Days Gone and the Art of Presentation

[Originally posted June 16, 2016]

Of all the games showcased at this year’s E3, Days Gone is amongst the most conflicting. The conceptual focus of the tech is interesting – put as many zombies on screen at once, and base the AI’s traversal around their sheer numbers – and the strategic angle isn’t wholly without merit – run around exploiting chokepoints as a means of culling the horde. Like most pre-release games, Days Gone shows metered promise, and yet its reception is far more lukewarm than normal – largely due to an unfocused, confused presentation.

The first piece of Days Gone media the public got to see was a trailer. It consists – entirely – of narration and what appears to be in-game cutscenes. Bad-boy protag Deacon waxes poetic[1]about the collapse of civilization. Planes falling from the sky. The world going dark. The military running out of body bags. It’s like reading somebody’s zombie apocalypse live journal, and it’s all descriptions of standard-fare zombie narratives. This goes on for about a minute and a half, and then Deacon says, “I don’t give a damn about any of that.”

Yikes. Not a great sign when even the narrator seems bored with the world-building.

We then shift into 30-odd seconds of characterization via dead loved ones, which is still boring, is perpetually boring, is actually always boring.[2] Then the trailer ends, having told us little of its world, and even less about its protagonist. This may surprise you – given my snark – but this is actually not a strike against the game as a whole. Now, Days Gone’s trailer certainly didn’t help with its reception, but what the real issue here was the focus on capital-N Narrative and its subsequent absence from the demo.

A trailer comprised exclusively of VO and cutscenes suggests the following: THIS IS A NARRATIVE GAME. Now, that’s not a problem, but it isa problem when your demo includes exactly zero narrative. The closest we come to any narrative meat is the name of a character – 2-Dog – who dies[3] after exactly 18.61 seconds of screen time (I counted). This flies in the face of everything that the trailer established. Had the demo preceded the trailer, we likely would have a very different impression of this game’s focus. It’s not wrong to want to showcase your gameplay and your narrative, but a little directorial consistency goes a long way – otherwise you end up with an unsure, conflicted audience.

Finally, we come to That Great Beast – the collective recoil over comparisons to The Last of Us. Let me make a few things clear: Last of Us does not own zombie narratives, third person gameplay, or mean grizzly dudes – nor should it. It does however, possess a unique style and tone. Lush, overgrown, decayed landscapes. A soundtrack of minimalist nylon-string guitars. A handsome, mournful man. Unfortunately, these are also all prominently featured in Days Gone‘s promo material.

I’m aware that Days Gone is trying to do certain things to distinguish itself. Joel’s Deacon’s dead person is an adult blonde woman instead of a child blonde woman. There’s only one character instead of two. The zombies are called ‘freakers’[4] instead of ‘zombies.’ Do you see what I’m getting at here? If you google image search ‘Days Gone game,’ you get more screens of The Last of Us than Days Gone. That’s a real problem. Now, none of this means that Days Gone is copying The Last of Us, nor does it mean Days Gone is destined for mediocrity. Early versions are almost never as tight as the finished product, and you can’t always rely on E3 presentations to get a good feel for a game. I’m still hopeful that the promise shines through by the time release rolls around. That being said, Bend Studio really shot themselves in the foot with this one. A trailer that’s bored with its own narrative? Strike one. A jarring dichotomy between trailer and demo? Strike two. A failure to distinguish the game from other titles on the market? Strike three.

Aaaaaaaaaand you’re out.


 [1] Though ‘poetic’ is perhaps a little too generous a term.

[2] Note: having dead loved ones – especially in a zombie narrative – is not bad, but riddle me this, Batman: did you actually learn anything about Deacon as a character via his dead person? ‘He is capable of love.’ Okay, way to go, he’s a human being that isn’t a sociopath. What an engrossing, dynamic character that we know so much about.

[3] Like an idiot, might I add.

[4] I think we blame Robert Kirkman for ruining calling zombies ‘zombies.’ For those unfamiliar, Kirkman writes the popular comic, The Walking Dead, wherein his characters refer to zombies as ‘walkers.’ Cue wildly successful TV show, and then you have creators – as well as the producers that influence those creators – going, “well, Kirkman distinguished his zombies by calling them ‘walkers,’ so clearly that’s part of the secret to success.” You might be thinking, wait, Tom, that sounds dumb, and you’d be right! Now, this is a much bigger problem in Hollywood than it is in Gaming, but it’s still something that happens. What we’re left with is an aggravatingly large amount of zombie jargon – utilized in a transparent attempt to appear different. It’s superficial and distracting. They’re zombiesNo one is fooled by ‘geeks,’ ‘twitchers,’ or ‘freakers.’ Just call them zombies, it’s fine.

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