By Alec Meer on May 9th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
Daylight is a first-person horror game made with the Unreal 4 engine, set in a spooky hospital with a procedurally-generated layout, and is focused on evasion rather than combat. I turned the lights out to see what I could see.
I don’t scare easily, at least not unless someone puts dead shellfish in front of me. Or tries to stick a needle into my arm. Or starts a conversation with “have you heard the new Coldplay song?” Or asks me to perform sums. Or tells me the house is out of milk. Or inquires about what I think I’ll be doing for a living in ten years’ time. Daylight did scare me though – well, not quite scare, so much as pull me into a sustained state of dread and tension, even though I was simulatenously sneering at its tidal wave of horror stereotypes.
Borrowing liberally from the legion of ‘aiee! A spooky, skinny person over there!’ Slender Man games which launched the demi-careers of a hundred thousand pantomime YouTube babymen, this also throws in the abandoned hospital’n'spooky ghostlady memes that horror films and games have made hay with for years. It’s a walking game rather than an action game, with a fairly contrived structure which sees you collecting a fixed amount of menace-laden documents from each level in order to open up an exit. A limited supply of jealously-guarded flares keeps the growing number of murderous ghosts at bay for a time, but in a neat and reliably harrowing twist, you can’t hold a flare at the same time as you do the object which acts as a key to the exit.
What this means is that holding a large, stuffed teddy bear in one hand becomes one of Daylight’s most effectively terrifying moments. Because of Reasons, that bear is a mystic totem that will let you out of this section of the hospital, so it can’t be put down. Sure, sure, we can do the Doom 3 torch argument here (though the defence is that a mobile phone with a map and a weeny flashlight is forever held in the offhand), but let’s just roll with the concept. It’s that bit that every FPS used to do, when you have your guns taken away from you for a spell, and are beset by panic at the loss of your only means of defence. There’s no searching for the backpack which handily contains every last lost bullet here though – instead you helplessly sprint, as the Ringu-inspired ghosts tirelessly pursue you, terrified that if you don’t reach the door in time they’ll…
Wait one cotton-pickin’ minute. What exactly was I so afraid of? A loading screen? Lost time? Some grisly animation? Simply the concept of unthinkable, unseen things being done to me by this pale-faced, long-armed horrors? No – all those are short-term issues, ones that would burn out after a few Game Over screens. Instead, Daylight has another smart trick up its geriatric meme-adorned sleeve. When you die, or otherwise restart a level, its layout will be randomly-generated afresh. Whatever your phone had mapped, or whatever doors and unsettlingly-dilapidated furniture you’d memorised the location of, will be lost forever. Tears in the rain. Or ‘grey-brown corridors in the memory cache’, but no quite so poetic, eh?
So you’ve got to figure out how to get out all over again, and the game will hurl scripted moments of falling furniture, slamming doors and mysteriously-extinguishing lights at you all over again. Because this is a very short game (90 minutes to three hours, depending on your play style and confidence), and one intended to be replayed multiple times, this does keep up the tension rather than incite ennui – at least on your first campaign. Second time around I was that much more conscious of what was in Daylight’s box of tricks, and different corridor patterns could no longer remix the game enough to keep it vibrant.
For those first couple of hours however, it is legitimately scary. Legitimately scary despite itself – the gibberish-laden Vincent Price impersonation from an unseen advisor (or is he, etc) and wooden attempts at goonish fearfulness from the lady you’re playing as are just about outshone by some extremely effective environmental sound design and a pounding sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. Horror’s at its most effective when it’s about imagining what might be around the corner, not when it’s about what you actually encounter around that corner, and so it is that the bulk of its monstrous audio cues are sounds from the far distance rather than in your face.
Booms and moans and screeches – standard fare, but well arranged to suggest terrible things in a place you might later have to go to, and usually occuring when you’re in an empty place. I had to take regular time-outs – not from overt fear, but simply as tension release. I was forever braced for something awful to happen. As it is, Daylight’s pretty formulaic and Terrible Things broadly fall into known quantities before too long, but for a couple of hours it pulled off an atmosphere of dread and made itself difficult to play for the right reasons.
Sadly it’s difficult to replay for the wrong reasons. On the first playthrough, it’s distracting that Daylight is one-note tonally, unconvincingly written and acted, and unwisely tethers progress to increasingly drearily combing environments for every last scrap of ‘oh no something terrible happened here once and everyone’s dangerously mental’ paperwork. On the second playthrough, it’s oppressive. At a guess, self-awareness of this is why the game’s so short, but by God another pass on the writing and more care about voice-acting would have made the world of difference.
Armchair designer time here – I’m confident keeping the protagonist in a state of Freeman silence would have been far more effective. As it is, there’s too much dissonance in the fact she can be simultaneously stuttering “who’s there?” three times in a row while confidently picking up flares or pushing door unlock buttons. The character’s pantomime fear is not the player’s silent but far more strongly-held fear, and that jars throughout.
(I say silent fear, but this is a game knowingly made to cater to the Twitch and Let’s Play crowd, with all their blue-faced clown wailing. Part of me wonders if that’s the reason the writing and acting is so woeful – was this a case of seeing all the Slender vids and thinking $$$ hurryhurryhurry?)
Also, apparently this is the first Unreal 4-powered game. I dunno, it looked okay, I guess.
Daylight is out now. You need a DirectX 11 graphics card to play it.