Interview: Nathan Whitehead on creating the music for Days Gone

Days Gone is PlayStation’s biggest first party exclusive of the year and like many of Sony’s recent heavy hitters, it follows a certain house style. Story-centric singleplayer experiences that take place in gorgeous, sprawling open worlds. In terms of gameplay and design it may not rank as highly as some other top tier exclusives yet Days Gone is a magnet for photo mode junkies and the soundtrack is among 2019’s best.

It doesn’t beat you over the head, instead slowly seeping in as you venture across the game’s untamed wilderness, adapting to whatever scenario you and Deacon find yourselves in.

“The biggest challenge on Days Gone was how to write music that marries this dangerous, Freaker-infested, post-apocalyptic world with the emotional and reflective qualities that we see in Deacon and his story,” Nathan Whitehead explained to us in a recent interview.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that I would get to write so much melodic, emotional music for a game like Days Gone. It became apparent that this was about much more than blasting Freakers. Finding that tone was daunting at the outset but it’s something I really love about this game.”

Deacon is perhaps one of the more divisive PlayStation protagonists out there. Days Gone carries such a grim, serious tone yet some of his lines – coupled with Sam Witwer’s delivery – struggle to paint him as the grizzled vet turned bad boy biker Bend Studio had been selling to us.

With that said, much of how the game’s music was put together was influenced by Deacon, his origins, and the harrowing post-apocalyptic odyssey he finds himself pursuing.

“Choosing instrumentation was critical for defining the sound of the score, and guitar emerged pretty quickly as an instrument that seemed to resonate with the world of Days Gone. Deacon is a bounty hunter and member of a motorcycle club which, in a way, made guitars an obvious choice.”

“But I tried to use guitars in a less obvious way. I didn’t want to have a lot of aggressive riff rock to create this rough biker vibe. What was so interesting to me about the story John wrote was how much we explore Deacon’s past and dig in to some really universal themes about making meaning in life. This inspired a more ambient and contemplative approach to the guitar parts, often tinged with melancholy.”

“Guitars also really felt right for the environment we’re in. Days Gone is a really beautiful game and the Pacific Northwest setting is made up of stunning natural features from mountains and forests to the high desert and volcanic formations. In my mind, using guitars to lend a folky, Americana vibe to the score helped connect the music to this setting. I think it provided some raw, earthy elements that reflected this rugged, beautiful landscape.”

Whitehead was brought on board to compose Days Gone in 2016, a few years into the game’s development. He explains that a composer’s involvement will naturally vary from project to project though studios need to hit those essential milestones in terms of story, design, and visuals before focusing on the music that binds everything together. With Days Gone, his role became increasingly more vital in those latter stages when Sony debuted trailers and gameplay previews.

At no point was Whitehead ever forced to earn his cuts and throw his lot in with a local biker gang chapter, however.

“I did hear about the Bend Studio team acquiring more motorcycles over the course of the game’s development. I really appreciated their dedication! It seems like method game development. However, I did not get caught up in this craze.”

“I’m more of a bicycle guy!”

The official soundtrack for Days Gone can be found on YouTube as well as Spotify and other music streaming services. A limited vinyl release is now available too.

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Senior Editor bursting with lukewarm takes and useless gaming trivia. May as well surgically attach my DualSense at this point.