Image courtesy of Sony

20 Hours In, 'Days Gone' Is an Ugly, Miserable Experience

A game about a man with a code, a code that involves selling people to a slave trader and pretending you're morally conflicted about it.

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Apr 25 2019, 12:01pm

Image courtesy of Sony

Content Warning: This piece contains graphic descriptions of violence, including towards children.

One of the first things I did in Days Gone was climb on a roof, and bash a child to death with a stray slab of wood. The meter charting my progress to the next level went up a tiny bit.

The kid was a zombie, I guess—in Days Gone, they’re “freaks”—but this is, or was, unmistakably a kid. Five, maybe six years old? I don’t know their name, I don’t know how they got this way. All I know is the game said to clear the roof, and provided no options for me to deal with the situation other than coldly bashing in their skull. And so I swung away.

Another time, a question mark appeared on my map, the game’s way of saying “Hey, check this out.” (If you don’t, the event disappears.) When I got there, I found some people defending an outpost. Not “freakers,” not zombies, just regular ass humans. But still: enemies, I’m told. Like clockwork, I pulled out my gun, and watched the corpses stack up. I was rewarded for my efforts with... absolutely nothing. There was nothing special about this outpost, no special upgrade to find.

It appears I’d just slaughtered a bunch of people trying to get by, for no reason. Well, not for no reason: again, the meter charting my progress to the next level went up a tiny bit. Cha-ching. This is Days Gone in microcosm: feeding the game’s relentless assault of upgrades, collectibles, and other disconnected pieces of video game-isms that rub against the game’s alleged core, a man with a “code.”

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These moments, among others, gave me pause during my earliest hours with Days Gone, the first original franchise from developer Sony Bend since 1999’s Syphon Filter for the original PlayStation. But after more than 20 hours roaming Sony’s unnecessarily sprawling and achingly misguided open world zombie game, I’m numb. I don’t know why this game exists. It’s a hodgepodge bucket list of Stuff You Expect in Open World Games, half-baked ideas executed better elsewhere—several in another game published by Sony, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us—and a failed morality tale whose emotional stakes are constantly undermined.

Days Gone refuses to settle on what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Rather than settling on a direction, it proceeds in all directions, hoping a more-is-better philosophy will prove blinding. This is true of both the clumsy mechanics, which are ever present and impossible to ignore, and its story, following the boring moral compass of biker Deacon St. John, who roams the world in the years after an event turned the whole world to shit, claiming to operate by a “code” but refusing to allow said code to operationally manifest into action. But that itself is selling the narrative failings of Days Gone—and Deacon himself—way short.

A moral code, applying old norms in a world without “rules,” is a post-apocalyptic trope because it’s classically effective at drawing tension from the base premise: life would be easier if you treated everyone like disposable garbage, but what’s that mean for the soul? But using this trope effectively requires either careful setup or especially sharp execution, and ideally both. Days Gone has neither, despite what its many hours of dour cutscenes with people acting extremely serious tries to suggest.

The game opens in the midst of the freaker panic. Explosions, fire, screaming. Deacon’s wife, Sarah, has been stabbed and is bleeding out. Deacon and Boozer, his biker buddy, track down a government helicopter, but it only has room for—wait for it—two. Deacon shoves Sarah on the chopper, and in a moment meant to lay the groundwork for Deacon’s inherent goodness, he stays behind with Boozer, fearing he won’t survive what comes next. Fast forward two years into the future, and it’s Deacon and Boozer on the road. No Sarah.

The huge time jump means Days Gone skips over the part where the world falls off a cliff. What, if any, institutions survived? Has anyone managed to assert control? Over whom? What factions—because there are always factions in these stories—have emerged? In theory, this means the game can slowly reveal the new status quo. In reality, it means establishing a world without enough grounding much of it. The Rippers, for example, are people with self-inflicted scars in patterns. They, uh, do a lot of drugs and hurt people for… reasons?

What we know is Deacon and Boozer are “drifters,” people who refuse to settle down in any one camp, choosing to bounce around while engaging in various forms of contract work.

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And damn, good luck getting the TV show Sons of Anarchy out of mind playing Days Gone. That’s for good reason; the developers routinely cited Sons of Anarchy as a primary inspiration, and the three main leads of Days Gone have an awfully similar dynamic of that saga.

Kurt Sutter’s seven-season drama focused on a biker gang whose stated goal was protecting a community but routinely drowned it in unwanted violence. (It fell off a cliff once it killed off you-know-who, the heart of the show, in that kitchen.) Days Gone and Sons of Anarchy share walking contradictions: endless talk of a moral code, while profiting from actions undermine it. But while Sons of Anarchy eventually lost the thread, the show was, at one point, using that contradiction as the pitch. These are bad people, but you’re gonna root for them after spending lots of time in private, exposed as people with complex motivations.

We never get such generous time with anyone in Days Gone. Boozer? He’s sidelined for Story Reasons in the opening hour of the game. Sarah? Exclusively tied to flashbacks. It’s not hard to imagine a much stronger game where those three were playing off one another, and it’s wild how much this extremely long game simultaneously feels deeply underwritten.

(Much credit, though, to the actors—especially the central trio of Sam Witwer (Deacon), Jim Pirri (Boozer), and Courtnee Draper (Sarah)—for imbuing their characters with enough humanity in key moments to sometimes paper over the compromised writing. When they’re given moments to play off one another, each sells the relationship. There’s just not enough.)

The thing is, Deacon sucks. He doesn’t just suck because he moves around the world as if he’s just learning to walk and super frustrating to control around packs of zombies, he sucks because the game tries to present him as a morally complex anti-hero and it doesn’t land. It’s one thing to present players with a character they’re supposed to feel conflicted about, but what am I supposed to do with a person who says you “can’t shoot a woman unless you have to,” while later selling a woman he saved to a labor camp, knowing she’ll spend her whole life digging ditches for the tyrant running the place?

(At one point, there’s quest line explicitly about how this woman wants to leave and can’t, and the game dedicates a whole mission to you checking up on her and not believing her.)

This isn’t a surprise to Deacon, either. Every time you swing by this slave outpost, its purpose is proudly on display. Sure, Deacon will walk over and tell an NPC who’s beating one of the workers to “stop it,” but you can’t make an active choice to intervene, and the assigned quests for the camp keep coming. The beatings, and Deacon’s barking, eventually becomes so routine that you begin to ignore it. It becomes part of the scenery, and by the time the game introduces characters willing to call Deacon out on his shit, it feels hollow.

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It’s not that Deacon is “bad” or “good” or “somewhere in-between.” He’s nothing, and when the weight of the entire game is placed on his shoulders, if he doesn’t work, the rest falls.

Part of the problem might have to do with Days Gone glacial progress. Like I said, I spent more than 20 hours in this world, and only in the last hour did I unlock the game’s second (also unjustifiably huge) map. There is not 20 hours of plot or character development in that time—half, at best?—but there’s a lot of boring, repetitive shooting to do in that time.

Days Gone acts as though it’s a game where its narrative and gameplay will meaningfully intersect, complementing and reflecting one another. That’s not true, and maybe helps explain why Day’s Gone itself is so ambiguous about Deacon’s much talked about code; if it was fully explained, the contradictions in gameplay would be even more stark.

Even as a fallback, it’s not fun to play! The shooting is mediocre, the driving is mediocre, and you fight the same set of boring, bland zombies who do nothing but run straight in a line and easily forget you exist for half the game. Remember those massive swarms of zombies that have been part of the marketing for Days Gone since the beginning? They’re a minor part of the game now, more a collectible than a defining characteristic. (Only once, by accident, did I manage to get a nearby horde to interact with, and subsequently kill, a group of human enemies I was facing.)

It’s a small example of a larger problem the game fails to wrestle with, but hours into the game, there’s a mission where a character takes you hunting. You track the fecal matter of a nearby deer, wound it with a well-timed shot, and track its blood trail to a corpse on the other side of the forest. Soon after, the game prompts a hunting mission. Instead of using these new skills, the game drops huge, glowing marks on the map, and the moment you show up, there’s a pack of wolves, a deer, or something else to easily kill within moments of arriving. The game never again asks you to use these tracking skills—ever!—because there are no survival elements to Days Gone, like persistent hunger or thirst, and even trading in meat for currency at the camps is a total waste of time; it doesn’t get you anything decent in return.

And that’s Days Gone in a nutshell: a waste of time that doesn’t get you anything decent in return. I could have written everything here after a few hours of playing, but I kept thinking “There’s gotta be something around the corner to justify all this.” And so I’d play a few hours, and then a few more. Soon, a big plot turn was being communicated, and so I gave the game another chance. But that, like Deacon’s code, was just a long con. A game with a billion carrots on a stick, but no matter how many you eat, you’re still hungry, but at that point, the sunk cost of eating these damn carrots is so large you might as well keep eating.

There’s a moment halfway through the game, when you and Boozer have killed a bunch of people, and there’s a quiet moment of reflection. “They had it coming, right?” says Deacon. “Yeah, guess we all do,” replies Boozer. The empty exchange underscores Days Gone, and everything that goes wrong with it. The people you kill don’t matter, nor the people you save.

But at least the meter keeps going up.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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