Last year, we visited Sony Bend’s studio in Oregon to check out Days Gone for our June cover story. The open-world, post-apocalyptic action game had been in development for about five years at that point, and the team had a lot to show off. One of the most interesting parts of our accompanying online coverage was getting a guided tour of the game’s opening hour – narrated by creative director John Garvin and lead designer Jeff Ross.
Nearly a year later, I got to play through Days Gone’s beginning and then skipped ahead to play in the open world for about four hours. I was excited to return to the game, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the opening; I’d already rolled through it once, after all. What I played ended up being quite a surprise. Entirely new sections had been introduced, other parts had been trimmed, and the overall pacing was noticeably improved. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the biggest changes I noticed, along with clips from how they appeared in the original demo from last year.
A New Opening Segment
When I first played, Days Gone began with a cold opening in which Deacon St. John and his buddy Boozer are on the trail of a former colleague. That’s still in the game, but it appears after a new cinematic that shows Farewell, Oregon in the midst of the zombie-like outbreak. Most notably, it shows Deacon, Boozer, and Sarah, Deacon’s wife – a character that was previously spoken of, but never shown. They’ve all been wounded in the surrounding chaos, and they’re trying to board a helicopter for evacuation. There’s limited space, but Deacon convinces a man in a hazmat suit to take Sarah, leaving Deacon and Boozer to fend for themselves.
In the original opener, Boozer made a few passing references to Sarah and also Deacon’s obsession with visiting a refugee camp. Now, you get to see at least some of the events early on. “It’s always been an element of the story,” Ross told me afterward. “Its placement has been something we’ve been playing with.”
Deacon Isn’t A Reluctant Tracker Anymore
Early on, Deacon and Boozer get into a shootout with the person they’re following, Leon. He eludes them at first, but our heroes find and follow his trail – thanks in part to Boozer’s skill as a tracker and his insistence that Deacon learn how to do it himself ASAP. Deacon isn’t into the concept of following trails, calling it “Daniel Boone bulls---,” but Boozer counters (somewhat prophetically) with, “What are you going to do if something happens to me?”
You still get to manually track people, which is similar to any number of alternate-vision modes you’ve seen before, but Deacon isn’t such a pain in the ass about having to do it himself. Instead, Deacon says he can pick up the trail and the tracking tutorial begins. As it turns out, Deacon being a pain in the ass was exactly the opposite takeaway Sony Bend wanted players to have.
“The problem was we were teaching the player to not think much of Deacon, and Deacon was the most important character,” Garvin says. “When you’re constantly yelling at him, like, ‘Dude you’ve got to learn your s---,' the player was not liking Deacon. One of the things we learned is that Days Gone is a long game – it takes 30 hours to go through the golden path. If you spend the first eight hours with a guy you don’t like, you never recover from that. Because it is Deacon’s journey and his story, we really wanted to make sure that the player, from the beginning, could relate to him and empathize with him. We took a lot of friction away from the story that was hurting us in that way.”
A Tough Choice To Make
When Deacon and Boozer eventually meet up with the wounded Leon – thanks to Deacon’s amazing tracking skills – he’s on his last legs. The pair get what they want from the traitor, before players are given a choice: Do they kill Leon as an act of mercy or leave him, against his wishes, to slowly bleed out and become dinner for the nearby infected? The cutscene pauses while you wrestle with the decision.
Later, Boozer is himself wounded, and Deacon has to head out into the open world without his friend. Before he hits the door, Boozer asks Deacon to leave the shotgun he’d loaned his friend. Once again, the action froze as you got to decide to be a jerk and keep it (gaining access to a powerful weapon early on) or give it back to make your friend happy.
On my most recent playthrough, these moments came and went without a hitch – or, more specifically, the cutscenes played without asking for my input. Deacon took the mercy shot and was a good friend to Boozer. I asked Garvin and Ross if the decisions weren’t in this particular build, or if they’d been completely removed from the game. Those choices are indeed gone, and it wasn’t a decision that came lightly.
“It was kind of one of those things where we fought for it for a long time and had binary choices throughout the game, and we did a lot of user testing and at the end of the day it became hard to communicate what the impact of those choices were,” Garvin says. “When we cut them, we found out that we just didn’t need them. It made it stronger, and it made it way more clear, and it also helped Deacon’s character, to not give the player a chance to make Deacon an a--hole. He’s not going to take Boozer’s shotgun, and he’s not going to leave this guy to be eaten alive. He’s got a code, and for the strength of the story and the strength of the character it was a good cut to make for the game.”
Ross added that one of the concerns he had about showing so much during our previous visit was that we were seeing a game that was still in active development. “The game was not done at the time we were sharing it, and game development is a process,” Ross says. “Before ‘choicegate’ gets out there where people start calling us out on things, we share. We expose stuff. We were pretty transparent, and I think that’s our philosophy moving forward. We set out to do one thing, and I think largely that vision is intact but there are micro course corrections that we’ve done along the way that I think make for a better game.”
There’s An Ambush (And Combat Tutorial)
Boozer and Deacon aren’t the only people roaming the Oregon roads. In addition to infected, zombie-like freakers (are they still even people?), there are marauders, Rippers, and a host of others who want to see you dead. In its original opening, you spent a lot of your time fighting infected with guns and Molotov cocktails, but only had a couple of encounters with your fellow humans. That’s changed a bit.
In one moment, Deacon and Boozer dismount to move a makeshift roadblock out of the way. The pair pushes one of the offending cars into a ditch and then rides along. While it did teach how to hold down a button to move heavy objects, it wasn’t exactly exciting. That’s been tweaked, too.
Now, when Deacon and Boozer get off Boozer’s bike, they’re attacked by several marauders. Here, players learn how the game’s melee combat works, which is an important element of the game. Deacon takes out several of the enemies, but Boozer more than holds his own in battle. Garvin says that moment was redesigned for several key reasons – one of which might not be immediately apparent.
“One of the missions that we felt wasn’t strong enough was the one where you’re riding with Boozer on the back of his bike and you’re heading toward the tunnel,” Garvin says. “It was just a long ride and there was a little bit of dialog that played but nothing really happened. Back to your tutorial, when they’re pushing this car, let’s have a melee beat there that shows you fighting alongside Boozer. So it strengthened the Boozer character but at the same time introduced melee in a way that was entertaining and broke up that long ride so that it wasn’t just a long ride.”
“And it was really the only chance to demonstrate just how much of a badass Boozer is; you see him destroy these guys,” Ross adds. “Where Deacon is struggling, Boozer is annihilating this guy and it shows why Deacon is his friend and they’re friends – they’re both badasses.”
A Revved-Up Intro
Ultimately, the intro hour feels a lot tighter and more structured than before. The version I first played was interesting, but definitely took its time to get going. And as long as it was, there was a surprising lack of direction overall.
“There’s been some editing, for sure,” Ross says. “A lot more teaching is going on there. We went through it and did our tutorial pass on it, and boy that’s made a difference. We’ve got so many complex systems and through focus testing we realized that things we wanted players to kind of figure out on their own, it was important to take that hour and capitalize on the captive audience and really teach them things before we put them in the open world. They’re still going to have to piece together their own strategies, but it was necessary to prime people up for success.”
You might not be able to play the intro as it was originally conceived, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost forever. Take a look at the video below to watch that earlier version in action, along with commentary from Garvin and Ross.
Days Gone is coming to PlayStation 4 on April 26.