'Days Gone' Director on Crafting a Brutal Post-Apocalypse: "Nothing Comes Easy in this Game"

Jeff Ross details the "action survival" aspects of the project and explains what sets Deacon apart from other apocalyptic protagonists: "He's not somebody that people really believe in."
Courtesy of Sony

It's the end of the world, but for Sony's Bend Studios, it's just the beginning.

Days Gone, the latest offering from the Oregon game studio, brings the apocalypse to the Pacific Northwest and introduces players to Deacon St. John, a biker gang antihero battling hordes of infected "freakers" as they threaten to overrun what's left of our world.

The game is the latest exclusive title for the PlayStation 4, following on the heels of last year's Marvel's Spider-Man and God of War, the latter of which has earned 2018 game of the year honors from nearly every awards organization that bestows such accolades on video games. Those are big shoes to fill, and Days Gone director Jeff Ross is aware of the company he finds himself in with the new game.

Ross spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges his team faced during development, a process that began in late 2012. Over the years, post-apocalyptic settings have been explored in many titles across various forms of media (including in another Sony exclusive, The Last of Us, and its upcoming sequel), so Ross and Bend Studios were tasked with setting their world apart from others. 

Below, Ross details the "action survival" aspects of Days Gone and explains what sets Deacon apart from other apocalyptic protagonists ("He’s not somebody that people really believe in"), how they made a motorcycle feel like its own character, their "grounded" version of a postapocalyptic Oregon, and how they created a menacing foe in the game's version of infected freakers.

How much different is Days Gone than past Bend Studio games?

This has been so much different because those games were story-driven, but they were kind of mission-based, no open world, no systems, every square inch of real estate was managed and curated for a very specific type of gameplay. Days Gone is so much more than that. We’ve got missions and we’re definitely very story-heavy, but we also have a lot of systems and an open world. The two really intertwine in an interesting and complex way.

On projects like this one, do you start with the story, the open world? Where does the process begin?

There’s no one singular moment where it all falls from the sky fully formed. [Creative director] John Garvin and I have different ideas of what we find interesting. He’s definitely a big story-centric guy and you can see that in our entire catalog. His approach was to find something compelling narratively and have something people could relate to. He likes to tell an interwoven tapestry of characters and plot points. From my end, I realized if we were going to be making a game for years and years we should push ourselves and really learn from it. I thought it was the only way to build a game that would push us to evolve and a game that would sustain itself. Never in mind were the freakers or the apocalypse or a motorcycle club hero. As we started to look at constraints and make preparations, we looked at the city around us. We’ve got these beautiful vistas from our offices where we can look over Central Oregon and it's just a beautiful area, and at one point one of us said, "What if the apocalypse happened and we were stuck down there in that shopping district? What would we do?" It started a snowball from there. At the time, around 2013,The Walking Dead was really popular, Sons of Anarchy was out and even World War Z was out around that time. With all those inspirations spinning through our brains, we realized we could kind of do our version of some of the best parts of all those things. That’s how it was born.

There are a lot of games set postapocalypse. What sets yours apart?

What we wanted to do was capture the essence of some of the hardcore survival games that you see mostly on PC. They’re just really extreme and hardcore. We wanted to capture the essence of that without all of the minutiae and quality-of-life issues and do a version of that which kept players grounded in the relatable aspects of those games. So, even though they’re a badass hero in the apocalypse, they still feel like they’re an everyman and that this guy is not James Bond. Nothing comes easy for the player in this game. We just wanted to keep the same mantra that in doing things in a really streamlined, efficient way that is fun but with some elements of survival fantasies. It’s what we’re calling action survival.

What makes Deacon St. John a unique protagonist?

He is an outsider from the very beginning. As a member of the motorcycle club, he’s not your regular member of society. He’s not an upstanding member of society. He’s not somebody that people really believe in. He’s not in a place that’s very comfortable for him. Also, his background as a motorcycle rider, a guy who knows how to fight, knows how to use a gun, he has military experience, all of those factors make him uniquely suited to survive the elements of the Apocalypse. Particularly the bike, because with roads choked off with traffic jams and hordes, Deacon on his bike can cut through cars and escape. That combined with his ability to fight and survive, it’s a perfect storm of him being able to survive. But once he survives he has to figure out a way to exist in this new world. That pushes him to interact with other camps and work with them, get good with them and continue to survive while remaining a bit of an outsider. There’s this continual pull for him. It’s an interesting journey to watch him grow and evolve and learn to be with other people and in many ways become a leader.

Deacon’s motorcycle feels more like a companion than a vehicle. Was that the goal, to make it into a character?

I think one of the underlying design questions was, how can we do things differently? The bike was a big part of that. We knew in open world games vehicles were disposable. Even in Red Dead, you whistle and your horse comes along. Other games have made vehicles so easy to find that we knew that was a point of differentiation we could make. It also really served the aesthetic of the game. This is survival, this is something that feels realistic. You and I wouldn’t ditch our car, even in the apocalypse, in the hopes that we’d find another one nearby. We’d build this [vehicle] up and be careful and mindful of it. So the bike is another character in the game and a vital lifeline. It’s so much more than just a character, it’s a pillar of the title.

Over the past few years, Sony has had a string of exceptional exclusive titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man. Do you feel pressure to keep that streak going?

I’m not going to deny that those games loom large. What they all have in common is that Sony, as a publisher, is very supportive of the experience that we’re trying to build and gives us the time and resources to build it. I’m thrilled, as an employee of Sony, that they’re having a great run. As a developer of Days Gone, I love the fact that the machine that Sony has built is ready to receive us and expand our audience. I think it’s more of a blessing than you’d think.

How big is the map in Days Gone?

It’s huge. It’s tough to measure in terms of real estate because it doesn’t mean anything to our eyes, but I think we’ve capture the essence of several Oregon biomes, and it’s largest enough that you feel the pain when you don’t have your bike.

How does the fast-travel mechanic in your game differ from other open world games?

The fast travel in our game is some really cool world building and action survival mechanics that are intertwined in a way that is uniquely Days Gone. Freakers nest in certain locations at night. They kind of build a critical mass so it becomes an infestation zone. Players can’t fast travel through infestation zones. They kind of bleed over highways and in order for players to be able to use fast travel they have to go through and clear up these nests to travel through. We think just that small amount of having to go and clear up this area really reinforces to the player that this isn’t a video game, it’s an action survival game where you have to think about things. These are the things you might have to do in the apocalypse. Secondly, it allows us to give players the benefit of fast travel without them immediately having it and kind of cheapening the world and not making it feel very dangerous. It really does reinforce our narrative pillars.

It feels like the world of Days Gone is greatly guided by the narrative.

We pride ourselves on the cohesiveness of everything. Everything is purposeful, from the art direction where we didn’t go full apocalypse with the world fully destroyed and decrepit and overrun. Keeping it in the near future aids in the relatability of it, and even from the open world game elements, everything in the world isn’t just there because the designers thought it would be fun but because it makes sense for the action survival genre and they really do represent the obstacles that Deacon would have to overcome to become a new hero in this apocalypse.

This game blends a few genres. How do you describe Days Gone?

I think action survival maybe isn’t the most recognizable genre yet, but I think that’s going to change. We’re an open world action game set in a really relatable location in the Pacific Northwest, but that doesn’t say nearly enough about the game. The action survival layer kind of says you have to survive but it does bend more toward the action not the simulation side of that.

How do the “freakers” in your game differ from “zombies” we’ve seen in other titles?

In terms of other games, our freakers are not dead. That seems pedantic, but it’s a point we need to clarify, internally as well. They’re animals. They have instincts and urges and recognizable patterns. The fact that they build nests and then leave at night to hunt and go to areas that are good for hunting and the fact that they return home and the hordes have migrations really indicates that there’s something in their brain. They’re not dead. We recognize that people associate them with zombies. These creatures move so much faster and they’re out for not just brains, but all the meat.