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Opinion

In Days Gone, Deacon’s Bike is the Real Main Character

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A common piece of advice is to never judge a book by its cover, and with a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled American setting, Days Gone can be seen as following a trend that has already left its prime. Upon entering the game’s world, one could experience déjà vu towards every aspect it has to offer, forcing some to disregard the title as being “another zombie game.” However, by ignoring the inkling to walk away and instead seeing the game for what it truly intends, players will be treated to a narrative that evokes anticipation.

Despite the cookie-cutter setting, Days Gone offers much to players willing to cast aside predisposed judgement. The narrative explores a wide range of issues that would plague any survivor of the apocalypse, even though the gameplay often contradicts the creative intent. Days Gone is an experience that grows with the player. From the beginning, Deacon resembles an average protagonist in a familiar setting. Throughout the course of the game, however, players begin to tear down the protective walls that Deacon has built to survive. The struggles presented in Days Gone are enough to make one wonder, in a world this far gone, what drives people to keep going on in life?

Identity Problems

From the moment Days Gone began, I could not shake the feeling of familiarity in its presentation and flow. Days Gone feels like it tries to be the embodiment of Sony’s “Greatest Hits” instead of creating a unique experience that will withstand the test of time. Rather than establishing an understanding of what is at stake in this post-apocalyptic world, the opening sequence is reminiscent of The Last of Us’s introduction. Additionally, throughout the open world exploration, I was often reminded of the time I spent wandering through Horizon: Zero Dawn’s futuristic wasteland.

Underneath Days Gone’s presentation exists an ideology and belief that carries the protagonist, Deacon St. John, through his journey. The title may not feel unique in presentation but succeeds in proving its value via Deacon’s closest ally. Throughout the promotional material, Deacon is rarely seen without his motorcycle, leading many to assume that its sole purpose is to fulfil his biker needs. Without dismissing the fact that he is a biker-turned-drifter, the motorcycle holds a more significant role in Deacon’s journey than advertised.

The story of Days Gone begins two years after the “Freaker” outbreak that caused the world to plummet into chaos. In that time, Deacon has made a career out of being a Drifter: someone who does not ally with a specific survivor camp, but rather provides scavenging services to all who seek it. Within the first few missions, Deacon’s bike is severely damaged while completing a contract with his best friend Boozer, forcing him to leave it for the time being. When he returns to collect the broken motorcycle, he learns it was stolen and sold for parts, leaving Deacon with no other option but to use a new and inferior bike.

The immediate shift from Deacon’s personalized bike to a stripped down-model is significant because it happens shortly after the introduction, resulting in the player never experiencing his personalized ride. Not only does this change provide a purpose in allowing the player to level up the bike, it signifies how the audience is only able to witness Deacon’s life from that point on, rather than understand the one he had before. What players may never realize is that Deacon’s bike is a metaphor for his journey throughout Days Gone.

The reason as to why many players might not realize the significance of the bike is because of the unaligned balance of narrative plot device and gameplay mechanics. In Days Gone, the bike is a plot device that provides visual growth for Deacon’s character. Additionally, the bike is also a gameplay mechanic for traversing the environment.

At first glance, Days Gone forgoes narrative theme for mechanics; instead of being a symbolic plot device, the bike’s use to establish the survivor mentality is at the forefront. Mechanically, the bike feels disjointed and unenjoyable to use. The constant need to fill up on gas mid-way to destinations, along with the delicate structure of its chassis, creates an initial disconnect between the players and their mount. This overreliance on survival simulation mechanics with the motorcycle, it takes away from its significance as a plot device.

Vir in Machina

Just as the apocalypse restarts life across the globe, Deacon’s life is reset by the loss of his personalized vehicle. To a biker, a motorcycle represents their identity, and, for Deacon, this is in more ways than one. In Days Gone the bike is not only a method of survival, but also the personification of Deacon’s ability and willingness to rebuild his life. Rather than the theme of survival, Days Gone reinforces the process one goes through to rebuild themselves, and the bike represents the catalyst for Deacon to do that.

To better understand how Days Gone accomplishes this goal, one should consider titles such as The Last of Us and 2018’s God of War. In The Last of Us, Ellie represents hope whereas Joel is the reality of what is left behind after the outbreak. Throughout the game, players discover hope when none is believed to be left, allowing Joel to grow as a character and rediscover his purpose.

God of War takes a similar approach with Atreus and Kratos, where Atreus represents the human side of Kratos’s god-like persona. Throughout the game, Kratos grows as he discovers what it means to fight and care for a purpose greater than his own. Without their other halves, Joel and Kratos would not have experienced growth and development. Likewise, without his bike, Deacon cannot accomplish what is necessary to obtain the answers he seeks.

I was not enjoying the experience of Days Gone until I began to see the bike as the game’s strongest achievement rather than its greatest mistake. From that point on, I became more invested into maintenance of the bike, strengthening my connection to Deacon and his journey. My annoyance toward the bike’s high consumption of fuel and upkeep shifted into a perspective that was more reflective of Deacon as a character. Fuel was no longer a barrier, rather a necessity for Deacon to continue his quest. Additionally, my perception of the bike’s physical upkeep became attributed to Deacon’s mental state. Just as the bike requires 100% stability to function, so does Deacon if he is to see his journey through to the end.

Days Gone

The bike is therefore an evolution of survival. The motorcycle represents the progress that Deacon is making in his willingness to survive after the outbreak. From the initial tragedy, Deacon perfectly preserved his motorcycle as a memento of days gone. Once it is taken from him, the significance of Deacon’s bike shifted from carrying the burden of memories lost, to finding the desire to keep going.

Cyborg St. John

Once understood that the motorcycle represents Deacon’s journey, the player realises how integral it is for the overall narrative. The bike is a symbol of Deacon’s past. His connection to the motorcycle can also be extended to the colours he flies, which is evident in the biker vest he and Boozer continue to wear. Both the bike and the vest represent a familiarity to a simpler time, where death and sorrow were not normalized and the fight for survival not as severe.

The bike can be likened to other mounts found in similar games. For instance, Red Dead Redemption 2 requires players take care of their horses by ensuring hygiene and hunger are maintained. In Days Gone the same can be said for the maintenance and fuel of Deacon’s ride. As in Red Dead Redemption 2, players will become attached to their mount, and learn to see its significance through Deacon’s eyes.

Days Gone

Due to the limited resources and economy, players will have to make tough decisions along the way about whether to spend resources on improving their experience on or off the bike. The reward for prioritizing Deacon’s mount is experienced through the ease of traveling across Oregon where, without it, he would have no purpose or means to continue.

Before the outbreak, Deacon would follow a biker code; one of comradery and family. For him, the continuation of that legacy is shown through his uniform and the bike he rides. Abandonment of the bike would symbolize a surrender towards the reality before him. With everything that has been lost in his world, all that is left are Boozer and his ride. For Deacon, his legacy lives on through the past; the time he spent with his gang, the “Mongrels”; the love he shared with his wife Sarah; and the bike that stayed by his side through it all.

A Road Less Travelled

When Deacon’s journey began, the bike felt like it was holding him back instead of driving him forward. The motorcycle constantly fought with the controls, making the experience of riding it more difficult than traversing on foot. The more I drove, however, the more I began to understand why Deacon held onto it for so long. I understood that the bike was his way of honoring the days gone, and the lives lost along the way.

One moment that stood out to me during the game was when Deacon expressed to Boozer his reasoning for continuing on with life. While riding together, Deacon admits that he continues on, “because what the hell else are we gonna do?” His response perfectly encapsulates the whole journey of Days Gone, in that it reminds the player that to survive in this new world, one would need a purpose to fight for. For Deacon, that purpose is fueled by answers from the past, and if he is to uncover it all, a part of him needs to let go and embrace the future.

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Opinion

Pokémon Games Have Always Been Better Than Their Graphics

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Pokemon Sword and Shield starters

As fans learned more about the upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield at E3 this year, a portion of them turned against the titles. Back in February, a Pokémon region based on the United Kingdom enticed players, and they constructed thousands of memes around the premise. Now, though, a subset of the Pokémon community is complaining about two elements of the titles: the lack of every single Pokémon ever created, which developer Game Freak addressed but does not plan to change, and the graphics and animations. The latter gripe is especially odd since the Pokémon franchise has never had especially good graphics or animations. 

The Pokémon games have always had an especially strong art direction, but the graphics that realize this vision are notoriously lackluster. While the outrage is somewhat understandable, it also seems misplaced; graphics were never a core part of the Pokémon experience. This anger also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Pokémon such a successful franchise and why it is still such a significant part of the video game landscape today.

An Art Style Full of Substance

Pokémon Red and Blue premiered in 1996 for the Game Boy. The series began towards the end of the handheld’s lifespan, with the Game Boy Color releasing in October 1998. With essentially 151 playable characters, a world rich with personality and lore, and a game design that strongly encouraged players to interact with each other outside of the games, the first generation of Pokémon became an international phenomenon. However, the graphics and animations in these original games were noticeably limited compared to other Game Boy games. 

In these games, character sprites are static, only the simplest of animations are used to convey attacks, and the overworld is borderline minimalistic. Compared to titles that premiered earlier on the Game Boy, such as 1992’s Kirby Dream Land or 1993’s The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Pokémon Red and Blue are a huge step down graphically. 1999’s Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color would do little to improve these graphics, merely using the console’s enhanced hardware to add color to the games while adding brief introduction animations for monsters in Pokémon Crystal.

Pokémon games have never had hardware-pushing graphics. Instead, they made up for this shortcoming by having a never-before-seen scope of characters and truly outstanding art direction. Sword and Shield seem as though they are continuing this tradition of exceptional art direction, and will realize an extraordinary version of the United Kingdom where Pokémon battles are treated like sporting events. Furthermore, the player can easily interpret what kind of personality Pokémon and trainers have from their designs; especially in the early games. Giovanni’s hunched posture and receding hairline demonstrate that he is a villain, and Erika’s resting pose and closed eyes convey her serene nature. Likewise, Poliwrath’s superhero pose reinforced its newfound fighting-type and Gengar’s grin and raised hands defined it as a ghostly prankster. This focus on art direction is a big part of why the Pokémon games are so full of life and character, and Game Freak was right to focus more on this element of the games than pursuing high graphical fidelity.

How Character Overcame Graphics

That some fans are upset about the graphics and animations in Pokémon Sword and Shield is understandable, so long as they are not harassing Game Freak and its employees. After all, the fans just want a franchise they love dearly to be the best possible version of itself. However, this anger seems to misunderstand what made Pokémon popular in the first place. 

Pokémon rose to prominence because it is an appealing concept that was executed well. When one plays the first and second generation of games, they understand that the team behind them had a very specific vision for this world and its characters. The Pokémon games are kind of strange in that their worlds contain a lot of culture and lore that do not have any bearing on the actual gameplay or story. For instance, the gym leader Sabrina has psychic powers even though her supernatural abilities never really come into play, and the Sinnoh region of  Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum has a distinct religion that does not impact the game whatsoever. This meticulously crafted world is very much like a supernatural version of our own, and that made Pokémon such a success. The very specific tone of the games comes off as both familiar and incredible, making players wish that their own reality was just a bit more like that of Pokémon

Of course, the emphasis on social features also played a far larger role in Pokémon’s success than the graphics of any given game. The focus on trading, competitive battles, and even sharing details on a hidden area or how to evolve a specific Pokémon rapidly created a community surrounding the franchise. Then, with the launch of the anime and trading card game, the community rapidly expanded and people could enjoy the franchise in whatever way they enjoyed the most. Graphics were never a part of what made Pokémon a hit and for Game Freak to focus on the elements at the core of the franchise, rather than 3D graphics and animations that are going to look dated in half a decade anyway, is a smart move.

Using A Small Team To Achieve A Brilliant Vision

A common response to the suggestion that Pokémon games do not need stellar graphics or animation to be great games is that Game Freak has abundant resources considering Pokémon’s unmatched success. A part of the group that takes issue with the visuals and animation of Sword and Shield thinks that Game Freak is making enough from its games that it can afford to make them look much better than it has so far. While this idea has some merit, executing it could betray the core ideals of the franchise and ignores the fact that no new Pokémon game will make everyone happy. 

Each new Pokémon game is so well received because it is a solid execution of a specific vision that a small group of people share. Game Freak has around 150 employees, making the team behind each game rather small for such an established franchise. Pouring more money into a game does not automatically make it look better, and Game Freak would have to bring on more staff members to improve the game’s graphics or, for the people upset about the lack of a complete National Pokedex, code every single monster into the game. Expanding Game Freak’s team like this could cloud the vision of the games, though, and easily work against the company. Creating top-tier graphics and animations for a game that includes hundreds of characters will always be a herculean task to which no easy solution exists.

This issue of middling graphics and animations is not actually all that significant in the first place. Most Pokémon fans are excited for Sword and Shield and only a small section of them draw significant issue with their visuals. The Pokémon fanbase is so big that pleasing everyone is impossible. Game Freak is right to focus on honing the core themes and mechanics that made Pokémon a success, rather than pour a terrific amount of time and effort into visuals of the games. The last time a Pokémon game really marketed itself on exceptional graphics and animations was 2006’s Pokémon Battle Revolution—which sold less than two million copies, a rather meager number for a spin-off Pokémon title. 

Pokémon

Personality Over Polish

For people to be upset, within reason, that something they love is not living up to their expectations is fine. However, the expectation that Sword and Shield should have hardware-pushing graphics is an unreasonable one that fails to consider that the Pokémon games have always had subpar graphics. Pokémon is a hit franchise consisting of several great games in spite of the graphics in those titles. In fact, the more limited graphics and animations suggest that Sword and Shield are on track to be similar to the previous Pokémon games. Some may perceive the graphics as weak, but the world, characters, and the events of the games will more than make up for this overstated shortcoming.

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