Days Gone is shaping up to be one of Sony’s big single-player PlayStation 4 exclusives for 2019. The title comes out this spring, and with luck it will be received as a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse genre. The game pits the hero, Deacon, against a full horde of zombies (dubbed Freakers) — as many as 500 of them — that he must destroy or escape as he tries to survive as a bounty hunter in the post-apocalyptic Oregon woods.
The world of Days Gone is a dangerous place, with predatory humans, zombie wolves that can catch a motorcycle, and Freakers who will come running as soon as they hear a sound. I got to see the latest build of the game at a Sony event in San Francisco. In that demo, it was clear that the woods were a dangerous place with the occasional human enclave trying to survive amid the waning of civilization.
I played a couple of hours of Days Gone, including the beginning hour and the opening cinematics that tell you more about the story and the harsh decisions that Deacon has had to make to stay alive and to protect those he cares about. I played small episodes, like when his friend Boozer tries to draw off the Freakers from a gas station so that Deacon can sneak in and find some motorcycle parts. I also rescued a girl from a town overrun with Freakers as well as a deadly grizzly bear.
After that, I spoke with John Garvin, creative director at Sony Interactive Entertainment Bend Studio, about the demo and the final run to the finish line. Days Gone comes out on April 26 as an exclusive on the PlayStation 4.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about what you’re showing here today? You’re pretty close.
John Garvin: That’s the question I was going to ask you. How do you feel about what we’re showing? I feel pretty good about it. We debated what we were going to show. We knew a lot of people had seen the first hour of the game. We really wanted people to understand that there’s a lot of variety in the types of environments, the types of experiences. Jumping you into the Belknap region, where you get to see another encampment and play a couple of missions that have a little more emotional content to them — finding a survivor, rescuing her, bringing her back to the camp. That’s why I thought this section worked pretty well.
GamesBeat: Five hours in is the general time frame?
Garvin: It depends on your play style. Some players might be able to get to Belknap within a couple of hours. Others might take longer.
GamesBeat: How much of the beginning cinematic that we see — was that the whole thing?
Garvin: For the first hour of the game? Yeah.
GamesBeat: That’s exactly how the first hour goes, then.
Garvin: I think that’s true at this point, yes. [laughs]
GamesBeat: It was a relatively short. There’s no explanation for what happens. You start in the middle of the pandemic or whatever it is. Why did you want to start that way?
Garvin: All we were really trying to do is establish that Deacon has two important relationships: his wife Sarah and his best friend Boozer. He had a very hard choice he had to make at the very beginning. That was the pivotal moment. We cut to that as quickly as we could. Then we come back to that later on. There will be a flashback sequence where you see more of what happened as the world was ending, and see how that affected Deacon’s character.
We have a lot more background detail that we give about the end of the world, if you want it. It’s all told in this storyline called World’s End, where the player can explore. You can see stuff everywhere in the world. You see checkpoints at the refugee camp where he goes. The mass graves and all this. They all have micro-recorders, NERO intel, where you can get more information about how the world ended.
GamesBeat: Other games, other stories, don’t do that. The Walking Dead doesn’t do that.
Garvin: It depends on the story. Some stories really focus on how the world ended and what the virus is or whatever. Some don’t. It just depends. I’m interested in it, so that’s why we have it. I like to hear about how things got to be the way they are and explore some of that.
GamesBeat: For players in video games, though, sometimes you just want to stick them in the action.
Garvin: Totally. I think that’s true of all good entertainment. You want to make it as exciting as you possibly can right from the beginning, and then let them fill in some background details as they go.
GamesBeat: What do some of those episodes at the very beginning tell us? He does take a lot of risks, like going into that gas station when Boozer was warning him. He does a lot for his friend, to rescue his friend. He doesn’t show any mercy. It’s bloody from the very beginning.
Garvin: Again, to get you into Belknap we skipped over a lot of story, where you’re in the Cascade region and you’re trying to keep your friend alive. Those third-degree burns you saw–in a world without hospitals and antibiotics, that’s very dangerous. A lot of the early story is about you and Boozer and trying to keep him alive. There are missions you do and various things that happen. We skipped all over that so we could get you into a different part of the world and experience more of the open world game.
GamesBeat: Manny, last time, seemed like a bit of a bigger character, somebody that Deacon cared about. But it almost seems in this part that he doesn’t like him.
Garvin: You’re probably thinking of one of our E3 demos where you’re sent out to rescue Manny. Again, this is one of the things we try to do in the game. What you experienced today is in the first hour of the game, where what you saw in that demo was much later in the game. It’s up to the player, also. As you spend time with these characters, he’ll help you out. He’s helping you get your bike back in order again. Then you learn more about him, and eventually they might drop back into the story. Now you have to go and do something to help them.
GamesBeat: It does feel like it’s sinking in that this is a pretty harsh reality you’re depicting. It’s not a happy apocalypse.
Garvin: It’s a brutal, brutal environment. It’s a post-apocalyptic world. Again, just in terms of the story, this is my take on what would really happen if you took away law and order and let people who are inclined to do evil things — if you let them have the run of it this is the world you’re going to get. But you still have a counterbalance to that. You have guys like Copeland. Even though I don’t agree with his politics, he’s still trying to do the right thing.
Same thing with Tucker. She’s running the hot springs camp. She’s a bit of a workhorse. She wants people to work, and maybe she doesn’t give them as many choices as I would, but she’s still trying to do the right thing. She’s trying to help grow crops and feed people and keep people alive. That’s where I feel like the hope comes in in Days Gone. It’s not all depressing and brutality. The whole story of Deacon is how he can help make the world a better place. Especially as you progress through to some of the later encampments and you meet more characters who might feel about the world the way you or I do, you get a better sense of, okay, I see where the game itself is going. It’s about finding hope and finding a reason to try to stay alive. It’s not just about surviving. It’s about finding the reason why we struggle to live.
GamesBeat: In the tunnel Deacon wastes some Molotov cocktails on the freakers and their nests. Why does he do that? Is he trying to eradicate them, or just make it so somebody else doesn’t have to deal with them?
Garvin: That’s one of the things that would have been clearer had we not skipped you over a bunch of content. He’s not wasting the Molotovs. He’s actually burning nests. One of the things you learn is that freakers build nests for reasons you can pick up later on in the game. These infestation zones, we call them, are always built in things like tunnels or buildings or structures.
You have to burn them out, because if you don’t, here’s what will happen. There are more swarmers in the area, so your safehouse up on the mountain — there’s a logging camp down at the foot of the mountain where there’s an infestation zone. In the content we skipped you over, you would have to go and take on that infestation zone and burn out all the nests. Then it makes where your injured friend is into a safer area. It also, just in terms of gameplay, opens up fast travel routes. You can fast travel later in the game, but you have to do more than just choose points you want to go between. If there’s an infestation zone you have to clear that in order to clear the fast travel route.
GamesBeat: How much are you doling out some of the supplies to be found in the world? Have you figured out the right amount of things to pick up?
Garvin: I think we have. One thing we’ve been working on over the last year is fine-tuning that balance. We’re a survival game, but it’s survival light. We don’t want to make it so things are so hard to find that you spend all your time searching. We also have a huge crafting system. Not just crafting medical supplies, but also weapons. We really wanted to make it so you have those resources available if you want them, if you want to play that way.
Exactly how many beer bottles are in the world, or how many rags, or how many sterilizers — that’s probably one of the hardest things to do. You can make one tiny little tweak to the formula and it could change the entire playthrough experience. We’ve done lots of testing, lots of tuning. I feel like we have it pretty dialed in right now.
GamesBeat: You do have some loading screens. Is that a fact of life with the hardware in this age?
Garvin: This is something we’re still working on. We’re trying to get those loading screens down to as little as possible. We’ve been in development for six years. We have a lot of detail in the world. We’ve managed to avoid loading screens between regions. When you go from Copeland’s camp to the mountain, there’s no load screen there. But we still have load screens when you’re going in and out of a cinematic. We’re trying to make those as small as possible.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of God of War. I’ve seen the awesome technology they have for the seamless experience. We’re going to get as close to that as we can.
GamesBeat: What do you have to do between now and launch?
Garvin: The team is working hard on continuing to make sure that we’re hitting our target of 30 frames per second. We’re working hard to make sure that everything works on a base PS4 as well as it does on a Pro. My job is basically done. All I can do is keep playing the game and doing press tours like this. When I’m in the studio I just play and play and play and cross my fingers. So far it’s playing pretty well. It’s turned out as good as I could possibly hope.
GamesBeat: Even though we’ve seen this slice, what else is missing for us right now?
Garvin: Again, what you guys haven’t really seen at all is much about the story. What you’ll find as we get closer to launch, we’ll talk a little more about the story. We’ll reveal a little more about that. That’s what I’m personally super excited for. It’s a 30-hour golden path, or longer, with lots of great — I hope you agree when you play it — lots of great story moments with characters that interact with Deacon. We haven’t been able to talk a lot about that.
I think that will pleasantly surprise players the most. It’s a narrative-driven game. You’ll come away with it having experienced this journey with Deacon. It’s going to be unlike anything you’ve experienced with anyone else.
GamesBeat: Anything else you’d like to touch on?
Garvin: The only thing I would add is that I feel like, when you come away from — it takes a while to play the game and really get a sense of how it’s different. But hopefully you discover it is different from other games. What you’ll find is that the world that comes for you — it sounds like a marketing tagline, but it’s really not. The world is dangerous all the time. It really does change the way you feel about exploration, about your skill upgrades, about your equipment. It puts a different spin on the experience that fills it with tension in a way I think that can be a lot fun. I’ll be curious to see what players think.