Saturday, April 11, 2015

Chamberlain and Chance on Dying Light (and Hotline Miami 2).

Chamberlain and Chance is back!  Chamberlain, you're no doubt aware, writes Infinite Backlog, which you should be reading.  Occasionally - rarely, preciously - we end up playing the same game around the same time, and firing off emails about it.

For example,

March 13th, 2015

CHAMBERLAIN:  Is it me or is Hotline Miami 2 just brutal?  It gets more difficult much faster than the first game.

CHANCE: It is - but it feels a lot like the next step after Biker's sections at the end of the original game. More like... challenge rooms for people familiar with Hotline Miami's gameplay who want a tighter set of rules to pull off crazy shit within.

CHAMBERLAIN: I got to the Hawaii soldier level last night, ran out of ammo, realized I had done the whole thing wrong, and went to bed. Is it actually possible to pick up more ammo?

CHANCE:  You can find more ammo.  I found some on a desk.

March 21st, 2015

CHAMBERLAIN: Just finished Hotline Miami 2..... Um, what? [REDACTED]? Didn't see that one coming.

CHANCE: (Does not respond.)

March 24th, 2015

CHAMBERLAIN: I spoiled the ending of Hotline Miami 2 for you, didn’t I?

CHANCE: Yes you did.
* * *

Now, Dying Light, you're no doubt aware, is considered an instant classic by yours truly.  I've turned some people around my office on to it (got a great response, now I'm pushing my victims towards Bloodborne), but Chamberlain won't be recommending it to anyone. 

Nosir.  He don't like it.  And so goes the plot of every Chamberlain and Chance... 

CHAMBERLAIN:  After two evenings of play I have come to grips with the fact that I do not like Dying Light. The game isn't going to change and I am of course going to complain about it and still play through to the end because that is what I do. But we are never going to get along and I am not going to call it back in a few weeks when it says that it misses me.

Complaint the first: the platforming is not good. That is a problem for a game that is billed as zombie parkour. Fighting the hordes is never the best option. The odds quickly deteriorate as more zombies show up so staying above ground level is always a good idea. The game makes quite a point in the early areas that you need to be looking at the edge that you want to catch. If you aren't looking in the right place or the target has slid off screen you fall and are killed by either the ground our your train of undead admirers.

A little more forgiveness or stickiness to the platforming would have made a world of difference. That and it should be more clear what you can and cannot grab. I spent a good half hour trying to climb a tower only to find that the climbable surface was on the opposite side even though both sides looked identical. That time the crowd of zombies below was content to watch and laugh, allowing my shame to kill me.

Complaint the second: there is no fast travel, or if there is, I haven't unlocked it yet. Fast travel in an open world game is a compromise between the game wanting all of the player's time and the player wanting to do other things with his or her life. I have unlocked every safe zone that I have come across, they should be good for something more than hiding in when night comes. At least let me travel to the Tower, the center of good guy operations, instead of treading over the same ground over and over.

Yes, there is a lot to see and much of it looks very good but when more than half of a play session consists of travelling over areas that I have already seen it is a problem. Familiarity breed contempt, especially when that familiarity is filled with zombies.

* * *

And thus, it was on.

* * *

CHANCE: After a few hours with Dying Light, it's still not the game it really is - not the game you want it to be, and not the game Techland have in mind.  After you unlock all the meaningful abilities and items, it becomes a very different beast.  The game is going to change.

The platforming is good. The tutorial tells you to press R1 to jump and grab a ledge, and you must be looking at the ledge, but that leaves the player with the impression that they need to tap R1.  Never tap R1 - that will give you a little bunny-hop, and that's it.  Always hold R1 until you're mantling up on whatever you're aiming for - you don't really need to look at what you're grabbing, you just need to be facing it.

You hold down R1 and you leap off the ground - as you fly, as long as you're still holding R1, you'll grab anything in front of you that can be grabbed.  The only place it gets finicky is when you want to jump and grab a vertical pole (lamp post), but even that is pretty easy once you get the hang of it.  The "look at where you want to jump" thing only really comes into effect when you're standing still - when you're hanging from one ledge, and want to jump to grab another.  You pan the camera around, level your view at the ledge you want to make a jump for, and hold R1.  You'll jump towards the ledge, grab it and pull yourself up.

What appears to be a tower of iron and steel is actually a monument of counter-intuitive design.

CHANCE: The "climbable surface on the opposite side" of that tower is because that tower's like a platforming puzzle.  I don't like that particular one either - it kinda' goes against the expectations the player forms of the platforming throughout the rest of the game, which makes the answer impossible to intuit.

And yeah, fighting is the worst option at the beginning of the game - you have such trouble killing zombies and they have so little killing you that it heavily incentivizes the player to get up on the rooftops and run - but again, that changes (and it teaches very strong platforming fundamentals in the player).

Once your stamina meter is a bit bigger, once you're packing some serious weaponry, it's a different game.  You'll be standing on a four-storey roof, looking over a plaza thick with fifty, sixty zombies, and the supply drop you're looking for smack dab in the middle - and that's not a no-win scenario any more, it's the Next Fun Thing you get to do, gibbing your way through five-score zombies.

And that's all fun, for me.  Zipping across the city, vaulting fences, swooping along horizontal beams, flying off rooftops - that shit's all a blast.  It strums that Platforming-Pleasure nerve in my brain, and it's the reason why there's no fast travel.

CHANCE: Techland's fast travel has always been the best damned fast travel in gaming.  In Dead Island, when you're on one side of a map and you want to get to the other side, you would activate the travel and - blink - you're there.  No load times, no nothing.  Nobody's ever done it better - and Dying Light uses an update to the same engine.  They could have done it again - chose not to.

Why?  Because the romance of the game is to leave the safety of X in the hope you can make it to Y before the sun sets, and the fun is in the how.  Platforming around its big, open world is the point and purpose of the entire game, and the familiarity the player gains with the precise layout of this alley in the Slums or that jumble of rooftops in Old Town allows them to not merely negotiate a line in the direction of their next waypoint, but to express themselves in this colossal jungle gym they've gotten to know so well.

If you could fast-travel to the Tower, there would be no desperate bid to make it before night falls.  There would be no hell-bent chase with two volatiles on your tail, feeling the rush of near-success as you round a corner in an alley to see that huge, familiar landmark that promises safety from what hunts you.

Putting fast travel in Dying Light would be like taking the timed button presses out of South Park - you could do it, but it would render much of the game a placid, pointless affair.

CHAMBERLAIN: There is a significant problem with the statement 'after a few hours it's still not the game it really is.'

You are excusing the game for not being very good at the outset. Player progression does not need to equate player frustration. As a classic example, take Symphony of the Night. The player starts out with the best of everything and just as he is beginning to feel himself it is all taken away. Alucard is left with his fists and a dirty shirt and the game is still fun. There is no 'give it a few hours and it will get better,' the game was dynamite from the very beginning to the very end.

How did it do this? With clever level and enemy design. The player was not tasked with fighting impossible enemies. Encounters were level, ability and equipment appropriate. Later, after many hours of progress that were themselves enjoyable, returning to the old locations showed the player how much they have improved. All of this without asking the player to wade through hour after hour of learning, introduction and training to have fun. DmC and Bayonetta are also excellent examples. The abilities possessed by the player are adequate to overcome the current obstacle, with new things being learned, both in game and by the player himself, at the appropriate time.

Dying Light fails to do this. The city of Harran is a beautiful place but from the outset the player to shown nothing but things that he cannot do. Fighting more than a handful of zombies at a time equals death yet most encounters bring dozens. Avoiding theses encounters is the best bet for survival yet key abilities needed to do so are not yet available. The player is tasked to suffer, literally suffer, through a few hours of poor game play to unlock skills that should have been there from the outset.

If Harran had been divided up in to some way to better match tasks with abilities this would not have been a problem. As it stands, yes, you are correct, at around the three or four hour mark the in game character in finally powerful enough for the player to enjoy him and the game actually begins. Everything that came before it was a waste of time that could have been easily fixed with a smaller sandbox, one more in tune with the set of skills given to the character.

Regarding fast travel, the skin of your teeth, get to the safe house before the sun sets moments are provided by scripted events. There are several sub quests that task the player with being out at night. When I am just trying to pick five random plants for a less interesting quest I don't want to deal with that, I just want to do gardening and deliver the product. It smacks of developer self importance. A great deal of time and effort was put into the city itself so the player is going to see it, over and over, even if he doesn't want to.

CHANCE: A ton of games are excused for not being as good at the outset as they become, and are cherished as classics for the game they turn out to be by the time you’re a tenth, a quarter, a half of the way through.  inFamous, Batman: Arkham, Dead Island, Resonance of Fate, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dead Space, Guacamelee, Metal Gear Solid, Dragon’s Crown, any JRPG ever – it’s harder to think of a game that doesn’t become far better as more options, choices and tactics open up to the player – but when I think of GTA IV or V, I don’t think of those slow-paced, laborious opening hours.  I think of blasting around town in my vehicle of choice, pulling off mad bank jobs, drifting around corners while layin’ down uzi fire and zooming down the San Andreas freeway in my custom GT Sabre Turbo.

Great beginnings are great, but they’re very, very rarely a game’s definitive statement of quality.  Few games are Limbo.

To be clear, I enjoyed those first few hours of Dying Light where you’re obligated to get to know the platforming mechanics intimately and learn to fear zombies as a very real threat.  Dying Light takes itself more seriously than previous Techland games, and it wants the player to feel like more of a vulnerable survivor at the outset, before they turn into the Badass Zombie Slayer/Parkour Ninja they will become.  And yes, in those early hours the inviting gazes of the skill trees were a regular reminder that one day I’ll be able to run up a zombie and jump off its head, or fall from above and do a drop attack, or slide under obstacles, and my abilities felt constrained and lacking – but I feel that’s by design, and not a bad choice.  It serves the game’s mythos.

If a pack of zombies were never something to fear – if you didn’t have trouble taking more than one at a time down at the onset, if the big guys didn’t seem impossible, at first – it would be meaningless when you finally defeated one, and claimed its concrete club.  It would be meaningless when you drop into a plaza of fifty zeds, pull up your cherished Zweihander of Awesomeness and dive in with grim, bloody confidence – but because of the foundation of human vulnerability Techland lay at Dying Light’s onset, it’s anything but meaningless.  It’s spectacular.

I'm gonna' kick all yo' asses!

CHAMBERLAIN:  The games you mention do not have bad beginnings, they have slow beginnings, and necessarily so. JRPGs specifically have many systems to show the player so it takes a while to do it. During that time the player is, if not hand held, coddled, and I have absolutely no problem with that. Difficulty curve is not a dirty word(s). A game should allow the player to get his or her feet under them before throwing them to the wolves, or zombies, as it were.

There is no difficulty curve in the opening hours of Dying Light, there is a plateau. The zombies milling about at the base of the tower are the same ones in the first hour as are there in the fifth. Of course they are easier in the fifth but my point is that they were inappropriate for the ‘training’ portion of the game. There is no ramping up to bigger and meaner, the bigger and meaner are the norm and it is up to the player to push their way through. I did not find this enjoyable in least, especially when it would be so easily remedied.

I am not asking to start out with all of the toys, just that the opening segments of the game are put together with the limited abilities of the player and the player character in mind. Give me time to fall in love with how the game works instead of beating me over the head without how awesome it is going to be later. I might not make it to later, let me have fun now.

Thankfully I did make it to later, and the game is better, but not without blemish. The challenge levels can be a bit on the broken side, like being tasked with killing 60 zombies and there aren’t 60 zombies in the area to kill and there is not enough time to go and look for more. I can just not play those, so no harm done. I refuse to concede the no fast travel being good point. There is too much to do, both in the game and in life, to suffer through the same streets over and over. The technology exists, give me the option to use it. For a game that takes such glee is killing the player, especially in the beginning, the death penalty is a bit harsh. At least it punishes the player more for getting killed by zombies than it does for falling to death, as falling to death is, more often than not, not at all the player’s fault.

And did the world really need another arena level? Come on, Techland, that’s just lazy.

CHANCE: First, “a game should allow the player to get his or her feet under them before throwing them to the wolves, or zombies, as it were.”

Tons of (exemplary) games begin by throwing the player into the proverbial deep end without a gentle, manicured gradient that slowly explores each mechanic in turn - Bloodborne.  Bayonetta. God Hand. Don't Starve. The Last of Us (think the first clicker fight). Olli Olli. Metal Gear Rising. Devil May Cry. Resonance of Fate.

Dying Light.

Second, try playing through the opening few hours of GTA V and tell me it’s more fun than Dying Light’s.  Heck no (I.M.O.)

And yes, you do lose a bunch of survivor points when you die... during the day time.  The day time is Dying Light on easy mode – and if the player lets themselves screw up and get overwhelmed by a horde or leaps off a rooftop they never got intimate enough with to properly judge the distance between it and the ground (an intimacy that would never be earned if they fast-travelled across the map instead of getting to know it very, very well), Dying Light makes you pay the price.  It is the risk you take for not being brave enough to go out after dark – balanced by the relative ease of navigating the world and killing zombies in the day time.

Choose to take off the training wheels and do it at night, though... and you lose nothing.   In fact, if you manage to not die and make it to the nearest safe house, if you manage to evade the pursuing volatiles, if you manage to survive the night entirely, the game rewards you with a huge extra chunk of survivor points.

Have you gotten to Old Town?  Once I saw the towers, scaffolds, wire-bridges (meaner enemies) and sprawling plazas of Old Town, it became very apparent to me that the Slums were Dying Light on, again, easy mode.  You could not, in any way, shape or form survive Old Town with the skills, abilities and experience you have at the beginning of the game.  The Slums are Dying Light’s tutorial – designed with the player’s limited toolset in mind.  Old Town is the game running on all cylinders, and I took to sleeping throughout the day to only go out at night for supply drops, for quests, for just wandering around and collecting herbs, because it was the most rewarding in all ways – challenge, experience points, aesthetic and the spirit of the game itself.

Old Town.

CHANCE:   And yeah, some of those challenge missions can kiss my ass.  I ended up hitting a wall on the “land 30 headshots” mission (hard to do when I’ve got runners crashing into me every three seconds) and the “throw zombies into spikes” mission.  The “kill X amount of zombies in X amount of seconds” missions I loved, though.  Give me a breech-loading double-barreled shotgun and set me loose on some Volatiles – yes.  Give me a flaming machete and three groups of twenty-ish zombies I have to dash between, butchering, to make it to sixty kills in a hundred seconds – hell yes.

I have to think you can’t accept the lack of fast travel because (maybe?) you don’t actually find the game all that fun.  The act of climbing buildings, jumping across alleys and sprinting around groups of infected, I mean.  For me, the lack of fast travel speaks to the entire point of the game – that if you, brave and able survivor, want to get across town to solve that latest tragic mystery, you’re going to lope across rooftops, swoop through train yards and take swan dives off freeway overpasses.  You don’tneed fast travel because you can get anywhere, in any zone, inside of five minutes – and that’s what the game sold itself as.  That’s its fantasy.

It’s a game about parkouring across a sprawling city in the grips of an apocalypse.  When playing it, I never felt like I have to run across town – I felt that I get to – and that’s awesome.  That’s fun.  That’s keeping Dying Light’s promise – it’s the experience Techland promised, from their very first trailer, it’s what I wanted from the game and it’s what they delivered.

(Check mark.)  Success.  A-plus.

CHANCE: The reason the game, as a whole, feels so successful to me (beyond the excellent graphics, solid framerate, nice art direction, fabulous first-person melee combat and comfortable, capable platforming), is because there is nothing else out there like this.  Consider the space Dying Light exists in.   Think of other really great first-person brawlers.

  • Dead Island
  • Zeno Clash (or so I hear)

Think of another really good first-person platformer.

  • Mirror's Edge

Think of a really good open-world platformer.

  • inFamous
  • Sly Cooper

Name me a really good open-world first-person platformer.

Name me a really good open-world first-person brawler RPG platformer.

Dying Light exists in a space that had gone un-filled – un-acknowledged, perhaps unimagined – until its existence.  There is literally no other game can supply the fantasy that Dying Light offers the player – that, plus the fact that I find it endlessly fun makes it a huge success, to me – and any of its missteps are lost and largely meaningless, in the face of that.   I’ve played too many third-person brawlers, too many JRPGs, too many western RPGs, too many third-person open-world actioners, too many first-person shooters, but I’ve never played anything like this.  It’s beautiful, and it’s definitely one of those games I’ll be coming back to, regularly, in the coming years.

Could it be better?  Absolutely.  Just because a game is a classic doesn't mean it, and its genre, can't be improved upon (FFVII, MGS) - but neither does that diminish its accomplishment.

CHAMBERLAIN:  Of the games that you listed only a few are actually examples of offering little assistance to the player: Bloodborne, Olli Olli, Don’t Starve and Dying Light. Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising and Devil May Cry accommodated limited move sets with wimpy enemies that became more powerful as the player became more powerful. Resonance of Fate has a tutorial the same as any other JRPG.  The Last of Us did not rush the player to the first clicker fight and I, well, I never played God Hand.

You can have my gamer card, if you like.

I am intrigued by your inclusion of The Last of Us in that list. The clicker fight was indeed not much fun but I would have had more of an issue with it if it came at the very beginning when Joel’s daughter was wandering around the house, completely defenseless. Bloodborne is the more apt comparison. My complete annoyance with that genre, and it is a genre now, is probably coloring what I think of Dying Light.

Dying Light is never that hard, it is just not much fun for the first several hours. I got past it which is more than I can say for the first part of GTAV.

How much time will you give any leisure activity when someone assures that it will eventually be a good time? Months? Days? My personal limit is somewhere around an hour but that is because I have a very short attention span and a never ending list of games to play.

The entirety of Don't Starve's tutorial.

CHAMBERLAIN: This discussion has moved past Dying Light to almost game theory, which is fine, so I will attempt an explanation: very difficult games like Bloodborne and games that do little to soften the learning curve like Dying Light highlight how different people react to failure. Since I play these games only for the experience and not for the challenge I take failure, especially failure that I deem unfair, personally. The game has failed me. This is neither right or wrong, it is what my mind does when confronted with something that I was not prepared for. I lost because it wasn’t fair and I have a difficult time throwing myself at it again. And again. And again.

You, on the other hand, take it as a challenge. A gauntlet has been thrown and you’ll be damned if you are bested by the game. You are willing to put in the work to see what the game has to offer while I think that if the game had that much to offer it should meet me halfway. Hiding exceptional content behind a wall of difficulty seems foolish to me.

Getting back to Dying Light, the first person parkour just isn’t working for me. There are precious few examples of it done right: Mirrors Edge, Portal and maybe Breakdown, though that was more first person combat than anything else. I am over half way through the main campaign and I still routinely miss jumps or don’t grab a ledge or wander off the side of a building because I was not sure where I began and my feet ended. It is a distinct possibility that I am just not very good at the game, but at least a contributing factor is that I find depth in the game difficult to measure.

CHAMBERLAIN: Case in point: the big fireman bastards who swing chunks of rebar with concrete on the end. They hit so far past where it feels like they should hit that I never fight them close up anymore. They also have managed to hit me through walls so perhaps it is rebar with an area of effect enchantment.

This is why I want fast travel, so I can get things done without having to walk there. I made it there once, thereby proving I could do it, so don’t make me do it again, because I might fall off an edge and die or run across a blaring alarm and die and take too long, end up in the dark, and die. Or worst of all, I could almost unlock a safe zone and have an explosive zombie step out of a closet and kill me because I had not predicted that it would be there.

That actually happened. I was not amused.

CHANCE: Even when it was a real challenge (there are kill-sixty-zombies in X amount of seconds challenges with exploding zeds liberally sprinkled throughout and hidden within the crowds), I didn't feel like the game was being a jerk to me - I felt like it was offering this puzzle, assembled of various zombies, that it wanted me to solve - and I believed it had provided me all the tools required to do so... and that differing reaction, I agree, lies at the crux of our disagreement.

It's not so much that I take it as a challenge... it's that I'm prepared to offer the game the benefit of the doubt - that it has the best intentions for me - and I think I know why.

First, I love the fantasy the game offers.  Second, it's possible that that very affection has driven the desire in me (and thus, the ability) to come to very comfortable grips with its control scheme and mechanics.  After not-long, the space my character inhabited within the game became crystal-clear to me, and understood on some fundamental level that permitted me to leap from rooftops to tumble-land onto little wire bridges, or go from a zed-jump to smack into a flat wall which I could then run vertically up before grabbing the ledge of a two-storey building.   It just clicked with me... but it hasn't, for you.

CHANCE: Street Fighter hasn't clicked with me since II: Turbo on the SNES, for the record. Don't play 'em - don't love 'em.  They speak a gameplay language I'm just not fluent in, and I cannot adequately communicate my intentions to onscreen action.  I cannot express myself, via Street Fighter - and so the game is... well, worthless to me.  I can appreciate why others love it (I can appreciate watching a tourney bout), but I can beautifully express myself in Dying Light, and it makes all the difference in the world. I can write sonnets of movement and zombie genocide.

I believe that what draws a player in to the point that they become so intimate with a game that they begin to speak its language is their reaction to the fantasy it offers. No doubt, there are folks who played BioShock and just couldn't bring themselves to become dazzled by the underwater city of Rapture - and thus couldn't be bothered to beat that first Big Daddy - but for others, getting the shit beat out of them by that hulking brute provoked a different response.

If one finds themselves absorbed in the fantasy or enchanted by the promise a game offers - Bloodborne or Dying Light or The Last of Us or Grand Theft Auto V - perhaps one is more prepared to fall off a building and say "hm, I screwed that up" instead of "this game has failed me."

To me, the platforming of Dying Light is a massive improvement over the razor-sharp but incredibly finicky controls of Mirror's Edge.  It is the DmC-ification of that formula - retaining the flow, meaning and translation of player intention of those mechanics, while smoothing it out, simplifying it and making it more accessible and more expressive for the player.

CHANCE: And that's the difference, I think.  I think you hit it on the head when you pointed out that Street Fighter is equally dismissive of new players - because Street Fighter is a language you've been speaking for years, and you are fluent in it.  The game permits you to sing, through its beautiful, kinetic language - but when you climb up onto a rooftop in Dying Light, you find yourself speaking with a pronounced lisp.

I get why that would be frustrating, and why you'd want to spend as little time suffering through that indignity as possible.  Similarly, I think that explains why I love it.  I speak Dying Light, and its language flows out of me like a river of motion.

And zombie guts.  Motion and zombie guts.

CHAMBERLAIN:  Everything good you have to say is overridden by the game ending with a God damn quick time event.  [ed: no it isn't.]

You had to know it would piss me off. :)

CHANCE:  I  know your aversion to quicktime, particularly at a conclusion - but I actually never beat it.  I got to the point where it says "warning: this is the last mission!", said "F that noise, I ain't done in Harran" and resumed having a blast.

A quicktime event at the end doesn't turn a good game bad.  Uncharted: Drake's Fortune remains a classic, no matter how you landed the last punch (though, obviously, Among Thieves was better).

CHAMBERLAIN: Damn, sorry.

Spoiled another one for you.


  1. This was great. We need more Siskel and Eberts weighing in on the 7.5 and 8.0 reviews. There are babies in those review's bath water.