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Designing around the complexities of Dying Light 2's divergent paths

Dying Light 2 lead designer Tymon Smektała looks back at the development of the anticipated sequel's divergent choices, and how they impacted the game's open world.

Techland's Dying Light 2 lands this week, concluding a long and sometimes difficult journey for the Polish developer. The sequel to 2015's Dying Light features a bigger open world, deep crafting systems, intense melee combat, and, most notably, a new branching narrative that impacts the game's entire open world.

It's an incredibly ambitious venture, one that locks off entire swaths of content to players in ways other games don't tend to risk. High-stakes choices in other role-playing games might lead to the deaths of characters, failed romances, changes to what NPCs are located in what areas or to who the final boss of a game is--but they don't tend to wall off sections of an open world. 

A 2019 E3 demo for the game showed off the hopes for this system. In it, a player's choice to bust open a dam or keep it sealed shut would either expose a new section of the city or leave it waterlogged. And if players opened that area, a new type of enemy zombie (they're called "virals" here, but let's be real, they're zombies), would emerge.

No dam opened? No new enemy type. Hours of development, animation, AI work, and more, all unseen by players who walked a different road.

A lot's changed since that demo, and when we last checked in with lead designer Tymon Smektała. In 2019, Smektała explained that writer Chris Avellone would be helping shape their story's branching content. In 2020, Techland parted ways with Avellone after multiple women accused him of inappropriate and sexually abusive behavior. A global pandemic rocked the game's development cycle, and according to Smektała, even made some team members rethink the kind of game they were making.

What kind of game did Techland ultimately make? If Smektała and company did it right, he says it's one where players feel new kinds of freedom while living their zombie-laden post-apocalypse fantasies.

Let freedom ring

Smektała says that the inception of Dying Light 2's branching narrative and branching combat came from creative director Adrian Ciszewski. Ciszewski had pointed out to the team that the moment-to-moment gameplay of Dying Light offered an array of choice and experimentation in its combat and traversal systems, but almost none in its narrative systems. If players didn't like how the character in the first game did things--well, too bad so sad, they had to go along with it.

So for the sequel, the team at Techland became "excited" about expanding the narrative possibilities. Smektała described a whole wall in the studio dedicated to making sure the various branching narrative points linked together as comprehensively as possible. 

And when branching choices start to impact what areas players can access, and what enemies players will face, there's a lot of linking to do. "You have to have one quality to do this, and that quality is being irresponsible," Smektała joked. "If we knew what that meant when we started doing this, I think maybe we'd have been a little bit more reasonable."

He said that it was "the most difficult thing" to make sure the game works in all its variations and possible states. He described as not just being about testing "one version of the world," but multiple possibilities of the world while testing individual systems.

Survivors ward off zombies using UV light in Dying Light 2

Take Dying Light 2's "chase system." The chase system triggers in the open world when specific zombies call down hordes of allies to chase the player character. 

"If you're designing, testing, and then assuring the quality of systems like the chase system, you replay the chase over and over and over again, trying to find bugs, trying to debug what's happening," said Smektala. "You do that in one version of this world. Then there's another world where there are ziplines everywhere. Then there's one where there's extra 'jumping platforms.' This was the most difficult thing for us."

Smektała said it wasn't that any one particular world state was most liable to deliver bugs, but any world state pushed to its extremes was most likely to cause chaos. If the open world had as many "parkour helpers" or "combat helpers" as possible (systems that aid the player in either traversal or combat) due to certain player choices, Techland had to review more individual pieces of geometry.

And that wasn't just for making sure the open world could accommodate extra physical objects, it meant checking that the artificial intelligence interacting with the systems could handle those objects. Or making sure that players couldn't maximize "helpers" to completely ignore the AI and gain an unfair advantage that would kill Dying Light 2's core tension. "Extreme states of the world--when you push the city alignment one way or another or to the maximum--those are the most difficult for us to find a way to keep the gameplay intact and not break it," he said. 

Thematic shift

Games with branching player choice use a number of different axes to help players navigate interactive stories. Games might use romantic partners, factions, or a general division between "good" and "evil" to make clear that there's different ways the story can play out.

Dying Light 2's choices mostly hinge on which of the game's factions you choose to help or hinder, but also drill deeper into how the player character responds to NPCs in the world. In 2019, when Smektała and I talked about Dying Light 2's choices, he explained that Techland wanted it to be a game where players thought about making choices that would benefit themselves, or making choices that would benefit "the greater good" of the game world.

A windmill in Dying Light 2

To my surprise, when Smektała brought that topic up again two years later, it was to explain that Techland hadn't "explored those themes to the maximum" with Dying Light 2. "I think we toned it down a little bit too, compared to what we thought we could do, and some ideas we had," he said. "I hope this is something we can push further with in post-launch support." The current plan is for Techland to release downloadable content for Dying Light 2 over the next few years

Smektała said that Techland didn't want to approach choice "in an arbitrary manner," and that it didn't want players to feel judged. To him, a good moral choice is one where the player pauses the game and thinks "what would I do?" or "how does this speak to me as a real person?"

But even though the themes we previously discussed lent themselves to that conversation, Smektała says they were "toned down a little" toward the end of production. "It's still a game about smashing infected monsters with a machete," he noted with a bit of a laugh. This apparently led to some late-stage rewrites and dialogue rerecording to lighten the game's tone.

What drove that change? "The world got so heavy around us," he said. "We also felt--maybe subconsciously--we don't need to add to the heaviness of what's happening around us. Maybe approaching this in a lighter way will be better for everyone."

Smektała made it clear he was referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. He described "awkward" and "disturbing" conversations held mid-production where trying to discuss normal gameplay challenges that involved killing "infected" people felt too real as the disease spread. "We'd have discussions about infected in the game, how you kill them, how you decapitate them...and then someone comes in the office and says 'you know what, my grandma got infected with COVID.'"

"You hear those words and you start looking at all of these things differently."

Work on Dying Light 2 still felt good to Smektała and his colleagues overall, he explained. In his words, it was "something that really helped [them] during the pandemic. It was a common goal for the whole team that we could unite over, focus on, and not think too much about the world outside." 

Smektała said the ambitious work behind Dying Light 2's branching choices invigorated the team at Techland, and the studio wants to take lessons learned from this process forward in its future games. "The experience and the knowledge we have earned through that process is priceless," he said. "This is this is definitely something that will be fuel for us for next few years."

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