Dyling Light’s vast, open-world city of Harran is unique at its very foundation, taking as inspiration more Middle Eastern stylings, which are traditionally neglected in video game map design. This vision is clung to zealously, the potentials inherent to that environment seized upon fully – it is reflected in the city’s architecture, its foliage, and, to a lesser extent, its inhabitants, the numerically abundant NPC’s, dispersed throughout the game world liberally. Something indefinably beautiful is present here, as palm trees blow and sway in the breeze, loosening their fronds which are picked up in the air, permitted to travel peacefully and tranquilly. But beyond such flora, it is the mentioned architecture which is of greatest importance, as the gameplay centers around swift, organic maneuverability, ascension. Were the world design here flawed or uninspired, the entire game would collapse catastrophically. This pitfall is averted, environmental design permitting gameplay systems to flourish and excel. The grandeur of these environments, some buildings of an almost palatial status, reaching upwards towards the heavens, conveys a commanding sense of scale, which is simultaneously contrasted by the squalid slums which are first explored. Taking these areas collectively, scale is communicated further by a commanding draw distance, dilapidated skyscrapers, their skeletons exposed, looming menacingly and tragically in the distance, reflecting the fallen state of the city. The immense environmental diversity, too, staves off potential repetition, heightening also the joys of exploration, that joy being one of the game’s greatest achievements.
The game’s two primary maps must be discussed in more detail, as each is totally distinct aesthetically and in the nature of atmosphere evoked. The title opens in the aptly named “slums,” where the effects of the viral outbreak are most perceptible – buildings are in disrepair, while many cars line the various highways, abandoned and belching forth thick plumes of black smoke, polluting and corrupting the skies. All around is squalor and decay, though it is a strangely beautiful squalor and decay – something majestic characterizes these ramshackle houses, as they communicate the resiliency of the population; even before the outbreak was struggle and hardship, though still the people persisted. From a gameplay perspective, immense verticality is seen only infrequently, certainly when compared to the later map, though here is a clever inclusion of more rural stylings, rivers and lakes on the far fringes of the dense urban sprawl – even here is characteristic diversity, largeness of scope and ambition. Those mentioned sprawling highways are also navigable, and the present state of the cars reflects the hastiness with which they were abandoned, as if the citizens were caught unawares by the outbreak. Poor formal logistical planning – the absence of wide, logically designed streets – means that the spaces between buildings is on the smaller size, equating to easy maintenance of speed and locomotion; the elegance of movement is on full display here, Kyle leaping about lithely.
The second environment explored is a radical departure from the sometimes-claustrophobic, grounded slums – “Old Town” is decidedly different, its introduction reinvigorating gameplay. Here, the destruction seems relatively lessened, not as widespread – decay is certainly present, but it is offset by the beautiful majesty of the architecture, its sometimes staggering scope. Safe houses are present, though many easily exceed in beauty and grandeur the central Tower resting at the heart of the Slums, one such area boasting beautiful stained glass windowing, communicating some sense of ancientness and endurance, an ancientness existing in complement to marked modernity – the old and the new coalesce in this map. While still clinging to the Middle Eastern influences, the facades of certain of these buildings, their rich coloration, make evocations of Venetian architecture – a commanding sense of place is here established. These florid, sometimes towering buildings, meanwhile, are possessive of considerable footholds, permitting safe and rapid ascent, bolstering the viability of verticality, which characterizes greatly the design philosophy embraced here – buildings are literally taller than in the slums, and when regarding these constructions from the ground, before the ascent is begun, they can seem impossibly large and imposing; reaching their zenith was accordingly a joyous, satisfying affair, the whole city spread out below. Larger, wider streets are present here, difficult to cross without the aid of external assistance, encouraging the usage of an obtainable item – a grappling hook, unlocked at roughly the same time as is Old Town. As object, it heightens further joys of exploration, providing greater flexibility and options, and seizes upon the promise of this specific, highly vertical environment.
Many efforts are made to convey Harran as a living, breathing city, ever changing and ever evolving. Much of this organicness centers around the manifold random encounters which arise during exploration – friendly NPC’s may spawn, being in a perilous position, in dire need of the protagonist Kyle Crane’s assistance, harassed by zombies, posing a threat far dwarfing their own strengths of resistance. Given their apparent helplessness, true satisfaction arises when coming to their aid, even as they are all nameless, their character models prone to repetition. Kyle thus adopts the role of savior, and it is apparent that his actions are literally influencing and shaping the status of Harran, even as he is but one man. From a gameplay perspective, too, rewards for completing these encounters are ample, only incentivizing their completion. The randomness of these occurrences, their fair frequency, does communicate the sense that Harran is not totally static or unchanging, that it is peopled by the vulnerable masses, those afflicted by the cataclysm and accordingly oppressed by it; they are bound to the fallen Harran, prevented in their attempts to flee, powerless relative to the overwhelming opposition which litters the streets. With these NPC’s, their frequent spawning, organicness is achieved, though often these radiant encounters tend towards gaminess and arbitrariness, owing to the relatively slight diversity in engagement types, in character models.
The greatest, most consistent successes in capturing this organic atmosphere are connected to the various supply drops which rain down from the heavens in fair frequency; this aid from the outside world is of paramount significance to the oppressed of Harran, directly connecting to their preservation; its seizure becomes urgent, ultimate priority. Rather than spawning after meeting some trigger, they spawn completely at random, and are accordingly unpredictable, while unknowable also is the precise location of their landing; sometimes they will be at great distance from the player’s current location, other times they can land in close proximity to Crane. Generally, the supply draws positioned some distance away from Crane are most enjoyable to acquire, as crisscrossing the map is inherently enjoyable, owing to the great locomotion systems, while the greater degree of lapsed time in arriving there traditionally means some other opposing force has already descended upon the drop greedily, and must thus be engaged in open combat, consistently rewarding. And rather than conferring rather pointless rewards, the acquisition of these items is rewarded in a tangible, useful way, namely through “survivor points,” which can be employed to enhance Crane’s skills. The consideration of what precisely these scavenged objects mean for the oppressed masses is further reward
Furthering this sense of dynamism are the various NPC’s which inhabit the gameworld, some friendly and appreciative of Crane’s self-sacrificing efforts, others regarding him with open disdain, actually embracing hostility. The friendly NPC’s largely congregate in the game’s various safe zone regions, where they are protected by zombie and human foe alike. Exploring these settlements is rather enjoyable, many of them being richly detailed, even as some are but underdeveloped collection of shacks, a scant few NPC’s moving about to and fro safely and unexcitedly. Still, the citizens of Harran have learned the painful lesson that there is strength in numbers, hence their unified status, the construction of these havens – if they pull together their collective might, the zombie encroachment can be slowed or perhaps even stopped. In the more dramatic safe zones, like the sprawling tower complex which exists as hub world for the opening hours of the campaign, almost each individual NPC is provided with a name, capturing a compelling human dimension – these are not random, completely underdeveloped people, or at least that is what the game seeks to convey, for limitations of believability are in place. Still, learning of their individual plights is occasionally painful, the game eliciting strong emotional responses, even as such emotional depth is illusory: facial and character models have a tendency to repeat, while voice acting for these ancillary characters is often quite abysmal. Still, their inclusion is welcome, truly grounding Harran in reality, evoking tragic undertones.
Brief mention must be made of the game’s dynamic day / night cycle, a remarkable achievement. In the day time, the grandeur of Harran is made visible, the vast draw distance capturing a largeness of scope. Beautiful lighting, meanwhile, captures the majesty – or squalor – of these locations, the gleaming sun inviting, breathtaking, painting an arresting picture of Harran even in its devastation. As night falls, however, radical departures occur, as the tranquil is displaced by the hostile – zombies, abundant even in the daytime, are more abundant here in the shadows, while the tangibility and extent of their threatening nature is only amplified. While visibility is naturally lessened, something stylish and cinematic characterizes these sequences, as Kyle’s flashlight weakly illuminates only that which is directly ahead of him, while that light bobbles about wildly as he sprints and climbs. Furthering tension is excellent audio design, the undead threats sounding menacing, visceral in their guttural cries, seeming closer, ever closer, Kyle’s speed – his only advantage – sometimes not enough. The vacillation in intensity is marked – peace one moment, hell the next; both sides of Harran are expertly portrayed here, with this literal and metaphorical shift from brightness and beauty to darkness and destruction. And whether exploring by night or by day, excellent weather effects, like sometimes torrential rains, contribute to a moody atmosphere, thunder booming loudly, rain descending upon the pavement with a discernable impact.
In its open-world, Harran exists as remarkable achievement, the city design – with all its varied complexities and diversities – beautiful and unique. But rather than being hollowly beautiful, this world design is directly connected to the gameplay, each informing the other; gameplay and world design are indivisible. A locale or city completely grounded would not facilitate the freedom of movement which is the game’s trademark feature and greatest innovation. Accordingly, much of the world design is subservient to gameplay, and Harran is in consequence easy and enjoyable to navigate. Harran as location is largely characterized by death and decay, which morphs its various inhabitants into rather compelling figures, showing resiliency in the face of this destruction, clinging to life despite their vulnerabilities and fragilities. True, many of them are completely static, never departing from the game’s manifold safe zones, a stationariness imposed upon them owing to the threats existing outside of their settlements, their bastions, though still their presence is impactful, their existence – its preservation – motivating the increasingly selfless Kyle Crane. Harran, that city of many people, becomes a character in its own right, carried by a unique creative vision, a vision realized owing to consistent technical excellences. Admittedly, the game world can at times seem hollow, despite the developers’ repeated and zealous ambitions at crafting a dynamic, breathing world, though such hollowness is not insurmountable, is not all-consuming. But in this precise instance, the presence of hollowness is especially frustrating, as it is here so fiercely fought against: in conventional open-world design philosophies, hollowness can feel like a given, developers indifferent to that concept, its ill effects upon their production; low ambitions lower the gravity of failure. But here are high ambitions and accordingly high failures. Still, navigating Harran by night or by day is a consistently riveting affair, the game world displaying immense creativity and originality, taking the tired urban sprawl and morphing it into something greater.