Silver Lining: Sins and punishment in Deadlight

Taylor Cocke
T. Cocke|09.20.12

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'Silver Lining' is a column from freelancer Taylor Cocke dedicated to highlighting moments of real potential in less than perfect games. This week he examines Tequila Works' Deadlight. The following may contain story spoilers.

Scrawled on the wall in a frenzied font a warning reads "The Inferno Begins Here." Just in case you weren't positive the opening scenes of Deadlight from developer Tequila Works were referencing Dante's Inferno, a nearby collectible journal directly quotes the epic poem: "Through me the way into the suffering city, Through me the way to the eternal pain, Through me the way that runs among the lost." In other words, protagonist Randall Wayne will soon be suffering through his own version of Hell.

The scene isn't exactly subtle, and is indicative of a large problem with the rest of the game. Rather than allowing events to play out and ask players to draw their own conclusions about them, Deadlight practically tells you what to feel through a series of notes, diary entries, and flashbacks. Randall's story is a tragic one, to be sure, but it'd be much more powerful if it had been given more room to breathe within the player's own mind.
%Gallery-161497%Compare how Deadlight handles its world with that of indie darling Limbo, a comparison Deadlight practically begs you to make with its darkly contrasting visuals and references. Outside of the opening title, not a single word is uttered throughout the entirety of Playdead's puzzle platformer. Those who finished it have likely had heated discussions about its ending, ultimate meaning and the moments after the screen fades away.

If you're anything like me, your arguments probably involved the flailing of arms and sloppy attempts at waxing poetic. Its starkly uninformative storytelling demands the player push toward it, forcing them to examine the situation based on their own emotional reaction.

That's not to say that Deadlight is totally devoid of subtlety. There's a moment when Randall first reaches the outskirts of Seattle and is halted by a raging car fire. Beyond the blaze is his fabled "Safe Point," where he believes his lost family will be waiting. He solves the problem by knocking down a water tower to drown out the flames. It's an odd moment of two essential substances for life – fire and water – canceling each other out. Though it's a simple and used gameplay moment, it puts other decisions throughout Randall's deadly journey into perspective. How many fires will you douse to continue? What if those fires are just people standing in your way? These puzzles, these trials, are tests of Randall's willpower to continue, despite sacrifices that he may have to make.

Along his journey, Randall finds IDs in secret areas, each of which bears the name of a famous serial killer. Those names include John Wayne Gacey and David Berkowitz, Son of Sam. At first glance, they seem to be a heavy-handed attempt at added darkness, but I think it's more than that. These are men who have failed to reach safety, despite their cold-blooded, murderous mentalities. These men have failed to pass the test of the apocalypse, succumbing to their murderous desires, and they have been punished for it.

On a theoretical level, I love Randall's clunky and imprecise gait, despite it being a sore spot for many players. When scrambling away from the shambling Shadows (what he calls zombies), it gives a sense of absolute desperation. Randall's journey to find his family isn't an easy one, and it certainly does not feel like it. Sprinting through a Shadow-dense area, only to tumble to the floor on top of an undead walker is definitely frustrating, and it tests the resolve to continue. Perhaps these moments were a tad too aggravating to be truly effective, but they hint at an intention to make sure we felt every last one.

Like Limbo before it, Deadlight utilizes death as a way to get its point across. Randall dies often, dropping you into an incredibly annoying and way-too-long loading screen. But, each of those deaths teaches you something about the tribulations he's forced to go through. Deadlight's Seattle is an unforgiving, Hellish place. His trials are in parallel with ours, punishing our failures simultaneously. Get too cocky and commit fatal mistakes. Get selfish for secret items, and you may not make your way out. Lazily push through a seemingly easy section and be set upon by the Shadow horde. Easy, as I said, this is not.

Even in daylight, Randall Wayne is bathed in shadow. Flashbacks reveal colorful landscapes and characters, but he remains covered in darkness in both his attitude and appearance. The way he looks separates him from his fellow survivors. His travels are his own personal Inferno, something that he – and by extension, us – have to face alone. Now, if Tequila Works had managed to pull off making it feel like a trial rather than a punishment, this story of a Shadow-fueled apocalypse could have been significantly more affecting.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who has written for 1UP, Official Xbox Magazine, Playstation: The Official Magazine, VG247, and more. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.
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