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Days Gone is Not Bad, But It Raises So Many Questions

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Days Gone gameplay screenshot

At first glance, Days Gone is the very epitome of a 6 or 7 out of 10. Not terrible, not good, but certainly a game that some people will dig and others will bounce off all too quickly. I was leaning to the latter, before something … something in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest setting, something about the way the game is structured to constantly deliver simple, munchable challenges … the game grabbed my brain in just the right way.

In case you are not already familiar with Days Gone, the quick pitch is that it is an enormous, glitchy, and very silly, biker version of The Last of Us, with some Red Dead Redemption thrown in. Critically, too much exists to harp on about—no game is perfect, but the glitches and repetition especially hamper Days Gone‘s power to entertain—but this 7/10 has plenty to enjoy for those who hearken to its charm. The game is not without its depths, either, as Daniel Pereira examined last week.

But, unlike some of the AA 7/10s of gaming’s past (THQ, I am looking at you), Days Gone is a AAA game from PlayStation, whose output consists primarily of critically lauded single-player experiences. By this confluence, Days Gone is more important and notable to OnlySP than most 7/10s, because it raises questions: about where single player games are in the AAA space, why studios are forced to conform to certain expectations of length and scale, and also about how Sony seems to be getting away with it all. For now.

Days Gone

(OPEN WORLD) VIDEO KILLED THE (TIGHT, LINEAR) RADIO STAR

Anybody who grew up with games in the pre-PlayStation era knows it—the feeling of the medium drifting away from them. News flash: things change, media evolves, and, most impressively, the audience grows.

The Sony of today is dealing with an order of magnitude more customers for its games than the Sony of the early PlayStation, which naturally means the games will be designed to appeal to different and larger groups of people. Days Gone is no exception.

Sony Bend’s break-out hits on PS1 were the Syphon Filter series: Metal Gear Solid competitors with linear action levels, gadgets, over-the-top storylines, and a clear tonal direction (that being the spies and tech-thriller vibe that was so popular in the 1990s). At this point in the evolution of games, linear action games are practically dinosaurs, so Bend’s decision to go open world, like Insomniac Games (Marvel’s Spider-Man), Sucker Punch Productions (inFamous), and Guerilla Games (Horizon Zero Dawn) before it, is understandable.

When combined with the already-overplayed zombie genre, though, Days Gone begins to look a lot like Modern AAA: The Game. Not to suggest this is a reason or even contributing factor to its lukewarm critical reaction, but one cannot ignore that Days Gone (while not succumbing to the awful AAA excesses of “always online” or microtransaction loot boxes) has released as a very familiar game in a sea of open-world, destroy-the-camp, follow-the-marker, stealth-kill, fast-travel video games.

One has to ask how a smaller, more distinctive developer such as Bend arrived at this stage. The studio’s last game was Uncharted: Golden Abyss, a PlayStation Vita game from 2011. For fans of tight, third-person action (whether spy-fi like Syphon Filter, or straight up sci-fi like in Resistance Retribution), Days Gone is undoubtedly disappointing. An unwieldy, bloated, sometimes grey sludge of a game, playing like the direct-to-video prepper version of Metal Gear Solid V. For those of us who dig the game’s gorgeous Unreal 4 production design or just cannot get enough of the same ‘stealth kill all the dudes’ missions, Days Gone is a lot more than this.

But even for me, an admitted fan of the game, the simulated and crunchier aspects of being in Days Gone‘s world are interrupted by story sequences that too often take away control, whether cutscenes or boring insta-fail missions where players listen to exposition. These are most certainly part of the game’s broader direction problems, as it seems forced into the open-world Ubi-Towers mode of game that, honestly, does anyone not wish could be better?

BIGGER, MORE MOPEY, MORE … MORE!

Another way of describing Days Gone might be that Sony Bend circa 2014 took the two biggest and most critically acclaimed single player, story-based games around and smashed them together. In The Last of Us, we have monster movie suspense and stealth gameplay with an overabundance of “meaningful” story content about the nature of violence, what would you do for your loved ones, survival in an uncaring world, blah blah blah. The Last of Us managed to make these themes sing, mind you—its presentation and overall command of tone achieving many awards, accolades, and unbelievably high sales for a horror title.

The other game in the equation would be the first Red Dead Redemption, an open-world game from before the term ‘open world’ became tainted with now-overexposed Far Cry 3 mechanics in just about every major title of the current generation. From Red Dead, we see a very American myth of the loner hero, just trying to make his way in a dangerous world, as well as incidental mechanics including hunting wildlife and meeting strangers.

Despite being set in the Pacific Northwest, what clear tonal direction in Days Gone that is not directly about Bikers comes with a heaping helping of western twang (the game’s great original score certainly helps). Unfortunately, coming in the wake of Redemption 2, the game is even more starkly behind the times than most long-in-development open worlds tend to be.

Forgiving the lacklustre presentation of a wobbly, impressionistic storyline (maybe I will have to critique the story separately when I am done, but it has its problems), Days Gone features an almost ineffable failure of direction. Where Red Dead Redemption 2 built an entire curated universe out from the concept of a tribute to westerns in film, the tagline of Days Gone—”This World Comes For You”—is indicative of its muddled direction. The tagline selects one of about a half dozen loci of tone or gameplay in Days Gone, that being the constant sense of danger in the open world, and fails to even hint at many of the others.

Like Destiny and, in many ways Final Fantasy XV, the game is a massive AAA production that suffered an unusually monstrous challenge of development part way through, so much that it remains clearly so in the final product. Somewhere along the road to completion, Days Gone lost focus and became a lesser version of itself. Without speculating too deeply, concessions to the corporate-mandated Open World Formula™ certainly cannot have helped this.

The positives of an open world, as explored in the PS4/XBO generation following Ubisoft’s reinvention of the format with Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed IV, include player freedom that de-emphasises storyline and invites experimentation: letting a wild animal into an enemy camp to cause destruction; approaching challenges from any direction; ignoring objectives and just exploring a vast, often handcrafted environment.

Unfortunately—with the exceptions of Breath of the Wild, which almost avoids having a ‘storyline’ to speak of at all; and games such as The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2, whose storylines had such firm direction and quality control that they are excellent in their own right—AAA open worlds are still shackled to the old game problems of narrative, requiring cutscenes and characters and big, scripted-feeling moments that can be easily sold in trailers and pitched to prospective customers.

Had Days Gone been more experimental in this respect, it could have been the first AAA game of its kind to really grab hold of the popularity of story-lite or storyless games such as Day Z, Ark, and other very successful mid-range titles that emphasise survival simulation over narrative.

As it stands, the take-it-or-leave it narrative component of Days Gone drags down the more creative simulation aspects of upgrading the bike, dealing with different kinds of open-world challenges, and exploring farther and farther as your fuel capacity increases. Most importantly, the narrative is thematically dumb. I support anyone who tells me they like it; there is a lot to like after all—but despite good performances and some entertaining dialogue, the world-building is SyFy original movie level, with wannabe-Sam-Peckinpah edginess unbecoming of a PlayStation first party title.

Infamous also fit the bill for a needlessly edgy, yet charming 7/10 game.

YET SONY SEEMS TO BE GETTING AWAY WITH IT?

Days Gone is definitely not Sony Bend’s equivalent to Sucker Punch’s inFamous: Second Son or Guerrilla Games’s Horizon Zero Dawn. The game is neither tight enough to really deliver the goods on a moment-to-moment basis (which, despite the length, games like God of War or even the relatively elegiac Uncharted 4 can still accomplish), nor is it strongly directed enough to prioritise any of its most interesting components: the hordes, the interaction of its various factions, the joy of exploration.

However, my job is not to advocate for mediocre games, and I actually really enjoy the title. Apparently, many people feel the same way, because Days Gone is selling very, very well. Even more impressive is that Sony Bend is not a well-known studio, and the game itself is a new IP with nothing but the icon of the biker aesthetic to distinguish itself at a glance.

PlayStation has been the best-selling console of each generation since its inception, save the PlayStation 3 lagging behind the Wii, which at this point is a once-in-a-lifetime aberration and trivial to mainstream console gaming. Perhaps, because of Sony’s continued dominance, we are seeing its first-party output begin to resemble the Marvel Cinematic Universe: customers will see a game “from the company that brought you God of War and Spider-Man” as a promise.

Maybe Days Gone is not polished to the standard of Sony Santa Monica, Insomniac, or Naughty Dog, but at the same time it does try different things to its PlayStation exclusive siblings (despite the map system and three-pronged upgrade tree resembling Horizon‘s to a T). The game might not be Bend’s Horizon in terms of break-out critical success, but with its commercial success the game is very likely to be Bend’s inFamous or Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

Drake’s Fortune was also met with middling reviews, but improved dramatically with its sequel and led to one of Sony’s biggest franchises. Days Gone 2 might make as big a splash as Uncharted 2 and Killzone 2 once did because Sony is certainly not in any trouble right now. Of course, those sequels took much less time to arrive, as they were 10-20 hour experiences developed over two or three years.

If nothing else, I know I would like to know what happened at Bend between 2011 and Days Gone‘s release, though I am relieved that the people at the studio still have jobs. With any luck, Sony Bend has worked through its development hurdles and can, without fear of being shut down, work on a more polished, focused, and better directed sequel that will not take another seven years to come out.

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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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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