Surviving Horror is a periodical series about my favourite video game genre, survival horror. With it, I hope to explore how the genre got its start, how it effectively manages to scare us as players, and how it has evolved in term of mechanics, themes, and storytelling over the years.
Remember just a short couple of months ago when I was singing the praises of Outlast? It was my first step into what I guess is being called the new survival horror; games that take place from a first person perspective and offer the player no real options to defend themselves. After finishing Outlast, this is what I had to say on the matter: “I’m still a little unsure on this trend of non-combat survival horror games, but I am put at ease, having played what I would consider a good example of one.” Congratulations to Daylight for basically managing to put those doubts right back in place.
Daylight opens with the main character Sarah waking up in what is apparently an abandoned hospital of some kind. All she has is a phone which functions as both a poor torch and a map to help navigate the twisting corridors of Mid Island Penitentiary. A strange man’s voice comes through it, telling Sarah that she has to uncover the secrets of the hospital and escape. At first I thought the voice might be John Noble phoning it in (excuse the pun) but a quick check of the credits shows it’s a different actor phoning in an unconvincing John Noble impersonation.
And that’s about it for setup. There are notes scattered around the place detailing things that went on in the hospital. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of it is based around horror cliches like mistreatment of patients and corrupt doctors. Unlike Outlast, which set things up perfectly with a moody opening that both informed me of my goal and set a tone, Daylight just stumbles right into things, sadly starting as they meant to continue.
The gameplay loop of Daylight is as follows. You get put into a series of randomly generated corridors. There is an exit, which is locked by a sigil. The sigil is unlocked by finding an object related to the hospital (in the case of the first area, a teddy bear). The object spawns in a room marked by further sigils, but only spawns after you find six plot notes, referred to as Remnants. These can be randomly located in containers or chests of drawers, and the bulk of the gameplay is spent trawling the corridors until you happen to find them all. Unlocking the doorway leads to a second area where the loop repeats again. As in Slender, the more pages you find, the more chance there is of being attacked by enemies, taking the form of witches.
The first time one of these attacks occurred, I actually wasn’t aware it was happening. A handy little tool tip in the bottom left hand corner suggested I could fend of shadows with a flare. I tried pressing the appropriate button to take out a flare, and a trophy pop up informed me that I had been awarded a bronze for successfully fending off an attack from a witch.
Much of the game played out like this in the hour or so I spent with it. There are jump scares along the way like stacks of boxes falling over, or drawers suddenly popping open, and every time it happened Sarah would say a stock phrase like “What was that?!” Only, the randomised level design and procedurally generated scares meant that I often missed the event itself because I happened to be looking the wrong way.
I have no problem at all with jump scares. I think they are a tool that can be used effectively in horror media. Only the procedural nature of Daylight means there is no way to adequately build up to them. Jump scares work as a release of tension after a long build up of atmosphere and dread. There’s none of that here. Just attempted jump after attempted jump, giving the game more a feel of a carnival haunted house, rather than a true horror experience.
The final straw came for me in the second area of the hospital. I knew where the exit was, and where the item I needed would spawn. I had five of the six Remnants required to advance, but the last one eluded me. I searched high and low through near identical hallways and rooms for half an hour before it dawned on me that I would advance, only to find myself doing the same thing in the next area. And the next one after that. The trophy list says that as well as the hospital, there is a sewer, a prison, and a forest to navigate. But I was already checked out. None of the scares were landing, there was scarcely a story to keep me engaged, and on the technical side of things, the inconsistent framerate made the gameplay a chore.
True horror games are lovingly crafted, from the level design and the placement of scare moments down. Maybe this is a cynical view, but Daylight literally feels like it was built to be marketed and sold through people like PewDiePie on Youtube screaming at all the random jump scares. If this new form of survival horror is going to take off, I’m not convinced randomly generated is the best way to go. It might have worked for a small free game like Slender but in a bigger experience like Daylight, the cracks just start showing almost immediately. Especially when put up against the comparatively masterful Outlast. As of this writing, I have not completed Daylight, and I have no intentions of returning to it.
Scariest moment: Aside from finding enough glowsticks to suggest a return of late 90’s rave culture, none. The game failed to scare on any level. Extremely disappointing.
Surviving Horror banner created by Rachel Mansell.
All images taken using the PlayStation 4 screenshot share function.