Daylight comes from the same kind of ambitious pursuit of breaking new ground that Zombie Studios itself does; like the origins of the studio unfortunately, Daylight’s attempts to succeed in this fall short. Not short enough to be rendered cancelled before completion however, but in reaching its ultimate goal, Daylight is rendered inert.
That Zombie Studios would attempt to produce a game like Daylight – one intending to be a unique and potentially progressive horror game in a time where virtual reality gaming is making noticeably huge strides forward – was perhaps in some way predictable. The history of Zombie Studios serves as an intriguing precursor to Daylight’s eventual development.
Zombie Studios was formed in 1994 by Mark Long, who left the R&D company SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute) to do so. Along with Joanna Alexander (from SRI subsidiary Sarnoff Corporation) and former Time Warner CEO Nick Nicholas, Long seemed to be looking for a way to develop videogames outright, having worked prior to this on helping develop Hasbro’s attempt at a virtual reality games console.
While attempts to produce VR-type headsets have been around since the 1970s – and no doubt before then – applying this level of technology to videogaming didn’t appear to be attempted until the 1990s, when Sony looked to produce a form of ‘image display apparatus’. In 1995, Hasbro filed a patent for an ‘optical system for a head mounted display’ which eventually expired when Hasbro canned the project (though interestingly, they paid to have the patent active for a full decade).
Fast-forward a few years, and Mark Long is co-currently working on both the first movement-controlled FPS with Zombie Studios – the apparently underwhelming Blackwater – and publishing the F2P game Hawken, which received official Oculus Rift support last year. In an interview with Forbes, Long praised the Rift but also what Unreal allowed developer Adhesive games to do with Hawken.
No surprise that the CEO of Zombie Studios would be championing Unreal technology. Studio director Jared Gerritzen sang the praises of the new Unreal Engine 4. Zombie’s “heavy investment” in Unreal helped build Daylight, the first game to use the engine. Fitting then, that a studio formed off the back of advancing virtual reality would be striving to lead the way in videogame design two decades later, when technological advances have finally begun to catch up with the ideas behind them.
Turn The Lights Off
Enter Daylight: a game which prides itself on being the first horror game on a brand new engine that attempts to be the first successfully procedurally-generated first-person horror game. In this respect, it’d be hard not to call it a success. Zombie do ultimately achieve that they set out to do. Beyond the structural achievement however, it’s a different story: Daylight is all chills, no thrills. It has to rely on ironically lower-tier horror genre tropes in order to fulfill its technical desires.
Every good horror game scares its players; great horror games introduce engaging narratives and a compelling game world for players to roam terrified within. To feel truly horrified, players need to feel like the imminent danger has transcended the game world. It’s emblematic home invasion, where the threat feels both personal and perilously real. Daylight forgoes its necessary obligation to at least try achieving this by focusing not on the quality of the content within the world also, but on design and structure alone. Turning the lights off at home does little to help you feel more involved…
Carry Me Home
Daylight’s beauty is superficial. The procedural generation even suffers from this. Replay value – in this instance particularly fundamental to the game achieving its core aim – is despairingly limited. Rooms and corridors simply shift around each time, and the ‘hunt or be hunted’ style of game progression quickly loses its exploratory appeal. Fragments of story are scattered around the game, which need to be collected in order for you to continue on.
The narrative revolves around you exploring a hospital/penitentiary at night with just a PDA, flares and glowsticks for comfort, haunted by a persistent ghostly entity that kills you if you remain in its presence long enough and makes furniture move in front of you quite a lot. A subtly sinister voice pervades silences to help piece together story fragments not found on the 100+ pieces of paper stuffed in cupboards and left on tables and chairs, playing both narrator and mentor to protagonist Sarah.
Whether Sarah is looking for answers, a way out or just the way home is unclear for the most part, and having players be given a narrative in the form of scraps of paper and a voice offering vague explanations is lackadaisical game design. It undermines the careful, intricate design of the architecture within Daylight, and the genuinely terrifying visions and apparitions that appear all too infrequently.
You miss a lot of the detail by simply not being allowed to explore the narrative. As the threat level increases and you get closer to reaching the end of each area, your supply levels diminish and you find yourself simply running around frantically trying to read your PDA map and avoiding the murderous ghost. You don’t get to admire all that much what Zombie Studios actually got to do with Unreal Engine 4. Daylight isn’t as effective as games like Amnesia and Oculus Rift game Dreadhalls in its pursuit of an intense horror experience, which both do more with lesser technology.
The terror in Daylight quickly fades. Granted, the first few jump scares are keenly felt – visually, the ghost creature is frightening – but the effect rapidly wears thin as you begin to tire of the repetition, and there’s no attempt made to introduce anything beside cliché. You want to just get the game over and done with after a point, to see if it’s actually going anywhere important.
Beyond the odd major framerate drop, Daylight is technically very impressive. You just don’t get a proper chance to admire this, since the game is compelled to repeatedly distract you from seeing this. Zombie Studios should be commended at least for attempting to try something different, it’s just a shame that the potentially significant new is buried beneath the significantly humdrum old.