Carving through Bend Studio’s recreation of a freaker-infested Oregon, I couldn’t help but think about Hideo Kojima.
The Metal Gear Solid creator was talking about 5G and the future of gaming, particularly in a streaming, data-centre driven era. Kojima’s an auteur, so he enjoys talking and thinking about new technologies a lot.
But he’s also a massive film buff. So it’s no surprise that when asked about what might happen to video games, given such a drastic shift in the delivery mechanism, he referred back to TV and film.
“In the age of television, cinematic techniques have become obsolete,” a translation from the interview says. “[Viewers] can change channels, so a ‘grab’ is required at the beginning.”
Because there’s an excess of choice, and it’s all accessible within seconds, the structure of shows have changed.
At the same time, I was reminded by a line from a friend. I’d asked for some new TV to watch – this was before the Game of Thrones juggernaut – and inevitably, friends would ask if I’d watched The Wire, Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
I’d seen the first two, or at least as much as I wanted to see. But I hadn’t seen Breaking Bad at the time, and so that became the instant recommendation. “You have to watch it,” a mate told me, but they added a qualifier.
“Just make sure you watch past the first season. It takes a while to get going.”
The first season of Breaking Bad takes just under six hours.
Something that wasn’t apparent at the Days Gone preview, which featured two chunks of the game from the first act, was just how long it takes to level up.
It’s not because the game is necessarily stingy with the amount of XP doled out between missions. Some missions take no time at all. One ‘mission’ asked me to head back to a camp to check on a survivor, a teenage girl who’d been hiding around her family home for two years, waiting for her parents to return.
They’re nowhere to be seen, but the player-character Deacon suggests to the girl that they might still be alive at the work camp. So she heads there, only to discover that it’s basically run like a prison.
“They won’t let me leave,” she whimpers.
This mission and cut scene runs for about five seconds. 2000 XP is earned.
But this is the rare exception to the rule.
The opening hours of Days Gone seem pretty straightforward. Your bike’s been trashed, your biker brother Boozer has had his arm effectively mutilated by a blow torch, and you need to scrounge up enough gear to sustain “the journey north”.
So scrounge around you do. The game initially has you running errands for a camp run by Copeland, a slightly unhinged prepper who runs “freedom” radio broadcasts about how the passage of the National Security Act in 1947 gave the government the right to take over all roads, railroads and hospitals.
Days Gone feeds you these story missions one at a time, and in the opening hours your bike has bugger all fuel capacity. There’s not much in the way of ammo and crafting materials, either. You can carry more ammo via a pouch on your bike, but you’ll need to level up your trust with that camp before they’ll sell you level 2 bike parts. Or level 2 weapons, medkits, and so on.
So you act as a glorified bounty hunter, camp butcher, whatever they need you to be to improve your standing. Until you unlock a second camp, run by a former prison warden, and then you have to do it all over again. Reputation and credits don’t carry over, which makes sense given that nobody is pulling cash out of an ATM in a post-freaker world.
But logical though it might be, it also slows Days Gone‘s first act to a complete crawl. And that first act lasts a lot longer than six hours.
All of this doesn’t account for the extra time you need to do stuff, either. Days Gone is a light survival game at heart, and you’ll have to regularly allot time to hunt down a fuel can, scouring areas for beer bottles, rags, kerosene, and the other bits and pieces you’ll need to make sure you’re not completely screwed.
Sometimes this searching can take ages. The best example is with the freaker nests, masses of straw that you’ll find plugging up the occasional doorway, semi-trailer, and anywhere that the not-zombies have decided to call home.
You’re not required to deal with these freaker nests. But you can’t fast travel beyond that point without dealing with them, so eventually, you’ll have to spend time clearing them out.
But the nests can be spread out over a massive area. And Days Gone doesn’t offer any hints about their general direction, even with Deacon’s equivalent of Batman Vision. When you’re close enough to the nest that you can already see it – usually with some kind of straw and blood strewn around somewhere – you’ll eventually get an audio cue, followed by a minimap icon.
But it might take ages to find that. Some of the nests are a few hundred metres apart, and most of the time you’ll be running to and from these locations – because otherwise you’ll have to run around on foot looking for a gas can. And maybe you’ll just have to sit on an objective for a few minutes because a horde has woken up, and there’s nothing you can do about those in the first ten hours but wait.
It’s worth noting that you level really, really slowly in Days Gone as well. Compared to other games, at any rate. You can get trace amounts of XP (20-35) by running over, headshotting and cutting down the freakers any way you see fit. But the majority of XP comes from missions, and those missions are doled out one at a time. More frustratingly, the best benefit of those missions – the ability to unlock and buy new things, which has the biggest impact on gameplay – depends on what camp you’re doing the job for.
But what I can’t escape as I roam around Bend’s freaker-infested Pacific Northwest is just how old the game feels. I’m not talking in terms of dated visuals or certain tropes with the zombie genre, but just the basic design and rate of incentives. It’s deliberately, almost painfully slow. It reminds me a little of State of Decay, in so far that the ability to move forward is always limited by the amount of time you’ve spent making sure you have everything you need first.
Gamers are used to a bit more balance when it comes to their incentives. It’s fine to artificially gate players from grinding on their own by heavily incentivising story missions and limiting how many activities are available. But that is usually weighed against some choice, where players can continue working their way down a questline or supporting a single faction so they can reap the rewards that faction has to offer.
Days Gone doesn’t have that balance. It offers a giant open world, but funnels progression through an incredibly narrow channel. It’s a slow game: slow to start, slow to reveal itself, slow to progress, slow on upgrades, and slow on character development.
It’s worthwhile to think about the number of people around you who are waiting for the world to end. There are people who must do it for a living: government employees who specialise in disaster relief and crisis response, civil engineers, military personnel—people who must imagine the end to make sure it never comes. But there are others: Fundamentalist evangelicals waiting for a rapture. Libertarian preppers who shun government and pride themselves on self-sufficiency. Conspiracy theorists and internet nihilists. Anyone remotely concerned with the future of the planet.Read more
In generations past, this was entirely normal. You had to make a significant investment – $60, $70 or $80 upfront – to buy the game, so chances were you were going to hang around to get “your money’s worth”, whatever length of time you felt that was. That offered some measure of leeway for a game to set the stage and introduce its characters, without needing to jump into high gear too quickly.
But the world has changed. Access to other games has rapidly expanded. Gamers don’t have the ability yet to browse through new titles and start playing immediately, like you can on Netflix/Stan/Amazon. And there’s still patches, loading times, and things that need to be cached beforehand.
But that wall is coming down, whether its through data centres, the slow expansion of better internet, or new business models and offerings like Apple Arcade and Google Stadia. And for the next round of games going into pre-production this year and next, this won’t be a feature on the horizon, but much closer to a market reality.
That’s why games like Days Gone will become such a rarity. It’s not so much to do with its tropes, a reflection on biker culture or how it approaches the zombie genre. It’s a design principle, one that’s systemic to the industry. The principle of an upfront investment, and the amount of time the average player is willing to give a game before they move on, is rapidly shrinking.
Days Gone, at least in the 25 hours I’ve spent with it this week, is entirely fine. But in a few years, will players slog through the 10 or 12 hours of gameplay before everything starts to come together, when they can switch off and play something else in a matter of seconds?
Maybe if the payoff was as good as Breaking Bad. Days Gone? I’m not so sure.