A wary loner astride a beaten down motorcycle linking up with groups of survivors in a world awash in the hordes of subhuman monsters that were once humanity — at first blush, “Days Gone” sounds and looks a lot like the early seasons of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
But spend any time with the game and it quickly becomes apparent that the PlayStation 4 exclusive from SIE Bend Studio is more “Red Dead Redemption” than “The Walking Dead.” Both works, and plenty more, helped shape the game, said John Garvin, who co-directed and wrote the game.
The Many Deaths of Deacon St. John
During an event last week in Santa Monica, SIE Bend Studios gave gathered press about 45 minutes to play around inside the world of “Days Gone,” taking charge of Deacon St. John, a former biker gang member. The game session took place about an hour into the game with two missions active and waiting to be played.
The gameplay opened with St. John inside one of the many wilderness encampments of survivors that dot the game’s massive map. Players could decide to choose between two missions — one asked the biker to fetch something and the other to attack an enemy encampment — or to just ride around in the wilderness on the lookout for freakers, the game’s take on the zombie.
Nearly an hour later and I had discovered just how reactive the game’s enemies were. I spent all of my time meticulously trying a variety of approaches to the enemy encampment, each time the experience was wildly different, powered entirely by an artificial intelligence that seemed as up for variety as I was.
Approaching quietly from one direction on foot allowed St. John to take down a guard silently, only to have his body spotted and the entire encampment to hunt me down and kill me. Biking directly into the center of the camp turned St. John into a short-lived target. Rounding up freakers and getting them to chase St. John into camp worked for a few minutes until both freakers and hostile humans turned on him. Running down a perimeter guard with St. John’s bike and then hiding, seemed to be the most effective, but only one of those dozens of attempts lasted much longer than a few minutes. In that nearly successful one-man attack, St. John killed a guard with his bike, took out another as he walked through a door unaware of St. John lurking in the darkness. St. John managed to stab to death a third after running around a massive tree with the guard in chase, and then doubling back to attack him. Then the biker downed a sniper and another guard searching for him nearby. Things were looking good for St. John as he walked into what appeared to be a mostly empty encampment, but then a pack of wolves took him down. They had, I discovered later, been drawn to the prolonged gun-fight and came to the camp looking for a ready meal. They found it in St. John.
“‘Days Gone’ is an open-world, third-person shooter, action-adventure game,” Garvin told Variety after the demo. “I think at the highest level, what distinguishes us from other open world games is that this game is super dangerous.
“You step outside of an encampment and boom, you’re attacked by wolves, marauders clothes-line you as you’re riding your bike, freakers attack you. Enemies are everywhere. We wanted it to come across as being a very dangerous place.”
While “Days Gone” has the rich environments and gloomy feel of some elements of “The Last of Us,” Garvin said it doesn’t take long to realize how different the games feel from each other.
“We’ve been compared a lot to ‘The Last of Us,’” he said. “I don’t mind that, it’s good company to be in. “The Last of Us” is beautifully written and a compelling experience and I can see why players notice a lot of similarities. But if you play the game you will see how different they feel. There is way more run-and-gun gameplay and we are more action-oriented.”
“Red Dead Redemption” Meets “World War Z”
Back in 2013, the game was called “Dead Don’t Ride,” and it was a lot campier version of the much more serious, dark “Days Gone,” Garvin said. In those early days, Garvin’s biggest influences were television shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Walking Dead,” as well as the movie “World War Z.” Another big influence was “The Walking Dead” comics, which are often much darker than the television show. Garvin said he thinks the Robert Kirkman’s comics are much better than the show. “I like how he gets into these cycles. The same kinds of villains pop up, but he’s always exploring human relationships. What happens to people when put under this pressure?”
Another major influence for the game was Rockstar’s open-world western “Red Dead Redemption.”
“One of my favorite games of all time was ‘Red Dead Redemption,’” he said. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have ‘Red Dead’ on a motorcycle and freakers?’”
And “Red Dead,” Garvin said, was big enough to allow not just a massive physical journey in the game by players, but a meaningful spiritual one.
“You need a certain amount of environment to do that,” he said. “I still remember crossing the Rio Grande and heading into Mexico [in “Red Dead Redemption”.] That was a meaningful moment.”
So one of the core elements of the game, going all of the way back to 2013 when “Days Gone” was simply an idea in Garvin’s notebook, was the motorcycle St. John rides.
“We took all of these influences and then thought, ‘What if you were in this world on a motorcycle?” he said. “One of the big pillars is that it’s an open world game and we’re covering a lot of territory. We decided not to make his bike disposable. Instead we have this idea of having him love the open road. He doesn’t believe in a lot of the encampments, so having that bike is a huge part of his character.”
Because one of the motorcycle’s importance to St. John and the game, the team worked to make it more than simply a mode of transportation. While it can’t completely break down, it does need to be tended to and can be upgraded over time at encampments.
“We wanted you to feel like it had weight and meaning without the minutia of stat tending,” he said. “It can break down, it can run out of gas, but you don’t have to change the oil on it. “
The motorcycle is meant to be a drifter bike, which can handle both on-road and off-road riding. The team deliberately set about destroying most of the world’s bridges and making the roads impassible simply to push St. John onto his bike and into the wild.
“It’s fun to ride,” he said. “The physics guys did a really good job of making it feel fluid.”
My time with “Days Gone” was an exercise in death, a mostly deliberate attempt to see just how smart the enemies in the game were in disposing of St. John. But what if I wanted to complete the mission? Garvin explained what he would have done, offering a bit more insight into the design of the game.
“I would use a sniper rifle,” he said. “But if you want to play the mission that way you have to go out and find this guy who has it and earn the trust at his encampment. Each encampment has different things for sale. So you basically have to go out of your way to find this weapon.”
And, he notes, weapons in the field don’t last very long and you can’t save them. That’s where the game’s crafting system comes in. Without a sniper rifle, Garvin said he would have likely built flaming bolts for St. John’s crossbow, but that would have required finding the ingredients to craft that ammo.
His decision to use an approach built around engaging the enemy from a distance is likely fueled by his deep knowledge of how the bad guys think in the game. “Days Gone’s” AI is situational based. That means that instead of waiting for triggers in specific spots before reacting, the enemies in the game are aware of things happening all around them.
Some AI are designed to act like just folks lost in the woods, others, he said, act as if they have military training and will do things like flanking maneuvers when taking St. John on.
Then there is the system that drives the game’s zombies — the freakers. First, Garvin points out, the animalistic creatures that have replaced most of humanity in the game are not zombies.
“They’re not undead,” he said. “These are humans that have been infected with a virus that transforms them into feral, animalistic, cannibalistic creatures.”
And the freakers are also physically evolving, so there is more than one type.
The AI that drives the freakers is built around a life cycle, Garvin said. They eat, sleep, drink. If you kill one of a freaker in a group and then come back later, you’ll find the rest of the group eating the downed enemy, for instance. There are also times when you might stumble onto a horde nest, with 150 to 200 of the creatures sleeping in a cave. How you might tackle that sort of situation needs to be driven by your knowledge of how they behave.
“We want it to feel like they are alive,” Garvin said. “They’re not just shambling around.”
A 30-Hour Golden Path
“Days Gone’s” map is “big,” as Garvin puts it — he said he recently beat the game for the second time, playing through just the key storyline and not doing any of the side content, and it took him about 30 hours — but it’s not meant to be an open world game in the sense of something like “Far Cry.”
“We’re not Ubisoft,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of a team. We’re not massive. We’re 130 guys. We knew we couldn’t make the kind of game where you could get lost in the sand-boxiness of it. Games are already doing that and doing a great job. If that’s what you’re looking for you’ll play ‘Far Cry 5.’”
Instead, “Days Gone” hopes to ensnare its players in what it believes is a thoughtful mix of open-world danger and meaningful narrative.
“Our goal was to craft an experience that you haven’t played before,” he said. “And I’m really looking forward to being able to talk about the story.”
And now five years, nearly six, since starting work on the game, Garvin is anxious for people to discover just how much narrative depth there is to this game.
“I think there is a perception that this is an open-world sandbox game only because we haven’t spent a lot of time talking about the story,” he said. “That’s not the reality.
He added, “If people have played any of our other games — ‘Syphon Filter,’ ‘Uncharted: Golden Abyss’, ‘Resistance: Retribution’ — they should know what to expect. Those all had good stories. Without the story you don’t have a game.”