“Burning Daylight” is a really interesting and thought-provoking videogame made by students of The Animation Workshop of VIA University College, in Denmark. Given that it is a student project, and that it is available for free on Steam, a part of me thinks it shouldn’t be judged the same way as a “normal” paid videogame would... But on the other hand, the game is so polished and well-made that it puts many commercial games to shame.
The game is set in a dystopian future, and you start by waking up in a very creepy place, some sort of slaughterhouse, oh… and you´re a guy, naked. In fact, you´re going to spent almost half of the game walking with your family jewels bouncing back and forth… I’m not sure how necessary this was for the narrative of the game, but it sure made me feel somewhat uncomfortable and vulnerable, given the harsh environments you find yourself in for most of the game, so if that was the intention of the developers then mission accomplished, I guess. Besides, this made me think about how in most survival horror or suspenseful videogames I've played, no matter how unsettling and creepy the environment where I find myself in was, usually the character I control is someone "normal" who I can relate to, a cop, a normal everyday guy, a courageous girl, etc., but here, you´re controlling someone who's almost as creepy as the environment you´re in, and that was something really unsettling that I don’t remember having experienced many times before.
The game is a cinematic adventure game, which I suspect is very much inspired by games like “Limbo” and “Inside”. The main difference here is that there´s not much to do except walk and collect some coins; there are a few very, VERY simple puzzles (I think that calling them “puzzles” is somewhat of an overstatement), but in general I think it´s fair to say that you could call the game a “walking simulator”… Not that there´s anything wrong with that, in my opinion.
I don’t mind walking simulators as long as either the story or the atmosphere of the game (or both) are really interesting and entertaining, which is the case here… The presentation of the game is BEAUTIFUL. The lighting and cinematography are superb throughout; there were even numerous times where I found myself in places that made me think: “Man I might take a screenshot of this and use it as a wallpaper for my computer”.
Almost all of the narrative in the game is presented by environmental storytelling, like little visual clues in the backgrounds and in the dialogue/voice-over of the different characters you encounter. It´s a really cool approach because it engages the imagination of the player, who is trying to digest all of the information presented to him/her to decipher what the hell is going on in this world. Obviously, most of the story is left totally ambiguous, but still is fun to try and figure it out.
The first act of the game transpires in a creepy techno-futuristic setting; it reminded me of movies like “The Matrix” (the “real world” parts), “Terminator” and the animated movie “9”. This whole section is really ominous and creepy and sets a dreary tone for the game.
The second act transpires in an absolutely beautiful neon-lit futuristic setting, clearly inspired by movies like “Blade Runner”, “The Fifth Element” and “A.I.”. I loved the color scheme and the design of these places, it really felt full of life… albeit a kind of decadent life that is.
The final act of the game transpires in a setting completely and jarringly different to the first two acts; I don’t want to spoil the whole game so I won’t go into much detail, but I will just say this was a really beautiful and evocative way to close up the narrative the game had been building up until that point. There´s a lot of details in this section that hinted at the events that transpired in this world that turned it into what it became.
The final choice the player has to make in the game is a really nice symbolism regarding the fight between nature and technology within humans (the little difference in the presentation of the end credits depending on the decision that the player took was a niche touch). The game seems to be hammering (kinda hard I might add) the point that technology is consuming humanity’s soul, which is kind of an ironic message for a videogame to be sending, but nevertheless I think it has some validity and truth to it. That whole part where you charge your virtual reality visor and you realize people are escaping their harsh reality by using the technology available to them hit particularly close to home for me, taking into account how bad things have been lately in the country where I live, and how I see people (and myself) trying to escape and distract themselves from that reality using similar (albeit more archaic) methods.
Apart from the absolutely beautiful visuals, the other part of the game that I thought was done incredibly well was the sound design and the music. EVERY setting has its own distinct set of sounds and ambient music, from the metallic clanks and clicks of the creepy first sequences, to the noise of rats in the sewer, to the laments of the citizens of this dreary world, to the techno music in the futuristic city, to the beautiful and soothing orchestral music and naturalistic sounds of the last act. The voice acting of your virtual companion, Sarah, I thought was top notch.
Now, not everything in the game was perfect. As I mentioned before, the game is basically a walking simulator… You don’t do much aside from walking from point A to Point B. Given how outstanding the visuals and the sounds of the game are, it would have been awesome to have way more to do, but again, given that it was a student project and that it is a free game, I guess you can’t ask for much. Probably because of this, the game is really, really short. It took me a couple of hours to finish it‘ cause I really take my time while playing my games, but a “normal” person should be able to complete it in an hour or even less. It would be super awesome if these guys decided to expand on this proof of concept and make a fully fledge game within this world, or maybe give the project to a developer like Playdead (Limbo, Inside) and see what they can do with it.
There were also quite a bit of bugs; the game is filled with invisible walls that stop you in your tracks and tiny obstacles you can’t walk by. I found a couple of bugs that even made me exit the game and restart the chapter. One of them happened when I was exploring an area and I got stuck between some geometry that shouldn’t have trapped me the way it did, they were just some little boxes and stuff; the other was when I was walking on a ledge and fell off and disappeared from the screen, nowhere to be seen again. One of those times when I restarted the chapter, the music and sounds were off, as in I couldn’t hear them, so I had to totally close the game then open it again to make it work properly.
Although most of the game ran really smoothly for me, some parts suffered from some really bad frame rate drops and stuttering (like the sewer section for some reason). There were also some weird camera yanks every once in a while, not too frequent though. One small and kind of funny bug happened if I moved the analog stick on my controller just a little bit, when I did this the character sort of moonwalked his way through the level (meaning, he walked without lifting his feet off the ground).
One small detail that may sound silly or nitpicky, but really irritated me (probably because of my graphic designer background) was how ugly and out of place the interaction button looked; it’s just a blue circle with a white “X” on it… Given how incredibly well-crafted most of the game is, it amazes me that nobody in the developing team could spent twenty minutes designing an interaction button that looked good and that meshed way better with the visuals and aesthetics of the rest of the game than the one they used… Yeah I know is a very minor gripe but as they say, the devil is in the details.
So, all in all, I thought this was a really interesting and thought-provoking experience. If you like sci-fi adventure games, and don’t mind a few bugs and not having much to do except for solving a few simplistic puzzles and experience the narrative of the game, I totally recommend that you give it a try. Given that it’s totally free I don’t think there’s much risk in trying it, it won’t take much of your time and if you don’t like it you can brush it off and start playing your next game.