As Sarah, the mysterious protagonist of Daylight, stumbles around the labyrinthine corridors of an abandoned mental hospital, one of the many utterances she haplessly wimpers is ‘I can’t take this’. In so doing, she expresses one side of my turbulent relationship with the ‘Helpless Horror’ genre; games where you can’t kill the creatures out to get you, and your best forms of defence are running and hiding. In terms of replicating how we’d behave should the in-game scenario happen IRL, these games have nailed it by putting us in control of quivering, blubbering cowards on the verge of insanity.
Helpless Horror is the most gripping, visceral genre to have emerged in recent years, and we should be grateful for its broadening of the videogame canon, but for someone like me (and I’m saying this as a horror film fan) it is, in the teary words of Daylight‘s protagonist, “too much”. How can I really enjoy a game when I experience half of it through my peripheral vision for fear of facing my monstrous screen directly?
Games like Amnesia, Outlast and Daylight don’t let you appreciate your surroundings, or offer plots that go beyond horror cliché, or offer much in the way of addictive gameplay. But who needs all those trivial things when the game’s got you so terrified that you’re looking over your shoulder in real life more than in the game itself (looking back isn’t usually a good idea in these games), and jumping at the sound of someone flushing the toilet on the other side of your bedroom wall?
Zombie Studios’ Daylight is the latest entry to this small put thrilling genre. It puts you in the nyctophobic shoes of Sarah, a woman who wakes up in an abandoned mental hospital with a serious case of amnesia and a mysterious, sleazy, voice guiding her over a smartphone. Yes, smartphones are now so all-invasive that they’ve even penetrated the videogame horror genre. What’s more, this smartphone’s mapping system puts Google Maps to shame by accurately mapping the interior of an old asylum, and conveniently marking out the ghostly sigils that are crucial to your progress. You’d be forgiven for thinking that such a flashy device would alleviate Daylight‘s sense of dread, but the phone screen’s tendency to glitch when a screaming banshee is nearby ensures that it’s just as much a tool for fear-induction as it is for aiding you.
Your aim in Daylight is to piece together what happened at the asylum, how Sarah is connected to it, and get the hell out of there (as most of what you learn in the game is through discarded letters and is non-essential to your progress, you can pretty much skip the first two goals and just focus on the last one).
You progress through the game by collecting letters, reports and photos (or ‘Remnants’, as they’re superfluously called) randomly strewn around the place. Collect enough of these in one area, and you can collect an object from the ‘sigyl,’ which further pieces together the story and lets you proceed to the next area.
The problem is that with each remnant you pick up, you’re increasingly likely to get ambushed by one of the phantom witches prowling the corridors, which is where the eye-averting fear factor comes in. Why these witches are out to scream you to death isn’t made clear until late in the game. All you need to know is that they’re highly unfriendly, and afraid of flares which are conveniently found in every other drawer you open, along with secret-illuminating glowsticks.
Before Daylight‘s release, much was made of the random level generation that ‘creates a different environment for each new game’. In my one-and-a-half playthroughs, this intriguing feature was completely non-existent. The only randomness I experienced was the location of the remnants. It’s like saying every new game of hide-and-seek offers a radically new experience when the only thing that changes is is where the hider hides. To me, that’s quite a liberal definition of procedural generation. No, it’s not a whole new game each time, it’s just a letter in a ward rather than a toilet. Still scary, but hardly groundbreaking. Granted, Daylight is significantly more terrifying than hide-and-seek, but many will be disappointed to find such a highly-touted feature of the game oddly absent.
The crucial question about Daylight is, of course, whether it’s scary, to which the answer is Yes. Perhaps the developers took an easy path by having the ‘shadow people’ literally pop out of thin air in front of or behind you, but it’s still a guaranteed shock before you either whip out a flare to shoo them, barge straight through them to get away, or send your mouse spinning out of control in panic and die a shrieking, cowardly death. The scripted hallucinatory sequences do their bit in amping up the fear level, though they could’ve been more frequent and diverse.
While there are technically supposed to be several witches besetting you throughout the game, they all look identical and attack you in the same way. It could’ve been interesting to make each witch unique in the way she attacks you, and randomise which one attacks you on each level (there’s some real procedural generation for you, Zombie Studios!). As it stands, it feels like every jump scare in Daylight is the same trick over and over again.
Daylight does little that its forebears in the genre haven’t already done. It reuses some reliable shock-tricks and integrating them into a horror story that’s a neat, fairly typical balance of supernatural and psychological. The formula is gripping though, and for the relatively short hour-and-a-half or so of playthrough time the game held my attention at the same time as making me pray for it to be over. In giving rise to such tormented feelings in me, Daylight achieves its prime goal, while not quite daring to plunge us deeper into the uncharted darkness of this young, tantalising genre.
Daylight is out now on PlayStation 4 and PC.
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