I’ve changed my mind about Days Gone

Days Gone
SIE Bend Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

I’ve changed my mind about Days Gone. I used to think it was bad. Now, I’m beginning to convince myself that it’s going to be good. Maybe even better than that.

Back at E3 2016, when Sony Bend first demonstrated its post-apocalyptic open-world survival game, I thought it was just plain silly. The main character, a grizzled biker called Deacon St. John, came across as a bloviated paragon of old-school road warrior machismo. He was so badly written that, at one point, assembled critics laughed at his lines.

Days Gone did show glimmers of promise in its lovely Pacific Northwest world of dripping forests and tough little towns. The game’s zombie behavior patterns, which prompt the player to create strategic choke points, looked like an interesting focus.

But in a world where The Last of Us Part 2 lurks, along with any number of other post-apocalyptic adventures, there didn’t seem much reason to give excessive mind space to this tale of an anguished biker bloke.

So I sent Days Gone to the back of the line, forgot about it, didn’t care a bit when it was delayed.

At a recent media event, I spent more time playing the game, getting acquainted with its biker ethos, its combat mechanics, its varied environments. I found it to be a much more focused, more enjoyable game than I remember from that sorry demo almost three years ago. So much so that Days Gone is now near the top of my most-anticipated list for 2019.

Image: SIE Bend Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Character is destiny

Deacon St. John is now less anguished, more understated and appealing. Sure, he’s still pretty much what you’d expect from a grungy post-apocalypse biker. He’s gruff and grizzly, and he’s all about loyalty and all that.

He’s hyper-practical, knows his way around a toolkit, and takes care of his friends. He’s also a violent man who shows no mercy to those who contravene his code of honor. He’s been bitten by the world, and he means to bite back.

We all know this dude from a million TV shows, movies, and games. As action heroes go, he’s fine, even if he feels a bit like a relic of years gone by. It’s worth recalling that Sony Bend has been working on this game for more than five years, and a lot has changed since its inception.

In the last few years, the fashion has moved away from overly familiar pissed-off mid-30s white-man protagonists. A young woman is the star of The Last of Us Part 2. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey featured a woman as an (optional) protagonist. Gears 5 will star a woman. Even Battlefield 5 made the effort to subvert narrative shooter protagonist norms.

Sony Bend stayed with straight, white Deacon St. John, but has softened him. I’m curious about how he’s changed in the two-plus years since he first appeared, and why I find him much more tolerable than when he first appeared. So I asked game director Jeff Ross.

“We got it from everyone,” Ross replied, referring to the initial criticism of the character. “Just the way some of the lines were read or the way they were written. We’ve refined some of the rougher edges, where he may not have come off as the most relatable character.”

I also asked writer John Garvin about Deacon St. John’s evolution. “We worked really hard on making Deacon’s character realistic,” he said. “It wasn’t about trying to make him likable. We wanted him to grow over the course of the story, and you have to start him someplace, so he can end up someplace else.

“In the early development of Days Gone, we didn’t realize how long the player would spend with this character before he starts regaining his humanity. Nobody is willing to spend eight hours with somebody they don’t like. This was just part of us learning and growing as developers of an open world.”

Novelists and scriptwriters labor over edits and redrafts in private, before showing anything to the world. Games are often shown years before they are released. The public gets to see and judge embarrassing early drafts. But Garvin says he’s “grateful” for the feedback, and for the time Sony has given the team to make improvements.

“There were a lot of moments that were too on the nose,” he said. “We edited a lot of that out so we could allow the player to fill in their expectations of how the character behaves and reacts, and not just spell it all out for them.”

SIE Bend Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Survive and thrive

Days Gone is a third-person narrative adventure in which I ride around a ruined version of Oregon on a motorbike. This is a post-pandemic story, in which the vast majority of humans are either dead or transformed into ravenous creatures called “Freakers.”

I loot abandoned houses, shops, and camps to survive. These places are often inhabited by Freakers, who come in a variety of models. Some are strong loners, others are opportunistic lurkers; still others are marauding swarms. My strategies depend on who, or what, I’m fighting.

In one early scene, I’m required to work my way through an abandoned motel and gas station, picking up medicine as I go. Specifically, I need a part to fix my bike. The first time I play this level, I go stealthy, sneaking around, making use of distractions by throwing stones, and supplementing my progress with a few quiet zombie takedowns. The Freakers aren’t stupid, and I note their differing behavior patterns.

Then, I play the same scene again, just to try an alternative plan. I fire my weapons; I charge into melee attacks. I make lot of noise. This is much more challenging, as Freakers home in on me. They are difficult to kill en masse. But I prevail, mainly by isolating my attackers.

The combat feels slick and highly iterated, as I expect from the developer behind the much-admired Syphon Filter series of yore.

I enjoy each approach — stealth and gung-ho — in its own way. Although some parts of the game include single-route action sequences, other combat areas are built with variety in mind.

SIE Bend Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Combat wheel

Focus is one of three meters (along with endurance and health) in Days Gone. It allows me to slow time and make use of the combat wheel, which is a sophisticated, powerful piece of the interface. It brings up weapons and explosives as well as decoys, health boosts, and on-the-fly crafting. I’ve played with a lot of combat wheels, and this one feels like it’s been designed with due care and attention.

When I fight, I try to save my ammo, relying on easily craftable bolts for my crossbow or takedowns.

My map also displays directional warnings about the whereabouts of Freakers, so I can alter my course in order to avoid them when I’m out in the wild woods. This gives me choices about how I move through the world and how I interact with its dangers. But there are times when confrontation is unavoidable.

By nature, I’m inclined toward avoiding fights where I can, but the game also rewards me for taking out enemies. When I kill a Freaker, I can collect one of its ears. I can then trade these for currency, which allows me to boost weapons and buy stuff.

This grisly currency is just one hard-edged aspect of Days Gone’s world. Small, childlike Freakers called “Newts” hang around in packs, looking to exploit the weak and wounded. In life, they were children (“adolescents,” in the carefully parsed language of the game’s PR). Now they are little more than animals.

It’s a brave decision, I think, to include post-apocalyptic kids not merely as side-character victims, but as adversaries with their own patterns of behavior, loosely modeled on the way kids behave in the real world.

I also encounter human scavengers who cross my path or invade my territory. This is a dog-eat-dog world of limited resources. These interactions make me feel like I’m living in a realistically challenging environment, where survival depends on making difficult choices.

My fights against human gangs generally involve making use of cover, as well as divide-and-conquer strategies and smart implementation of available weapons. Charging around firing off weapons is generally ill-advised, as it would be in real life.

I follow the story as it opens out into new terrains and pretty vistas of Oregonian landscapes, from high-altitude deserts to hillside forests to mountainsides. I find small settlements where I collect missions, advance the story, upgrade my stuff, and boost my bike. I spend time with my pal Boozer, getting a sense of the world’s dangers and opportunities.

As I play through, I find myself engrossed and impressed. I’ve pretty much forgotten that I came to this media event expecting to be disappointed. Days Gone is one to watch. It’s out for PlayStation 4 on April 26. I really didn’t think I was going to say this, but I’m looking forward to it.

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Comments

"In the last few years, the fashion has moved away from overly familiar pissed-off mid-30s white-man protagonists. A young woman is the star of The Last of Us Part 2. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey featured a woman as an (optional) protagonist. Gears 5 will star a woman. Even Battlefield 5 made the effort to subvert narrative shooter protagonist norms."

I can’t help but feel a bit weird reading this. Why do we even need this? Those games are ready to play at your pleasure. Does every game that doesn’t need to be called out for it?

I usually like games which subvert expectation don’t get me wrong. I play femshep, I played Kassandra, I loved WD2 for what it did even if I didn’t like the game much. I loved when Chloe was the star if the last Uncharted,

But it’s the kind of narrative which is counterproductive with the people you need to convince instead of actually helping much. This is ok too.

Maybe you are a little weird

Of course I am, who isn’t

Does every game that doesn’t need to be called out for it?

That’s an odd way of looking at it. There’s no quota for how many games should be called out for any particular problem. We don’t have a set limit for grumbling about frame rates, and once we’ve seen that many games with poor performance we just stop mentioning it. Or feel we should shut up about microtransactions after the first (say) ten games each year that do them badly.

We take each game on its own merits, and if this game has a tediously clichéd, rather old-fashioned, protagonist then we talk about it.

And based on what we know so far, it is pretty likely that this will be a less surprising, less interesting, story than it would have been if they’d shoved Deacon in the fridge and sent Sarah on the roaring rampage of revenge/redemptive hero’s journey instead.

"We don’t have a set limit for grumbling about frame rates, and once we’ve seen that many games with poor performance we just stop mentioning it."

That’s an odd comparison as well. Technical behaviour is not comparable to a choice for what kind of protagonist you choose.

"it is pretty likely that this will be a less surprising, less interesting, story than it would have been if they’d shoved Deacon in the fridge and sent Sarah on the roaring rampage of revenge/redemptive hero’s journey instead"

See, why? Cause a woman would go through a fundamentally different journey somehow? Biker chicks exist. Sometimes the difference is actually fuck all and just perosnal preference. Femshep doesn’t go through a different story (excpet maybe some romances) because she’s a woman.

This game would be fine with a woman, it wouldn’t matter much in the end. Maybe pick your gender thing needs to happen in every game no doubt, it doesn’t change the story everytime.

Just saying gruff biker dudes exist, somehow people find it boring cause he’s not something else while I can’t recall a game where I played a gruff bikerrude except Lost & the Damned.

That’s an odd comparison as well. Technical behaviour is not comparable to a choice for what kind of protagonist you choose.

Sure it is. I mean, they’re obviously different, but they’re both reasonable things for any overall assessment of game to think about. Games need to do everything they do well – if they’re doing facial animations, they need to be good, if they’re doing fast-paced action, it needs to be good, if they’re telling a story, it needs to be good.

Now, that’s not to say that everything has to have everything – some games are Super Hexagon, in which case they’re off the hook for facial animations and story, and some games are Twine games and don’t need to worry too much about framerates.

But this game is doing a story in an open world, and it needs to nail all of that. So far the technology is looking good, the story is (IMO, obviously) not.

Maybe you’re right and the biker culture thing will really set Deacon apart, maybe this is all a huge marketing fake-out and there are multiple playable characters. Maybe the action will be just so amazing that a lacklustre story won’t hurt, or maybe it’ll just be a game for people that don’t care about plot or characters, in which case that’ll be great for them, but a pass from me.

But right now, I do care about plot and characters, and these ones are not grabbing me.

Technical choices are not content choices, it’s the difference between a magazine choosing glossy paper or what kind of story to run. The last means other stories won’t get told, the first just how it feels in your hand, but it doesn’t affect the quality of the story one bit.

You can have feedback on both, but not on the same level.

Just saying gruff biker dudes exist, somehow people find it boring cause he’s not something else while I can’t recall a game where I played a gruff bikerrude except Lost & the Damned.

Someone needs to play Full Throttle Remastered

I’m sure there are more, but that game is practically 20-30 years old even if it’s remade.

should every game now have mandatory feminist story?
even games about shooting bloody zombies?

Something is not a ‘feminist story’ just because there’s a woman in it.

thank you. just because game and movie developers are finally getting that they have underrepresented women for ever doesn’t make it a feminist story. it just makes it inclusive and more representative. women have existed almost exclusively as partners to men, side kicks, or ornaments for ever.

ever wonder why most girls want to be princesses? bc thats the only prominent role they can see themsevles represented in when they are growing up. our white male standard of representation is that we are the center of the universe. womens representation is a pink room in a tower waiting to be rescued by a more capable male. representation matters but most guys are blind to it bc of our privlage makes it a non issue for us.

"ever wonder why most girls want to be princesses? bc thats the only prominent role they can see themsevles represented in when they are growing up"

I have a daughter of 3, it’s also what they like, she watches a ton of Teen Titans and wants to be Firestar when she grows up, she also wants to be Elsa, they can have both.

i got two girls – same here, but back when we were kids, girls pretty much had Disney Princesses and thats it – so the role is much more prominent for people our age. now its available outside of saturday morning or on vhs too =]

Then maybe also get that it’s not all "samey white guys" just because the protag isn’t female or a minority?

Erm, not sure that works – if the protag is a samey white guy then the protag is a samey white guy.

Clearly not everything is a massive cliché-fest, but it looks like this might be, and that’s what we’re talking about.

But the protag usually isn’t a "samey white guy." Just a white guy. For whatever reason, it’s just cool to call them all the same.

Granted, there are some genres where the guy is pretty cookie-cutter: military shooters, for example. But it’s really only the same guy all over gaming if you boil the characters down to only their race and gender.

But the protag usually isn’t a "samey white guy." Just a white guy. For whatever reason, it’s just cool to call them all the same.

That’s not what anyone’s saying – they’re saying that this particular white guy is samey. I’ll quote from the article:

He’s hyper-practical, knows his way around a toolkit, and takes care of his friends. He’s also a violent man who shows no mercy to those who contravene his code of honor. He’s been bitten by the world, and he means to bite back. We all know this dude from a million TV shows, movies, and games.

Just to clarify, I wouldn’t mind one bit of this game featured a woman, I can’t wait for TLOU2.

The only thing which struck me the narrative was aiming to say, it’s not a woman, so it’s boring and old school. All examples used were women. It just seemed to read like if every game featured a woman now it wouldn’t be boring. I just don’t think it’s a balanced way at looking things.

Of course men have skewed the balance for a long time. So maybe it does need to tip another way for a certain time, but when are people EVER going to be happy if the put every game against "a sole product doesn’t respresent me personally". Not everything is aimed at you.

I can’t speak for the author of the piece, but my impressions of the game so far is that it indulges in a lot of common tropes and cliches without much to stand apart. I wouldn’t focus on just "samey white-guy protag", it’s just one thing on a long list of things I’ve already seen dozens of times before.

Look at it another way: the game is about a grizzled white guy motivated by or hung up on the death of a woman (something that occurs before the story begins properly, whether in a prologue or just as backstory), who makes morally ambiguous choices and takes violent action to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where both man and monster are out to get him. How many stories does that alone describe? Lift out "post-apocalypse", and the list explodes.

I think if the story were doing other actually interesting things, people might not focus so much on the apparent rote blandness of its lead. Just seems like the story as a whole is lacking any real originality, and criticizing Deacon St. John is an easy shorthand for what seems like an uninspired story.

Maybe there’s something that the game does to set it apart from other similar stories — shit, it might be as simple as the game being fun to play with a competent enough story to keep me hooked — but it’s fair to say that the story has its work cut out for it to win over some folk. Of course, I said the same thing about RDR2, and that ended up being phenomenal, so I’m willing to give this a chance too.

Oh agreed, the only thing that REALLY sets it apart are the fast hordes and that maybe if features a bike. I won’t argue with it.

The hordes do look tense though, better than the shuffling we usually get. I’m more worried about bikes, they hardly handle well in games.

Because, for a very, VERY long time, video game protagonists were the same. mid 00s, it felt like the majority of AAA games starred gruffed voiced, unshaven, stoic white men, with a heart of gold.

When you have a variety of games, but the perspective is always from the same type of character, it is stale.

Different characters means a different point of view, it means new stories, new perspectives.

In a world that still has zero shortage of stories and perspectives by straight, white men from literally every form of media there is, pointing out those that have a different point of view…is not the end of the world.

I was going to skip this game, because quite frankly nothing about this guy interested me, because I have seen his story 100 times before. The fact they realised this and made efforts to update it, might pique my interest again

"Because, for a very, VERY long time, video game protagonists were the same. mid 00s, it felt like the majority of AAA games starred gruffed voiced, unshaven, stoic white men, with a heart of gold.

Agreed, but times are changing, for some not fast enough I think, but I’m not really pro forcing of issues by slagging every instance that doesn’t.

"When you have a variety of games, but the perspective is always from the same type of character, it is stale."

If you play everything, yes, but I usually don’t play these types of games. The only reason I’m interested in this is because the focus is on story, worldbuilding and single player focus Sony games usually have. For me it’s actually kind of fresh, I haven’t played a game like this quite often, the last zombie game I played is probably TLOU.

"Different characters means a different point of view, it means new stories, new perspectives."

Could be, but a lot of games actually don’t differ that much, cause the gender/race is often irrelevant in a game about zombie apocalypse with an action adventure focus. Like I said femsheps journey wasn’t different from malesheps much.

"In a world that still has zero shortage of stories and perspectives by straight, white men from literally every form of media there is, pointing out those that have a different point of view…is not the end of the world."

There’s plenty out there, not denying that. Like I said, I just don’t think critique a single product on what it isn’t felt weird. This vanilla ice cream is fine, shame it’s not strawberry. Vanilla is popular, can’t really help it.

The only thing which struck me the narrative was aiming to say, it’s not a woman, so it’s boring

That’s not what the article said. The article has words. You can look at the words.

Here are the words from the article: "He’s gruff and grizzly, and he’s all about loyalty and all that. He’s hyper-practical, knows his way around a toolkit, and takes care of his friends. He’s also a violent man who shows no mercy to those who contravene his code of honor. He’s been bitten by the world, and he means to bite back. We all know this dude from a million TV shows, movies, and games. […]In the last few years, the fashion has moved away from overly familiar pissed-off mid-30s white-man protagonists."

That’s a lot of words in there. Each of the words describes an uninspired part of the character concept. You have wildly mischaracterized it as saying "it’s not a woman, therefore it’s boring". Your post is so narrow-minded and defensive that you missed 99% of the article’s description of why this character is uninspired. The "only" thing that struck you was… something the article never said or implied.

(Also, I know this might be too complicated for right now, but if the man was simply switched for a woman it would be both equally uninspired and at the same time objectively better and more interesting on the surface and possibly beyond the surface. The reason is because surface stereotypes and gender roles are so entrenched. A superficial switch CAN be significant and meaningful. Inclusion and representation of previously excluded people is good.)

When you look at an article, I recommend reading the words. I recommend looking at yourself and asking yourself why it’s so hard to understand some words while it’s so easy to focus on words that aren’t there.

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