In the annals of zombie fiction there exist as many tropes as there are suitors for romance, clowns for comedy, and heroes for adventure. Within a bind of pervasive, persistent terror, though, the zombie survivor is necessarily tapered by the fatalistic restrictions of the world around him. There is always death and the fear of it. Of the countless ways video games have tried to systematize this sense, to make this unique type of fear real through design, none have so frequently gazed at the potential of it, and then bypassed it, as “Days Gone.”
Look at this game as three parts: a world, a story, and a player. On their own, they each more or less function and deliver what you’d expect. The world supplies plenty of things to see and kill, plenty of routes to take, and often through a pleasant, scenic aesthetic. A tangle of zombie narratives dutifully yanks you through its many hours. And you, the player, have just enough to do to justify your time. In this way, the game checks boxes and, perhaps, gets you from the last mission to the next, if that’s what you want.
But as these three parts intermingle, the story supplying meaning to your actions, the world challenging those actions, and you the glue between those other parts, they bend at the will of each other’s needs. They morph in service of, or as served by, one another. “Days Gone” sets its foundation in a living world, puts the player in it, but then leans far too heavily on that third part, the story, to supply some very long-term goals. And somehow, those visceral, easily delivered thrills of shoot and kill, hunt and drive, don’t accomplish all that much.
Still, it doesn’t feel this way at first.
At the offset, “Days Gone” places the player in the shoes of the survivor and the scavenger. A lush, lived-in, apocalyptically ravaged Oregonian landscape carries you along; immediately gratifying in its portended naturalistic logic. This is a world that intends to make sense, above all else. Aping gaming’s obsession with worlds of bits and pieces, you dart from thing to thing, gathering materials, crafting useful stuff like bandages and arrows, and, in an enjoyable twist, having to do much the same for your motorcycle, utilizing scrap for repairs and gas for locomotion to, simply enough, survive. Getting from point A to point B is this game’s first thrill. It’s not an entirely unique thrill, but Bend Studio put in the work. Within this ecosystem of brutal logic and grit, the scattered zombie-like threat, freakers, create its life.
They feel like a discovery every time you find them. It may be two or three freakers, in which case your crafted melee weapon can handle the tussle. Or perhaps your silent bow. As the scenarios grow more dangerous, take to the gun, and at the natural endpoint of this calculus is Bend Studio’s greatest creation, the horde. These are roaming packs of up to 500 freakers that sleep in caves or buildings during the day and come out to feed at night. They feel alive and incredibly dangerous, and cement themselves as a clear end goal right off the bat. You want to confront them, and you know the game is going to give you the means to do it. For now, though, you gaze on them with caution and dart away if they see you. Because these hordes tend to live in a variety of environments across the game, any accidental stumble on their path feels real, and immediately focuses the game into a delicious terror.
As a simplistic trifecta of man, nature, and infected, eating and killing each other insofar as we’re given the means to create our own fortune atop the ravaged heap, “Days Gone” finds its yen in those discovered, emergent moments wherein triumph and failure entangle in the confidence of your ability and knowledge to crawl away alive. The horde, the bike, the tilting trees in a midnight storm; these things do find some common ground in how they sandwich the player between an empowered shotgunning affair and a desperate getaway as your inventory empties. But these are not drivers for an experience. They don’t supply an outcome. Whatever thrill they might have accomplished in some other game gets severed by narrative, caught shallow by necessity for progression in this game.
“Days Gone” is long, and in the slow, often tedious unfurling of its wider thematic vision, what occurs almost tragically is a leakage of this living world ambition through the cracks of an old, ill-fitted house. That is, “Days Gone” tries to tell a story and tries to give you many things to do, and in so doing transmogrifies a would-be precise vision for apocalyptic survival into the stretched, gaped, loose skin I imagine would hang from a zombified beached whale (no, those aren’t in the game).
As “Days Gone” grows outward, what’s meant to produce player momentum is narrative. There are stories, so many stories (possibly every zombie story) strewn about and collected together by an odd idea. Instead of tracking one questline at a time, doing three or four missions along a pathway to succeed at some goal, many missions and waypoints function as progress for multiple, supposedly interlinked, narrative drivers. You’ll push through them all as biker protagonist Deacon St. John, but they strive for overwhelming variety. His buddy from the old days, Boozer, for instance, has his own set of storylines. He’s injured, and you need to keep him alive. Another parallel storyline, say one where you save a lost girl, might also see its progression tick along in a Boozer mission. Three storylines might progress at a pivotal mission involving many characters.
This might seem innovative on paper, perhaps providing some sense of cohesion, but the end result is something more like a pinball machine. You’re dinged around the map from waypoint to waypoint, trying almost blindly to see which pulsing icon might just happen to push the game forward in some meaningful sense. Little percentage counters tick upward like a scoreboard. Often it stalls, with just one or two storylines dangling somewhere. You might drive across the map only to have a five-second conversation. Sometimes they all move forward at once, but nothing about the last three things you did, like overtaking a camp, or rescuing a dog, provided any sense of building momentum towards what should have been some triumph. Mixed in with this narrative bent is the literal expansion of the game world, opening up new areas, new camps, new enemies, and, of course, new storylines. But in using the narrative as the guiding thread of everything you do, all that you do becomes somehow lesser.
Thematically, “Days Gone” confronts the idea of survival by presenting two opposites in the many, many stories it tries to tell – the drifter and the leader. The game goes to great lengths to place protagonist Deacon on this sort of leadership progression. Deacon and Boozer start as drifters that work for but never fully join the camps strewn about the map. The camps each present some philosophy of communal survival in a post-apocalypse (very “Walking Dead”), whether it’s about freedom, work, or some other driving human force. But that’s the story telling us what they are. In fact, they’re nothing but a storefront.
For all the work done on cutscenes and dialogue and somber music, no part of the world, like these encampments, really responds to this idea of growth or change. You gain the trust of encampments as you work, and as their trust grows, so do the things they can do for you. You’ll buy better weapons and upgrade your bike. But these encampments become no better or worse, save for when the story declares it so. The world never becomes any less individualistic as those opening moments of survival. No amount of screaming about it in a cutscene can change that. What small choices you make – sending a saved person to a camp, providing resources to one camp or another – function only in service of the individualistic goal to progress and become stronger. Most open world games in some way function exactly the same, but then most open world games aren’t dependent on the tension of apocalyptic survival to compose some sense of intrigue. The camps, and ultimately anything beyond your skill tree and your weapon base, feel undercooked as they pertain to the persistence of the world itself. Instead, Deacon builds and builds toward a one-man wrecking machine, and any theme about community succumbs to baser pleasures of dominance and heroism.
In all this high-level effort to weave in the alive parts of “Days Gone” with the story, the thrill of surviving, of traveling, of overcoming much of anything, is tarnished. To get from mission to mission, to be an efficient pinball in this stretched out narrative machine, you can’t operate like the survivor. Your bike may require gas and repair, but then you simply fast travel to the next mission. You may need to heal, but an abundance of resources really do that work for you. Saving is restricted to when you’re near your bike, but not really. A successful mission automatically saves your progress. These might seem like a collection of fourth wall necessities, saving and fast-traveling, but their intrusion in the experience both serve the narrative function and woefully undermine the survival function. This renders the survival component into a mere illustration of its purpose, a projection of the idea that you’re in danger, without actualizing that danger in the brutality of the world. The game loses consequence.
So upon finally acquiring the means to confront the horde, that first thrill, having tiptoed and peeked around it for the majority of the experience, the exhaustion and overwhelming familiarity of this stretched out journey wrests any sense of earned triumph from the act. At that point, defeating the horde was just the most logical thing to happen next, given all the time powering yourself up. This is what the game has accidentally taught – victory is inevitable. That couldn’t be more at odds with the idea of a perpetually dangerous world.
There is a living, breathing undercurrent of ambition undeniable in the scale and intricacy of developer Bend Studio’s creation. And you can tell the effort here is to apply to a naturally tense open-world survival structure the kind of high-impact narrative one would expect from a linearly-funneled action game. But the result is one of the best examples of why that can’t work, and of the damage such an effort can have on otherwise solid foundations. With the game’s pacing ground to dust in service of open world largess, expansiveness, and narrative potential, the core of “Days Gone” is buried too deep for even a zombified resurrection.