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‘Dying Light: The Following’ Makes Doomsday Cults Seem Surprisingly Reasonable

‘Dying Light: The Following’ Makes Doomsday Cults Seem Surprisingly Reasonable:

The Children of the Sun live in the countryside outside of Harran, the fictional Turkish city in which Techland’s Dying Light: The Following takes place. They’re a small religious sect who have set up something like a commune. They live in supposed harmony, sheltered from the zombie apocalypse that’s decimated the fields and coastal villages outside their walls.

From the first moment the player encounters them, the Children are a disquieting presence. They’re a cult, after all, with strange rituals and the always unnerving habit of referring to each other as “brother.” But, surprisingly, where many games would stress the creepiness of the Children’s faith, The Following attempts to rationalize it.

Spurred on by rumors that the Children may possess a cure for the virus that’s turning Harran’s population into homicidal undead, player character Kyle Crane heads to their village to investigate. He’s greeted with suspicion and is told that the only way he can gain the Children’s trust is by helping them survive. This is a pretty typical video game setup—the game menu displays a progress bar that fills as Kyle ingratiates himself to the Children by completing missions for them. But it’s also a solid method of structuring a story that sees both Kyle and the player slowly learning more about the cult as the game progresses.

Initially the Children are easy to dismiss. They worship a charismatic leader/spiritual guide (The Mother) who dresses in flowing robes and a wooden mask. Their beliefs—a mix of animistic nature-worship and Abrahamic hierarchy structures—look a lot like the kind of New Age weirdness that’s inspired many real-world cults (benign and otherwise). Most importantly, the Children of the Sun’s beliefs also center on a doomsday prophecy that includes the arrival of a savior figure who will purify an apocalyptic world.

It’s this last point that begins to make the group more relatable within The Following’s context.

FINDING FAITH THROUGH ZOMBIES

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Living through a zombie apocalypse would call into question all sorts of ideas, not least of which being our faith or lack thereof. In our day-to-day lives, the motivations for religious belief may not be so apparent. When things are going well—when we’re safe from immediate physical harm or tremendous grief—it’s easy to dismiss the need for greater meaning that spiritual faith can fill. Religions that offer hope for an afterlife better than our reality, the concept of a loving god, or the idea that everything that happens, no matter how bad, is part of a larger, unknowable plan, can be immensely comforting. When a cataclysmic event occurs—when disease, war, or other hardships suddenly overtake our lives—the guidance of religion can offer reassurance.

This isn’t to say that atheism and agnosticism are positions that fall away when life is bad—for many of us, personal trauma actually spurs the loss of religion—but that it makes a lot of sense to find religious faith during the worst of times.

The Following exaggerates this idea, situating its cult in the same fiction as a full-on zombie apocalypse. The Children of the Sun are a fringe group, their beliefs separating them from Turkey’s majority Muslim population (Dying Light’s fictional setting, Harran, is implied to be somewhere in Turkey). Though it resembles a hodgepodge of real religions, their faith is specifically suited to The Following’s fictional world. They’re communal, helping each other to survive a dangerous world filled with human bandits and undead creatures. They’re fiercely devoted outsiders who, one character says, retreated from society after prior government crackdowns targeting religious sects.

If the player extends their imagination, it’s easy to see why the Children could gain followers. Not only does the structure of their community make sense in an apocalypse, the end of world prophecies they believe in have come true. And perhaps even more importantly the Mother, their spiritual leader, seems to have access to the cure for the zombie infection ravaging the region.

It doesn’t take much to think that, given The Following’s narrative, the Children’s religion might be worth considering. They seem to have answers. Though they’re strange—erecting altars in the woods, practicing exacting burial rituals, and hanging out with masked priests—their way of living isn’t exactly outlandish in a world where the supernatural has become commonplace. Despite the game’s creature feature trappings, this aspect of The Following says a lot about the world in which we live.

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Taken as a metaphor, the zombie infection represents a devastation on par with the very real calamities that affect people across the globe. The death and destruction that’s overtaken Harran is caused by horror movie monsters, but the despair these fantastical creatures visit on the population isn’t so different from that caused by the mundane terrors of human violence and natural disasters. When we think of these characters finding solace in the rituals of a fictional cult, we can imagine why real people suffering from real trauma may suddenly find themselves drawn to religious beliefs they could have dismissed in more peaceful times.

Playing as Kyle Crane—a character who transforms from bemused disbeliever to someone genuinely considering the merits of a fringe religion—contextualizes this process. The Following allows the player access to the mind of someone who takes a deeper look at an initially bewildering faith and, as the story comes to a close, decides whether or not he can square its beliefs with his own view of the world.

The game is set in a fake city beset by monsters, but its parallels to the real world are striking enough to warrant some thought. Dying Light: The Following is genre fiction, primarily designed to offer its audience escapist entertainment. Despite this, it presents commentary on the ties between religious belief and personal hardship that no number of zombies can dilute.


Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.


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