“I’m a firm believer of starting in the middle and letting the player figure it out as you go.”
“Days Gone” creative director and writer John Garvin describes the upcoming PlayStation 4 game as a piece of interactive post-apocalyptic fiction; survival horror cast in a story told through the journeys of a motorcycle one percenter.
“One of our goals from the beginning,” he says, “was to create a third-person shooter driven by a narrative.”
The problem was that they wanted this game to take place in an open world that’s completely explorable by players. While there are plenty of open-world games that feature stories, few find a way to pair the two in a way that makes the story as compelling as the distracting world in which it takes place.
“We hadn’t seen an open world game really pull off a narrative you can follow, the worlds are so distracting, it’s all so much fun that the core story is hard to follow,” Garvin says. “In games like ‘Far Cry,’ and I love that game, they have so many activities it can be distracting. We made a conscious choice to focus everything around the theme of the game.”
That means while you can spend hours in the game not interacting with its story, everything you do still pull you toward that larger narrative.
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“We don’t have a fishing mini-game where you can go explore all of the lakes and ponds in the game, for instance,” Garvin says. “We do have hunting in the game because dangerous animals are constantly a threat and hunting helps build on that sense of a constant threat in the world.
“It was a design and thematic choice.”
So whether a player is ambushing enemy camps, searching for items to help survive, exploring the world or trying to track down NERO — the game’s equivalent of a FEMA/NSA hybrid — it all directly ties back to earning trust at the friendly encampments spread around the world, which is tied to the story.
“We have always more than one core story going at a time,” he says.
There’s the main story, but also side stories about the protagonists past, some of his friends, and his wife. While players will eventually have to unlock a set of story beats to unlock larger areas to explore, Garvin estimates that someone could put 20 hours into the game without touching any story. Once you want to move south in the game, though, you have to push on those story missions.
A Man, a Motorcycle, an Outlaw Brotherhood
“The kinds of things I’m personally drawn to are stories of survival that have more to them then just surviving.”
“The Road,” Garvin says, is a good example of that. He also points to books “The Passage,” and “I Am Legend.”
“It’s just such a brutal exercise in eating and getting by day to day,” he said. “I wanted to explore how people get by.”
The team also wanted to create a game built around a singular form of transportation. “We wanted to build it around the motorcycle,” he says. “We wanted to break the roads and force the players to sometimes go off-road.”
Finally, Garvin says, he wanted the game to feature a protagonist that video games haven’t seen much of before: outlaw bikers.
That didn’t mean he wanted to create a game about what it was like to be an outlaw biker, but rather have an outlaw biker thrust into this situation and then show how he survives.
“It’s like the protagonist of ‘The Walking Dead,’” Garvin says. “They don’t explore the law and order nature of the sheriff, they explore what he brings to the post-apocalyptic setting, his willingness to break the law.”
So the team created Deacon St. John (voiced by Sam Witwer), a member of outlaw motorcycle club The Mongrels who refuses to go to the refugee camps when the outbreak sweeps across the globe.
“All of these highways are choked, on top of that, he’s really good with a baseball bat, his ability to fight and use a gun and use a boot knife are all important,” Garvin says. “More important than that is the sense of brotherhood bikers have.”
It’s the sort of character who would choose to stay with his biker friend in the midst of an outbreak rather than board a helicopter for a trip to an encampment with his wife.
“If they weren’t members of the Mongrels MC I don’t know if that would work,” he says.
And it’s that moment, St. John having to choose between his bride and his brotherhood, that opens the game.
Inside “Days Gone”
“Days Gone” opens in the chaotic midst of an evacuation. We don’t know what’s going on or why; not really. Instead, the player is focused on the woman bleeding from her stomach and the two members of the Mongrels taking her to a helicopter preparing to drift away from a roof.
St. John, who the player’s later control, forces his wife onto the helicopter. But forced to choose between abandoning his fellow Mongrel or staying back to help him on the dangerous journey, he promises his wife that she’ll be fine and then watches her helicopter float away.
Boozer, an enforcer for the Mongrels and friend to St. John, isn’t happy with the decision, but soon both are on their motorcycles heading out of town, past the sometimes still smoldering remnants of society.
Soon the player is chasing down an outlaw who beat a fellow Mongrel nearly to death. Chasing the third motorcycle quickly adjusts players to vehicle controls and then, once the enemy lays his bike down and runs into the woods, introduces the idea of tracking.
Using tracker vision, St. John can see clues, tracks showing him what happened or where people are headed.
When they finally track down the third bike, he’s bleeding out.
It’s a moment that provides some stark insight into this new world and the game’s post-human freakers.
Freakers aren’t zombies, Garvin later tells me.
“The thing about that, the challenge really is the messaging,” he says. “These aren’t zombies. In our game, they are part of an ecosystem. They are living creatures. They are alive in the world.”
What that means is that they’re simply not standing around like a George Romero zombie, waiting to be triggered by the approach of humans or some loud noise. These creatures — the end result of a mysterious infection — live out their animalistic lives in the game.
The sleep in packs in caves during the day, for instance, and have feeding grounds that are mass graves left behind by the early attempts to control the pandemic. They need a river or other water source near where they live because they need to drink. They have migration patterns and move around the map following it. The rest of the world and the creatures in it also interact with them.
“You can use this to your advantage,” Garvin says. “You can pull them into an encounter. They have a life of their own, needs, you can learn those and exploit them. I feel pretty passionately that this is not a zombie game.”
That notion of freaker as weapon is highlighted in the game’s first missions. Standing over the bleeding biker you chased down, St. John doesn’t offer to let him live, he offers to kill him.
“They can smell your blood, you’ll be torn apart, eaten alive,” St. John tells the man motioning to a pack of approaching freakers. If he talks, St. John says, he’ll kill him quickly.
The offer works, and after getting the location of a hidden stash in a cemetery, St. John puts a bullet in the man’s head.
Later, as the game progresses, players learn about Newts, which are essentially children that were infected. Their behavior is drastically different than the freakers. They’re wary of humans, but don’t attack unless someone invades their territory or they suspect the person is weak enough to be brought down easily. When they attack, they attack as a group.
The player also witnesses a run in with the rippers early in the game.
Rippers are members of a sort of cult. They build sigils around the world and leave places thick with symbological graffiti.
“The apocalypse was a divine event to them,” Garvin explains. “They see the feakers as being in an ascended state.”
And unfortunately for Boozer, they don’t believe in tattoos. So when they ambush him, they hold him down and begin to slowly burn the tattoos off of his arm.
St. John saves him, but not before one of his arms is a mess of bloody burns and melted flesh. The encounter illustrates the danger of the rippers, but also sidelines Boozer, forcing St. John to take him back to their hideout in a ranger station.
Free of Boozer, and now on a trek to go back to retrieve the bike he had to leave to get his friend to safety, St. John is free to wander the mostly wooded landscape of “Day’s Gone.” There are also missions he can go on, like visiting the encampment where his wife was headed. The place was overrun, and at least early in the story, we don’t know if she survived.
There are also strange encounters with NERO as it uses a helicopter to herd some freakers and seemingly try to tag or test them.
Some of these missions trigger cut-scenes that delve into the backstory of the game and St. John’s life, other’s move toward expanding the map or introducing new characters.
In the game’s menu, a player can pull up all of the game’s different storylines, there are six storylines that comprise the main narrative, what Garvin calls the golden path. That story — called “I Remember” — is driven by five and a half hours of cutscenes. That’s the story of not just whether St. John’s wife is alive or dead, but his reaction to struggling with trying to find that answer.
Alongside the main story and side stories, the game has about 50 collectibles — scraps of paper and audio recordings — that help flesh out other elements of the world.
An Ever-Expanding World
It seems one of the main things that inspired developer SIE Bend to tackle a narratively driven open world game was their work on an Uncharted title in 2011.
“We had just rolled off ‘Uncharted Golden Abyss, where we worked with Amy Hennig,” Garvin said. “We worked with performance capture and had the entire ensemble working on stage together. That was so powerful in terms of creating characters that worked. “
Characters became a chief way to make the world of “Days Gone” feel so expansive. There are, for instance, a number of different survivor camps littered across the world. Each, Garvin says, has a leader and approach that embodies a different sort of philosophy. One camp is run by someone who hates the federal government, another camp is run like a work camp. Each have a very different view of the world, and different requests of St. John.
While “Days Gone” isn’t out yet — that’s not until April 26 — Garvin hopes that it’s the sort of game that could be expanded over time.
“I feel like we are creating a world and a universe with a playstyle that can be expanded, that can grow narratively,” he says. “I think that’s one of the things open world games can explore.
Creating a universe that players can enjoy and then expanding that world.”