Late to the party - Days Gone
As I geared up to start putting this post together, I sat down with my PlayStation to go through all the screenshots I've taken as I've been playing Days Gone. I noticed two things. Firstly, there are LOADS of them. Secondly, they all very much follow a pattern. A lone drifter, and a motorcycle... surrounded by mile upon mile of empty spaces. The explanation for the first is simple; Days Gone is (even by the lofty standards of the PS4) a ridiculously good looking game. The explanation for the second though? That requires a bit more thought.
There's a lot going on in Days Gone - between killing people for bounties, chasing down your wife, the NERO stuff, the various different camps and their associated storylines, the freakers and the swarms, constantly scavenging for ammo and fuel and scrap to repair your stuff with... the whole game is busy work. And yet, none of that is really what I think about when I think about Days Gone. I think about a man in the wilderness, on his motorbike. The freedom he's always craved is now his to enjoy, and yet he ties himself down with the problems of others and the weight of his own memories.
It brings to mind Red Dead Redemption 2, in a lot of ways - both for better and for worse. That was a game that had a wonderful sense of place and time. It gave players a large area of a world that they could come to know intimately and exist in. It was a game that told a long story, with consequences to your actions playing out hours (or even days) later. Its pace was slow and meandering for a lot of its length, with the slow pace intentionally giving you time to get to know and understand the dynamics and rules of the world your character exists in. Days Gone leans in to this same feeling. It's a love letter to the wild topography of the Pacific Northwest of the US (which is where the development studio who brought the game to life is based). The map is filled with evergreen trees, lakes and rivers. Dirt trails criss-cross the worn tarmac roads, leading to abandoned camping spots and rest areas. Signs of a dilapidated production industry are everywhere, interspersed with ruined tourist traps. Zombies (referred to as 'freakers' here) roam the wilderness in groups, terrorising not only the bedraggled survivors that gather together in crudely defended compounds, but also any wild animal unfortunate enough to wander into their path.
When considered together, Days Gone and Red Dead Redemption 2 feel as though they could be part of the same series - bookends to a single saga with a game missing from the middle. While RDR2 documents the arrival of civilisation in the wilderness - and the bending of men and their morals to a new code - Days Gone, at the opposite end of the story, tells the tale of what happens when civilisation abandons the wilderness. Both games give you the feeling of existing as part of a landscape instead of merely travelling through it - something that surprisingly few open-world games manage to pull off. Both of them lean into realism in their own ways. Feeding your horse is a necessity in RDR2, while in Days Gone your trusty motorbike needs regular refuelling and maintenance. Ammo and provisions are scarce - and the game is as much about staying alive and nurturing your various relationships with other groups of survivors as it is about mowing down hordes of the undead with automatic weapons.
This dedication to realism was something that infuriated me in RDR2 until something clicked and I found myself taking a weird pleasure in it. In Days Gone, it's something that I've found myself enjoying from the very beginning. Raiding vehicles for ammo and food and medical supplies, repairing weapons - these mechanics all lean into the fragility and impermanence of the game's world. Characters in camps can often be heard wondering aloud about what will become of them when the canned food, fuel reserves, and ammo all run out - and limiting your ability to find and carry these essential items forces you into a survivor's mindset. You're constantly weighing up whether firing that rifle shot is worth it, and whether or not you'll find another fuel can before you run completely dry. Nothing in this world lasts - not people, not equipment, and not relationships.
You'll spend a lot of time completing tasks for the various different camps that you'll encounter - each of which has its own set of rules and morality imposed by a leader. The interplay and relationships between these small groups is at the centre of the game's moral compass, shades of grey in their relationships painted out as conversations and story arcs reveal their origins, the motivations of their leaders, and the way in which these play along with or against Deacon St. John's own stance on such matters. He exists alongside but separate to all of them, working for all but allegiant to none at the beginning of the game. His motivation is mainly looking after those closest to him, and chasing down his missing wife.
With that in mind, he's one of the most interesting protagonists I've come across in games for a while. Yes, he's a gruff white guy who knows how to handle a gun - but he's also riddled with regrets and self-doubt. His drifter status is one that he's chosen for himself, but it seems almost self-imposed - as if he doesn't trust himself enough to become a part of one of the fledgling communities that he visits, in spite of regular offers from them for him to join them on a more permanent basis. He's a man who has lived and loved and lost, and feels that he has himself to blame for a lot of what goes on around him - and it's something that I think a lot of people can relate to in one way or another. You get the feeling that he knows how emotionally damaged he is and is powerless to start resolving it - and the emptiness and danger of the world he exists in is a reflection of his own mental state.
So, it's a game that feels greater than the sum of its parts, in a lot of ways. The combat can be clunky, the stealth can be unreliable. The writing can be cliched, and the plot twists occasionally predictable. The missions are often the standard busywork of video game quests, regarding you to go to a place and do a thing and then return - whether that thing is find someone, find an item, kill a person, eavesdrop a conversation... whatever. Very little, if any of it, is actually new - and yet somehow it doesn't matter. All the things that drove me nuts about Ghost of Tsushima are here, and for some reason working together to create a compelling experience for me where they failed so spectacularly to do so before. Deacon St. John as a character is interesting and engaging enough to hold my attention, and the world is gloriously detailed. For a game that I'd expected to be little more than a "Daryl Dixon simulator," I've been pleasantly surprised at every step.
If ever an example of a game was needed as proof that you can't always follow the lead of the critics and the influencers, Days Gone is probably it. This game was panned on release... and is one that I'll remember extremely fondly. With hopes for a sequel all but dashed at this point, it'll stand as a one-shot story that leaves us all wondering what could have been.