles of garbage to staying fall into. This can guide the player along easy paths, but the almost chaotic nature of the maps’ designs also allow free exploration. Every building has a way to climb, be it window grates, awnings, or extruding brick work. Not only does this let the player explore and find their own route through Harran, but if you do mess up and plummet into a group of zombies, it’s just a matter of a quick look around to find a way above them again. The platforming is free-flowing and open for experimentation, which is rare in most AAA games with platforming elements. It’s not as laid out and linear as in the Titanfall 2 nor is it as obvious as in games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Doom (2016) which use colors to indicate what ledges can and cannot be used to climb.

With AAA games being a hodgepodge of differing gameplay elements and genres, it’s usually hard to describe any big budget game with a single genre. Dying Light itself is an open-world, 1st person action/adventure game. But it is as much of a platformer as any of those other descriptions. The climbing and jumping is integral to the game as one of the main loops, not an extra feature for the back of the box. Going back to Doom (2016) again, while jumping and verticality is important in a fight, most real platforming challenges reward the players with collectibles and secrets. Stripping out the platforming would make the game feel much more linear, but the main gameplay loop of fast paced demon killing would be kept completely intact. Dying Light would be a completely different game without the parkour system and would, at best, be just another zombie game, but with really limb melee combat. 

With parkour being a main focus of the game, its platforming controls have to be very tight, something many 1st person games struggle with, and luckily they are in Dying Light. The jump button is mapped to the shoulder button and it takes some getting used to, but once you learn to continue holding the jump button to grab ledges you’re aiming for, the controls click. There is the perfect amount of stickiness to grabbing ledges. The frames to grab climbable objects are strict enough to feel satisfying, but still lenient enough not to be frustrating. It strikes the perfect balance between being loose enough to be forgiving but tricky enough to be interesting. The game also understands the limits of the 1st person perspective. There is hardly any jumping on small platforms, an annoyance of the early FPS, and when there is, crossing them is a matter of keeping up speed and fluid running more so than jumping from platform to platform. 

Dying Light has a great understanding of what it can and cannot do with its platforming and how to make it fun, which makes it a real shame in the later half of the game when you enter Old Town. Out of the two maps, I prefer Old Town to run across. It’s taller buildings and ziplines make it more entertaining to parkour across. But the missions in this part of the game rely less on finding ways across the map and more on linear indoor or sewer levels. There are still platforming to be done in these areas, but they feel much less open, with there only being one, “correct” way for you to climb. It’s still fun to find that way around these levels, but missing the freedom of movement of the open maps makes these moments feel very restrictive.

I originally had an idea for this post that I would compare the platforming in Titanfall 2 and Doom (2016) to see which one was handled better in the 1st person perspective. But then a friend recommended Dying Light, saying it had the best platforming in a 1st person game they’ve played. After playing it myself, I would have to agree. It emphasizes the platforming more so than the other games and that forced it to be as good as possible, with tight controls and freedom of movement. There is a stigma around 1st person platforming and a belief that it just can’t work, which is sad because it could limit future games from offering new, differing experiences. Dying Light shows how fun platforming can be in a 1st person game if it is paid the right amount of attention during design. I hope we see more games like it in the future. More than just Dying Light 2, that is.

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