Sony have made a habit of releasing big exclusives in the spring, and 2019 is no different. This year it’s Days Gone, the open world post-apocalyptic zombie survival game from Bend Studios, who we last saw headlining the PS Vita’s launch with Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
Halfway through our time with the game – make sure to check out our Days Gone preview – we sat down with writer and director John Garvin to discuss how Bend can try to surprise players with its deep open world, emergent gameplay and story.
TSA: A lot of people will have preconceptions about Days Gone, the zombie tropes, the bikers, but what do you think is going to be the most surprising thing for people when they come into the game?
John: That’s a great question, and there’s a lot of different ways to answer that… I think the thing that’s going to surprise players the most is how deep the story is, and that it is a story driven, narrative game. It shouldn’t be a surprise, because Bend Studios has always done narrative driven third person shooters.
What we really wanted to do with Days Gone was craft an open world that was dynamic, and I think that was going to be surprising too. People don’t realise that, you talked about zombie tropes, that we call them Freakers for a reason. They’re not zombies because they’re alive and they are alive in a way that I’ve not seen in other video games. They have an ecosystem, they respond to other creatures in the world, the horde has patterns that you can see, observe, learn and use to your advantage. They hibernate and go in caves during the day; you can find them when they’re sleeping, and you don’t want to disturb them if you wander in there…
TSA: I wandered into a cave at one point, and the game said not to do it unless I was well prepared, not to mention the creepy sounds of the Freakers was getting louder… I was like, “Yeah…. OK, maybe I’ll come back later…” [laughs]
John: [laughs] And that’s good advice! Early on in the game you want to avoid hordes if you possible can!
I think that when players get in there and they start really playing with that sandbox, you can take that swarm and drag it into a camp. We’ve shown it off at E3 before, but I don’t think players really understand that’s not a gimmick. This is a core to the game, that this world is alive, it’s dynamic.
But for me personally, it’s all about the story. There’s always more than one storyline going on at once, and when you’re in the open world it’s easy to be distracted, so how do you keep the player engaged in the story when they’re messing around in the open world? It’s a huge challenge, and it’s one of the things that we hit head on and came up with ideas on how to do that.
TSA: How do you go about getting that across to people? That story is such an integral part of the game?
John: Well, we’re going to have a story trailer that comes out before launch!
TSA: Always useful!
John: You know, we’ve been deliberately focussing on the gameplay, the open world, the bike in all the trailers we’ve released recently. That’s mostly because I hate spoilers, so I’ve been really reluctant to talk about story elements that I think could spoil the game, but I’m definitely willing to let players know that they’re coming into a character driven narrative experience.
TSA: I’m curious how you feel about the game’s opening, which is very in the middle of the action before jumping forward two years. How does that sets the story in motion for you?
John: I think the key for that is that it’s all about story. For me, story is all about character, and so it’s about trying to pick that moment where Deacon makes a choice and sets in motion a lot of things. So he’s got a choice between going with his wife on the helicopter, or staying and helping his friend make it out of town. We revisit that later one, where we see what led up to that, but the real moment there is the choice and that leading to his sense of loss, grief and not having got over it two years on. That’s really why we start there.
TSA: You sort of touched on it, but why is it, do you think, that developers, film creators, and everyone really avoids using the word zombie? People will generalise, but for you, the creators, it feels important to you to make a distinction.
John: Sure. I think the genre is huge, so you have 28 Days Later zombies, which are infected humans who are really fast, and so you could compare us to that. In terms of games, it’s all about what is the experience? So if I’m fighting zombies, they’re shamblers, they walk slowly, you have to shoot them in the head… it’s a very different experience in Days Gone, where they’re living creatures who roam in packs and swarms, there are infected animals and many different types from a mutating virus.
I realise that if you say zombie most people are going to think, “OK, there’s masses of these creatures in the world, I get it,” but the experience of Days Gone is so unique because they are alive and they have a ‘freak-o-system’, we call it, where they are systemically interacting with the player and other creatures.
TSA: How many different types of something-er are in the game? All of these sub types in the game seem to end in ‘-er’!
John: We haven’t talked about all of them, and we’re going to keep some surprises, but there’s definitely some more mutations players will run into over the course of the game.
TSA: Oh, I just mean in terms of the name. Is there a particular regional vernacular you’re tapping into?
John: No, it’s literally just because of all the fiction of the world. So we talk about Swarmers, Breakers or Reachers…
TSA: That’s what I mean right there! [laughs]
John: Well, it’s a good way to name creatures!
TSA: One of the things I quite like about Deacon is that he has a very conversational tone. It feels almost odd to have such a normality that’s not overly dramatic and cuts against how he’s living through such over the top situations.
John: Well I’m glad you noticed that, because it’s something that I personally worked really hard on. I’ve been writing video games for a long time, and one of the things that I love about the writing in games that I think do a really good job is that they make it relatable, make it grounded and make it real. I don’t like characters that talk to each other in weird ways or spout exposition, it’s just a matter keeping it real.
If you were out there with your buddy and the shit was going down, what would you say? I think that’s the key, to keep it as real as possible, and I think you’ll find that carries through the whole game.
TSA: It almost feels like he’s underplaying the situations at times.
John: I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Sam Witwer, he’s the guy that plays Deacon and is obviously really, really talented. For all our main characters, we tried to cast people who had film and TV experience, ensemble experience, because when Deacon and Boozer are together, they’re actually on set together, talking to each other. It creates a sort of believability that you can’t get any other way.
TSA: With some of the more survival elements of the game, such as crafting, repairing your bike and just resources in general, how far do you take it? Can you find yourself a bit trapped, or do you always have an out?
John: We call it action survival, because we don’t want to be a hardcore survival game where you’re managing every aspect of your life. We want to have just enough to create that tension and, again, ground it in reality. So yeah, you have to find fuel for your bike, but we don’t make impossible to find. Instead, we make it dangerous to find. If you go up to a gas station and pull in, you never know if you’ll find a marauder ambush, Freakers living in a nest in the garage. You know where to find fuel, it’s just dangerous to get it.
TSA: The bike’s a real gas guzzler. Can you upgrade it much? Maybe go with solar panels and save the planet that way? [laughs]
John: You can’t do that! But if you earn enough trust and credit at the survivor encampments, then you can definitely upgrade your bike and get a bigger gas tank.
TSA: This has been a real opportunity to stretch your legs as you’ve gone from handheld development on PSP and Vita to PS4, have there been any real growing pains for you to step up to a bigger production?
John: What’s funny about that is that it’s really not our first opportunity. Golden Abyss on the Vita was a similar challenge, because it was a launch title and the Vita was super powerful for a handheld compared to what we’d been working on with the PSP. Building a large and ambitious game was something that Bend has done a couple of times, even with Syphon Filter on the PS1. Those were challenging games to build in their day.
Days Gone is certainly an extension of that, and yeah, we’ve had to grow from a 50 man team to over 130 now, and just hire the right people, like really talented artists and designers, engineers and so on. It’s been a challenge to just grow the studio in the right way, and create a game that has this kind of visual fidelity in an open world.
TSA: Have you had, maybe not carte blanche, but has it been Bend leading the decisions to delay the game and give it the time it needs?
John: We’ll obviously always take any time that we’re given – there’s always more polish that can be done! I think the development cycle has been pretty generous for a game this big and we’ve been grateful for every day that is gone.
Thanks to John for taking the time to speak to us. Make sure to check out our hands on Days Gone preview here. The game is out exclusively for PS4 on April 26th.