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Friday, November 19, 2021

[Interview] Tymon Smektala, Lead Designer On ‘Dying Light 2’ on Overcoming The Monsters And Horrors Of Night

Throughout my time playing Dying Light 2 Stay Human, I felt drawn into the world. Everything from the monsters I faced to the NPCs I interacted with all came together to create this authentic apocalyptic setting. Humanity’s struggle to survive against these horrific creatures and each other moved me, especially considering the more emotional writing and detail provided to the narrative. 

When it came to gameplay, the parkour was invigorating. I loved the freedom in movement and the intensity the animations gave off. When I fought against infected and other humans, it felt challenging and immersive; having to think on my toes, the positive stress of such engagements brought about a lot of diversity in my fighting. And the infected at night provide such an exhilarating air of badass and creepy.  

After playing the game, I sat down with its Lead Designer Tymon Smektala to learn more. I asked him about Dying Light 2’s approach to difficulty, the new focus placed on designing the infected, what horror influences he brought into the game, the parkour animations, and his philosophy in creating horror. 

Please note that this interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity

Michael Pementel: Dying Light 2 is very much an action game, but with a foundation in horror. What’s the challenge in making sure suspense is always present throughout gameplay, while also making sure the player feels empowered? 

Tymon Smektala: That was actually a challenge; that was one of the founding problems we wanted to overcome with the second game. With the first game, we started looking at the data [regarding how] people were playing. We realized that a lot of them – I would say maybe 80% of our players – started skipping the night. They just basically weren’t playing the night part of the game at all; which is a problem when you make a game where the day/night cycle is one of the most important things in the game – then suddenly no one is playing the night part. So we felt that we overdid it, we made it too scary, too overwhelming for players, and basically they didn’t feel they have anything to say when it comes to night; they felt they were basically being punished by all the infected. 

We wanted to keep that intensity, and what we are doing in the second game is slowly introducing it. When the game starts it’s not that scary, but it gets scarier, more gruesome, and more infected appear [as the game progresses]. Another thing is that the crowds get more intense, they see you quicker. It really starts getting more on your nerves. Another thing we did is give players new tools to overcome that challenge. I think this is what was lacking in the first game; it was just scary night and the only thing you could do is try not to get seen by the Volatile. When they saw you, you could just run to a safe zone, but right now, we are giving players more tools to play with the horrors of the night. Things like a UV flashlight, which kind of works like [what you see] in the Alan Wake games. 

MP: What was the team’s approach to difficulty in Dying Light 2? Before you can even start creating a game, you sort of need to think about difficulty – particularly thinking about the kind of experience the player is to have, so you can build according to that. Was the difficulty the first thing the team needed to tackle? 

TS: No I don’t think so, but you have to start [considering it] at one point or another. Of course, the thing you do as a game designer is a lot of playtesting; me personally, I have about 5000 hours played in Dying Light 2, everything is kind of easier for me. It’s not the same experience – I don’t get scared that much, I don’t feel the same emotions that a player would feel if he were to run the game for the first time and see everything that happens. We do a lot of playtesting, see what other people are doing and get data from that, then polish [as need be].  

When it comes to difficulty, I would say that Dying Light 2 is a little bit easier than the first game. Dying Light one was quite famous for it being quite overwhelming at the start; you were feeling helpless maybe a little too much at the start. On the regular difficulty, we tried to keep the same experience, but maybe make it a little bit more accessible. Maybe a little more space to make mistakes. Then there is another difficulty mode which is stylized specifically for the veterans of the first game. If you played the first game – and I advise any player who has spent a lot of time in the first game to choose that difficulty – you will get the real Dying Light experience. Where it is very hard in the beginning, but then you get to earn that empowerment – you get to earn better weapons, you start feeling more powerful. It’s really the most satisfying way to play the game for me, personally.  

MP: Coming into Dying Light 2, what changes/improvements did the team want to make when it came to the infected? Specifically, what changes did you all want to make to their behavior and how they interact with and attack the player? Also, how many types of infected can we expect throughout the game? 

TS: There are around 10-12 types of infected in the game. We wanted to make the infected different from humans. The humans are basically those smart guys; they are intelligent, they can even learn from what you are doing. If you try to overuse one attack on humans, they will learn from that and eventually they will start avoiding that move and you will be forced to start doing something else. The infected can’t do that, they don’t have that kind of intelligence. What they do is work in groups. They may use brute force, but when it comes to groups – when looking at different group constitutions – you start seeing different synergies happening between them. So, it’s different when say, you have a Spitter – who has those toxic range attacks – and you surround him with Biters. It now becomes like a puzzle for you to figure out how to get to this guy, because it is hard to get to him straight since he is surrounded by Biters. So you start using parkour to maybe climb on a lamppost and jump on the Spitter from the lamppost.  

We have created different tactical challenges using different group constitutions. […] Another thing that happens is that, as you play the game, the infected learn new behaviors. All of them have three very different tiers of behaviors. As you get better throughout the game, they evolve with you and start sporting different behaviors and visuals. So even if you have a guy like the Demolisher – when the game starts, and the Demolisher kind of looks like the one you remember from the first game – but as the game develops, you start seeing bigger and more powerful Demolishers, maybe some with some spikes. It really gets scarier as you play the game. 

MP: What horror influences were used in shaping the infected (or the game in general)? 

TS: For myself… I’m not sure if you count District 9, the sci-fi movie, as a horror movie, it kind of isn’t. But one of the most memorable scenes from that movie that really keeps popping in my head from time to time is the moment when they were opening the alien spaceship. The [characters] were entering it and seeing all those different life forms in the dark; they were doing something crazy like standing in a very creepy way. Kind of reminded me of the final scene from The Blair Witch Project. We wanted to capture that feeling with our Dark Places. When you enter the Dark Places, especially if you enter during the day when they are full of infected, you really get that feeling that some of them are bending, some of them are standing and shaking. One of the inspirations I can call out for sure, inspiring me for the game, is that scene from District 9 and how it connected in my head with that Blair Witch Project moment; where they were running through the building and suddenly there was this guy standing in the corner. Nothing special [about that scene], but it was so scary. It really made you creep out. 

MP: What was the conversation around creating Dark Hollows? What sort of variety can players expect from those? Are there varying degrees of difficulty? 

TS: Yes of course. The locations vary in terms of what you can get out of those places. You go into Dark Hollows to get valuables – in short, money, so that you can go to shops and maybe buy some weapons. You go to Forsaken Stores to get craft resources […]. In terms of the feeling you get from these places, some of them are a little emptier, but may be full of that chemical stuff that kind of works like radiation. Some of them are full of Volatiles; if you make a mistake in the Dark Place, which is patrolled by the Volatiles, the ultimate predator, it’s sure you’re going to die. We have tried to make, maybe not everyone different, but include some variations and diversity within them.  

MP: Between both Dying Light games, the philosophy of the infected is super intriguing. These monsters have an inner turmoil with their humanity – you don’t get a lot of that in media. Where did that idea come from? 

TS: That is something we’ve wanted to have since the beginning of the first game. It was very important for us to create something unique. It started with the Virals from the first game – the Virals had this behavior we called “Humanity,” which you could trigger out of them randomly at some point while fighting them. Maybe you hit one of them hard and suddenly he starts showing a human side of him – [displaying a reaction that’s along the lines of], “Don’t hit me!” It really felt emotional, and we tried to keep the emotion [and hope that presence] might be powerful, and find different ways of expressing that with the infected in the second game. 

MP: Dying Light 2 involves a lot more player choice. What range can we expect in terms of complexity? As a designer, how do you craft an experience where choices convey a sense of tension and importance? 

TS: That’s a heavy one. I think for every choice, you have to build it up first. Players need to understand the stakes that come with decisions; that’s obvious, but it isn’t that easy to make. All of the choices that we have in the game have some type of exposition, some type of element where the characters that are involved in the choice show their humanity to you. Of course, those are NPCs – you can be emotionless about them and say, “Those are just pixels on the screen.” But because we show them first as those characters, that maybe they have some human flaws, hopes, some fears, we instill a little bit of humanity in them. When you make a choice – again, you can be a cold bastard and say, “I don’t care, I will get what I want in my game as a player,” – because of those elements of humanity that we are showing, we are not only referring to the Stay Human title [of the game], but we are also making the choice a little bit more difficult for you.  

When it comes to how impactful the choices can be – the choices work on three different levels. The first level involves the main story missions, where you make the biggest choices. There are quite a few of them and they allow you to do crazy things. […] Then there are little bit smaller ones in side missions. […] And then there is the third level – the City alignment system – which allows you to shape the city around you by introducing various gameplay elements like: ziplines, trampolines, car traps, huge UV light lamps, etc.  

You get complexity because you have three different layers of choices; when you combine them, you basically end up with hundreds of combinations this world can have.  

When you play co-op, it’s always the host who makes the decision. When you play the game and open it for outsiders or friends, you make the choices. You shape the world around you, you decide what the story is. […] Then when you finish that game, you start wondering, “Okay, what would have happened if I made different choices?” You can then go online and start visiting other people’s games and see different versions of the story – what other choices people are making and experience those. […] Maybe you could say nonlinear narrative and co-op don’t work together that well, but actually they do. I do believe that – that’s my personal bet – that the nonlinear structure of Dying Light 2 will support playing in co-op for hundreds for hours. 

MP: What is the challenge in animating all the parkour animations? Is it all done through mocap? 

TS: It is partially mocap. All of those animations are captured using mocap, but there are two caveats to that. The first one is that it isn’t just random mocap, we are working with David Belle – the inventor of parkour, the guy who made parkour popular through a couple of his movie appearances. It’s not just mocap, it’s mocap of one of the best guys who is doing parkour in the world. The other thing is that, we get that mocap data, and we tweak it, improve it, and make it work in the game. Basically, we have to tune every aspect of it – every hand movement we have to correct and make it a little bit better using the mocap data. Not [changing things] however you want, but in using the POV camera from David Belle and other parkour guys we asked to help us with this. So it’s like a combination of modern technology, the talent of our animators, and the help from the best parkour guys on the planet. Through all of that, you get to experience what we have here. 

MP: What was your philosophy in creating horror in Dying Light 2 and what sort of presence do you want your world to give off emotionally? 

TS: Emotionally, I would go back to the subtitle of the game – Stay Human. When you finish the game, [that sentiment] makes a lot of sense. I hope that reflection, that thought… just think about it when you finish the game.  

When it comes to creating horror, for me personally, I think one of the things that adds to it a lot is music. Regarding the game’s music, we are working with Olivier Deriviere; he has done quite a lot of horror, or at least very emotional soundtracks like A Plague Tale: Innocence and Vampyr. He is working with us, and it isn’t like he is just sending us his music saying, “Use it however you want,” he’s very deeply involved in the process of making the game. The best thing about him is that he’s not just a music composer, he’s a guy who understands games and that games are interactive. He creates music that uses that interactivity; there are a lot of hidden mechanics in the game that change the music depending on how well you run, how surrounded you are [by enemies], how well you fight, and where exactly in the world you are. All of those elements change and add little elements to the music. I think, based on his previous experience with other games, he understands emotion building and horror very well.  

He’s also a crazy guy; he created a unique instrument just for our game. He wanted to express the feeling of modern dark ages, so he created a medieval instrument that plays in a very traditional way but uses modern materials. Something completely crazy. I think we have some videos about it you can find on YouTube 

I think he really captured the seriousness of some of the things we touch on in our game and feelings of being overwhelmed, maybe a little helpless, and overcoming all that through your actions.

Dying Light 2: Stay Human is out February 4, 2022 on all major consoles and PC.  


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