Between the cannibalistic freakers, rival biker gang, the Ripper cultists, the wolves, bears, cougars, and even the goddamn weather, it can feel like the whole open-world in Days Gone is out to get you. And, according to creative director and writer John Garvin, those feelings are absolutely justified.
"It really came down to trying to make sure that everything contributed to the overall idea, which is literally the world comes for you," he says. "It sounds like the kind of thing a marketing team comes up with but it's not, everything is designed to make the world dangerous."
Get Ur Freaker On
The most obvious danger in the post-apocalyptic world is the freakers. Aggressive, fast and very much alive, they've been a key part of the vision since the very beginning, even before hero Deacon St John had a name. Surprisingly, the spark that became the freaker fire was a technical consideration. "It was the result of all this discussion we had about 'What are we going to do for the PlayStation 4?' And the number one thing was the numbers of creatures," explains Garvin. Freakers are most dangerous in large numbers, rushing at you from all angles, streaming through the landscape like an awful, fleshy lava.
"I know we get a lot of shit for this like, 'oh, they're zombies,'" says Garvin, rolling his eyes. "No, they're not zombies and the reason is that they're alive. It's not the fact that they're just swarming and moving together, it's the way when you find them in the open world - and this is true all of our creatures - they're part of an ecosystem where they have migration patterns."
As the player, you can gain an advantage by learning those patterns. If you decide to investigate a cave during your travels - maybe someone left a stash of ammo there, say - you might get more than you bargained for. That's where freakers like to sleep, not alone, but in groups of hundreds. Head down to the river to hear the soothing bubbling of the water, and you might just have found a freaker watering hole. "You can follow the freakers. They'll go to this mass grave where they feed, and then they'll go to a river bank where they drink, and that pattern is something that zombies don't do," says Garvin. "And if a rager bear [the game's affectionate name for bears infected with the freaker virus] wanders into that then they will attack it, or if bikers ride through there they will attack them too."
Pissed (off) as a newt
Freakers come in lots of flavors. Screamers can attract other freakers if they see you, while breakers are your classic heavy enemy type and hard to take down. My favorite, if that's the right word, are the newts. Children who have been affected by the virus, they are both predator and prey, but not to be underestimated. Their behavior was modeled on an unlikely real world source. "So there's these groups of macaque monkeys that live in on the rooftops in India. They will swarm down, steal your food, attack you, and then swarm back up again," says Garvin.
Pretty, but not peaceful
"[The world is] all dynamic and it's all very realistic, but it's beautiful. It's a great backdrop for smashing somebody's head in with a baseball bat," says Garvin.
"That's kind of [thing] we were looking for: this behavior of something that's too small to be a threat unless you're hurt or you invade their space. Because they're part of this dynamic living world, we wanted them to be afraid of other figures as well. So as you wander around you'll see newts being attacked by adult freakers. They're not just afraid of you, they're afraid of everything." While Garvin is careful to avoid spoilers, he does let me know that the newts have a big part to play in story, and during one of my hands-on missions I see NERO (National Emergency Response Organization) workers trying to capture a newt alive.
Rest in pieces
Another stroke of nasty creativity is the Rippers, who are part of a strange cult. It wouldn't be a post-apocalypse without one, right? They're easy to spot because their flesh is scarred and cut, they're a dab hand with a sniper rifle too. "I follow all these stories in the real world about different cults and how crazy they are," says Garvin. "Imagine people - like flat-earthers or people who believe really strange things - imagine them in a world where everything has blown up and now anything is believable. Then you also have this cult, called Rest In Peace, and they're like, 'Oh, well, obviously, this is by divine intervention.'" They get their own storyline in the game, one I can't wait to watch play out, and are just another hazard you have to face in the world."
Despite going all-out on the cults and freakers and even virus-infected wolves, Bend Studio resisted the temptation to go full Far Cry. There are no fishing mini-games, no zany freakers in clown shoes, no comedy missions.
"That's been a constant battle," reveals Garvin. "Because zany is what gamers do, right? For the longest time I was against letting players customize the bike, because I knew for a fact that what would happen is we would get pink gas tanks with flowery decals and chrome. I just had to let go of that, because now we have this whole full customization setup, because it's not Deacon at that point doing it. It's you doing that. So the player can customize the biker they want even though it would be completely out of place in the world of Days Gone."
It's clear that Garvin is not entirely over the idea of pink bikes crashing through his storylines, but says elsewhere the mood stays consistent. "All the sub-activities, everything you discover in the world, all the collectibles, everything fits the tone of this world," he says. "So we don't want you to break immersion by throwing something that's just gratuitous or funny for its own sake."
As for a fishing mini-game? Garvin says it could've happened, but instead they have hunting which feels like a much better fit with their world. "It relies on the core mechanics, which is your gun and tracking, and other animals are hunting them as well," he explains. "So if you're out hunting deer, you're probably not the only one, because freakers will chase them down, and cougars will chase them down, and bears will chase them down. So we wanted to make sure that there was always a way of - whatever we were building, whether it was an animal type or environment type - to have it tie into the core concept of the game." He looks over at the game demoing on a screen nearby, where an unlucky Deacon is being manhandled by a group of freakers.
"How could we make the world more dangerous? That's really what it comes down to."
Read our hands-on with Days Gone, and all its assorted menaces, here. Days Gone will be released on PS4 on April 26.