John Garvin, the writer and creative director behind Days Gone on PlayStation 4 tells us all about the games he’s worked on, from Syphon Filter to Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The studio which would eventually be known as SIE Bend Studio first made waves with the Syphon Filter trilogy back in the days of the original PlayStation. Back then, they were known as Eidetic, though they became known as Bend in time for the 2001 release of Syphon Filter 3.
As a first-party studio owned by Sony, Bend went on to develop more Syphon Filter titles for PSP, a Resistance spin-off for PSP, and Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PlayStation Vita. Now, Bend Studio is gearing up for the launch of Days Gone, their first original IP since Syphon Filter all the way back in 1998. Through it all, writer John Garvin has been the lead writer behind all of Bend’s titles, which has lent the studio a unique identity which has persisted throughout their varied titles.
With Days Gone just days away, we spoke with Garvin about the ambitious title, and applying Bend’s momentum-driven narrative approach to the open world genre. He also dishes on the numerous changes that have been made to the game since its 2016 E3 debut, and reminisces on Bend’s older titles even offering a slight, tantalizing tease that more Syphon Filter could be on the way, eventually.
Something that’s surprised me in the launch cycle for Days Gone, in interviews that I’ve read and just general internet hype, is how many people still fondly remember Syphon Filter, and I certainly count myself in that crowd. The ending of Logan’s Shadow is still seared into my brain, more than ten years later…
John Garvin: You know what’s weird? We have a lot of Syphon Filter fans in Europe. I just finished a press tour that went all across Europe, and got so many Syphon Filter questions, it’s not even funny!
A lot of studios are famous, or infamous, for having so much employee turnover, to the point where an immediate sequel can be made by practically a entirely different team. I don’t know if that’s the case with Sony Bend, but you have been there since the beginning. Since before the beginning, when the studio was known as Eidetic.
John Garvin: Yeah. You’re right about turnover, in general. But for us… The people who created Syphon Filter 1, we still have Chris Reese, who’s the studio director. He was the lead engineer on Syphon back in the Eidetic days. I’ve always been there. And Jeff Ross, who’s the Game Director on Days Gone, he was a level designer on Syphon 1. And a lot of our producing staff, like Connie Booth (currently Vice President of Product Development), she was our producer way back then. There’s not a lot of turnover at Bend Studio. We’re growing, but a lot of us have been working together for over twenty years.
Do you remember how many people were at Eidetic back when you were doing the first Syphon Filter?
John Garvin: I don’t know the exact number, but I remember looking at a photo not too long ago, and I think it was twelve or thirteen guys, and one gal. Susan, our office manager, was also there. She’s been with the studio longer than me. She was there when I started, and she’s still there.
So maybe a dozen or so people. And how many people at Sony Bend are working on Days Gone?
John Garvin: I think the last number I heard was we were pushing, counting some QA folks we hired internally, I think we’re at about 145 now.
That’s so many, but it’s also kinda mid-size, compared to some. Bend has always struck me as such a hard-working studio that surprises with these impressively big games, usually made for handheld systems. Your Resistance and Uncharted games stand toe-to-toe with the best of their console siblings.
John Garvin: It’s funny, the studio stayed small for a really long time. By the time we finished Syphon Filter 3, we were maybe 30 people. Maybe less than that. I don’t think we really started ramping up until we started Golden Abyss (the handheld Uncharted title). That’s when we went to about 50 people, when we started working on that launch title for the PlayStation Vita. We’ve basically only done games that fit the scale of our studio. We were doing handhelds for quite a while; even though they were state-of-the-art handhelds with high production values, the scope of them was small enough for our pretty small team. The point of your question, I absolutely agree with. We’ve always felt we are a scrappy studio, just trying to hit above our weight class. That’s kind of the way we’ve always felt. For a game like Days Gone, 140 people is pretty small. It’s such a big game.
There must have been a lot of pressure, tackling a big budget console title after being away for 15 years (not including the PS2 ports of the PSP Syphon Filter titles)
John Garvin: But you have to keep in mind that we’re Sony “first party.” We have a lot of support groups. All of our music and audio, all of our cinematics, we went down to L.A. and got to shoot them all on Sony stages with Sony support crews, and Sony Visual Arts and Services really helped out. Probably another 50 people, all told. And that’s not counting PR and marketing.
How has the pressure changed since the days of Syphon Filter and even as recently as Uncharted? There’s an idea floating around that there was a lot more creative freedom in the pre-HD era, since budgets were lower and teams were smaller, so you could do what you wanted as long as you hit your deadlines. Was that really the case, or is development actually not that different now?
John Garvin: You know, this is just my opinion, because I don’t know about other studios, but in terms of Bend studios, we’ve always done it the same way. Sony is our publisher, and our goal is to support the platform. Since Sony purchased us, after, I think, Syphon Filter 2, our goal has always been to create games that sell hardware, whether it’s been the PS1, PS2, PSP, or Vita. And now, obviously, the PS4. We really want to create games that, I think, need to have a certain kind of appeal, and they have to be commercial. We need to appeal to enough gamers who say, “I want to buy this platform because I want to play that game.” I think that’s always the goal, whether we were doing something for the Vita or the PS4. I don’t think that’s ever changed. We could never do “whatever we wanted.” It always had to go through the green-light process and checks and balances with marketing and execs to make sure it’s a viable product.
This might seem like a silly question, and I think a lot of people want to ask it, but only I am humble enough to do so. There’s this ubiquity of visionary creators: you’ve got your Miyamotos, your Kojimas, etc. You’re credited as Writer and Creative Director on Days Gone, while Jeff Ross is credited as Game Director. Could you elaborate on the interplay between your roles? What are your responsibilities and what are his? I imagine it’s different from movies, where you write a script, you turn it in, and then you leave.
John Garvin: I would call it a very, very, very close collaboration, and not just with Jeff, our Game Director. Also with our Art Director, and our Technical Director. And I’m forgetting so many. Our Animation Director… All those key-holders and vision-keepers have to collaborate closely. About your earlier question, we were given carte blanche, at first. Golden Abyss did really well for Sony. It was a great launch title. We proved ourselves, that we could take on an ambitious project. So they said, “what do you want to do?” We were in a brainstorming phase, and I think I’m the one who came up with the idea of, “I want to do something set in the high desert or the pacific northwest.” I hadn’t seen a game set here before. We’re huge fans of Sons of Anarchy, and I really liked the idea of exploring characters in this culture, not because of the violence and criminality, but because of the relationship between Jax and his close friends, like Opie. Kurt Sutter, the writer, I think, did some really amazing things.
John Garvin: I was interested in that, and Jeff Ross was the one who said, “I have always been a huge fan of open world games. We should do this as an open world. That would be amazing.” At the same time, we were both thinking of gameplay hooks. The power of the PS4, the ability to do something like a horde which was 400 or 500 enemies all at the same time. I think that came from both of us just spitballing. And that gets Don Yatomi involved, and his team created one of our very first pieces of key art that helped sell this game. It was this guy standing on top of a rooftop of an old saw mill, and hundreds and hundreds of freakers are swarming towards him in an orderly, hive-mind kind of way. A lot of ideas came from me, I suppose… Certainly all the characters and so on. But the game doesn’t exist without the game, and that all came from Jeff. In terms of clear demarcations, anything that has to do with playing the game, holding the controller from second to second, that’s all Jeff Ross. The mechanics and the skill tree and the way the weapon wheel works, the survival vision, that all came from Jeff. The final implementation of the radar, all that stuff.
John Garvin: He’s got a huge team of designers who all work on these things individually. They all have leads who direct every part of the game. That part is hugely collaborative. But the script, that all came from me, and all the characters and locations and a lot of the missions, honestly, and I think that’s one of the reasons you’ll find, when you play Days Gone, and if you play any of Sony Bend’s games… I’m a huge gamer, but I also have a Master’s Degree in English. My background is in Shakespeare! I was really able to, early on, bring this sensibility to the creation process. Like, why don’t we bring our inspiration from this? Instead of from a game, we’ll take inspiration from a book or a TV show, and combine things I haven’t seen done in games before. I think that’s my part of it. Jeff does the playability part of it. Anytime you’re having fun in the game, it’s because Jeff and his guys did a really good job making the game fun to play.
It’s so funny you mentioned Shakespeare, since Jason Dante from Uncharted: Golden Abyss is one of my favorite chracters in all of gaming, and I always thought of him as being so Shakespearean.
John Garvin: It’s funny, in writing Golden Abyss, I always thought of General Oro as being more Shakespearean, since I gave him some more flowery lines, just because he considers himself an orator, so he could get flamboyant in ways I don’t think Dante would. But it’s funny, I’ve never really thought about it that way!
Anyway, let’s talk about Sam Witwer! He is really dreamy. I mean, he’s talented, but also super dreamy, and we really get to see him in Days Gone! So, you wrote Deacon St. John. You created him. Were you hands-on in casting? How did Sam get pulled in?
John Garvin: I was totally hands-on. I was the guy. All casting decisions came from me. Early on, we were trying out a few different guys to play the lead. Early, we had gone with someone quite a bit older, but it was a very different-feeling game, early on. It was a little more tongue-in-cheek, and not quite so serious. Technology-wise, we were still working our character pipeline for PS4. We made a decision, maybe a year into development, that we were going to go with digital doubles, meaning we were going to cast someone who not only had a great voice, but needed to have the look we were searching for. Sam has that real combination of the right look and the voice. And he can act!
Did your work on Uncharted influence this casting process?
John Garvin: We knew we wanted screen actors. It’s one of the things I learned from Amy Hennig working on Uncharted. That whole process is literally about performance capture, which we had never done before. It’s about getting actors on the stage together, interacting with each other. You had to have experience doing that in order to get hired. We really needed our actors to have the chemistry with other actors, to collaborate and build the dramatic tension. Back to Sam, he has this great look, but if you know his work, he’s a passionate gamer, and he’s passionate about a lot of things, about genre-related things. He’s gung-ho. From the first time we got him on stage for a live audition, we knew he was going to be the guy. Once we had him cast, we used him to cast the other leads, because all of our auditions were him working face-to-face with them. They rehearsed together on the stage just to make sure the chemistry was there. Sam was the one who chose Courtnee Draper for Sarah. We had three actors vying for the part, and he was adamant about Courtnee because she was the only one who could really keep up with him. He believed her that she could keep up with an outlaw biker gang and hold her own. He was pretty important to the process, right from the start.
I really love, especially in games, these motion-captured performances. You can really see the actor in the character. When I first saw the game, I recognized Sam Witwer before he even spoke, from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Was that ever a discussion? Did you ever consider changing his likeness so audiences wouldn’t recognize the actor?
John Garvin: It’s funny because that never came up. Obviously, we got a lot of comments, like, “Hey, it’s Starkiller!” But for us, I think it’s an interesting question because it’s a question. In Hollywood, it’s never a question. Nobody goes, “Oh, you got Jack Nicholson; are you concerned because it’s the same guy from The Shining?” (laughs) The actor is the actor. But in games, it’s still kind of a new thing. My prediction is, ten years from now, you’re going to see a lot more digital doubles, and it’s going to become kind of the norm. It’s becoming more and more common that you’re hiring an actor, not only for their voice, but for the way they look. I think we’re gonna get to the point where it’s not even going to be a question. It was never a factor. I never said, “Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” or “Maybe we shouldn’t hire someone who has been digitally doubled before.”
We’ve also come such a long way since Syphon Filter, where you’d write the script and someone would come in and say the lines. Nowadays, they’re acting the whole performance on a stage. What opportunities do actors have to help shape their characters while they’re acting? Can they say, “Can I change this line?” or “What if I do this instead?” I imagine it’s much more collaborative than it was back in the quote-unquote “old days.”
John Garvin: Up until Golden Abyss, we always did the actors separately in the VO booth, working from a pretty tight script. Then, in San Diego, the stunt actors would be recording the scene separately, on a mo-cap stage. Then, we would combine them together later on in animation. We would hire animators to do all the lip sync and facial expressions. We did that, even for Resistance Retribution for PSP. We got some good work out of it, but you’re never gonna get Naughty Dog-level work using that process, which is why, when we started working on Golden Abyss, we spent weeks down in L.A., learning how they do it. And it’s night and day. And, to answer your question, of can they collaborate, yes, absolutely, that’s the whole point!
Could you give me an example of how things were changed based on an actor’s input?
John Garvin: There’s a scene where Deacon gets caught stealing drugs from one of the emcampment’s infirmaries, and meets these two characters, Rikki and Addie. Nishi Munshi plays Rikki. She and Deacon had to have this moment, and they’re two super important characters. The way I had written it was pretty serious. Over the course of six takes, we do all these shots. The first take is always going to be rough. By the time you get to the sixth take, you get to what the real story is about. It’s always a combination of what’s on the page and what the actor’s bring to it. Sam went, let’s have Deacon be a little more rogue-ish here, a lot more jokey and just have him trying to laugh it off and get past them, rather than pointing guns and being all serious. So the final take is way better than the first one, and it’s because the story, the character, it improves with the actors’ input. Nishi added a beat, as well.
What was that?
John Garvin: When Addie comes up to her and says, “he’s not stealing narcotics, he’s stealing antibiotics!” That’s a big surprising moment and I hadn’t written a reaction for Rikki, and Nishi said, “She’s gotta react there, right?” And I’m like, yeah, absolutely, so she added “Wait, what?” Actors are very important to the process. They help create the characters. They help improve the script, certainly, but just by being alive on the set, in the moment, trying to make everything feel real.
I think we really are at the point where there’s no line between crafting a non-interactive scene, whether it’s for a game or a movie.
John Garvin: One of the key things we’re trying to achieve here is naturalism and realism. We didn’t want anything to feel staged, or feel fake, or feel… “gamey.” We wanted it to feel as real as we could possibly make it, so it feels like you’re playing a movie, which is kind of what our goal was.
I feel like Days Gone is the culmination of so many different generations of technological advancements, in storytelling, acting, motion-capture, etc. And to put that in an open world game, this is a whole new beast for your team.
John Garvin: That was our biggest goal going into this. Bend has always done these third-person, narrative-driven games. Linear games. We really wanted to see if it was possible to do our style of game in an open world. Typically, the open-world genre is very distracting. You can go in any direction. It’s very hard to build tension or drama because you’ve got other things you can do! You can do some stuff in any order you want. The challenge for us was, how do we tell our cinematic style of game in an open world? That’s kind of how we ended up with six hours of cinematics in a 30-hour main story playthrough. We really wanted to make sure we had enough continuity in the character development and story development while you’re playing the game, to always keep things interesting.
And what did you do, writing-wise, to keep things interesting?
John Garvin: Going back to Shakespeare, probably the biggest thing I learned from Shakespeare, which has been carried over into sitcoms more than films, is just the sort of A plot, B plot, C plot structure. You have this main story, maybe it’s Deacon trying to keep his best friend, Boozer, alive. Then you have a side story, or B plot, I don’t even call it a side story. In a lot of open world games, side stories literally have nothing to do with the main story. In our game, everything has something to do with the main story, either thematically or in terms of direct through lines or character development. These different plotlines all feed on each other or build on each other in, hopefully, interesting or surprising ways. I learned from Shakespeare that it’s okay to mix it up; don’t keep the same two actors on the stage all the time! Make sure there’s something else going on. Let some of your characters be more humorous than the more super serious ones, or whatever. I think that’s something games could do more.
Does player choice have any impact on the way the characters and storyline develop?
John Garvin: The tone and the style of the writing doesn’t change. We’re not doing a Telltale-style game that has branching storylines or anything like that. The changes that occur in the characters, obviously, occur because of the story. So, not necessarily because of things the player is doing. The exception to that is the dialogue at the merchants and in the survivor encampments. It changes depending on your trust level with those camps. The player has agency in how much work they want to do with these encampments. The more Deacon does for them, the healthier the citizens become, and they become less grumpy and more friendly when they open the gates to let you in. They start calling you by your first name, for example.
Days Gone is a game we’ve been able to see develop over a longer period of time than is normal, but not because the game was terribly delayed, but because you were willing to show it that early. The E3 2016 demo was very impressive, but what’s come out in the last few months is completely overhauled. Bend has been so transparent on the changes, like the removal of binary choices made during cutscenes. I’m thinking about the relationship between the character, the player, and the writer, you know?
John Garvin: Thank you, number one, because we have completely… We’re always continuing to work on the game, but what’s interesting about that 2016 demo is that it’s an actual mission in the game. The gameplay there hasn’t changed. It’s part of the game, it’s one of the required hordes you have to fight over the course of the game. It’s at the saw mill, it’s one of the major gameplay beats of Days Gone. It’s still there, though it does look a lot better now.
That’s really cool, I love when stuff from previews appears in the final game and you can really compare and contrast the differences.
John Garvin: That was still alpha. The thing about the binary choices is, we released some of that footage when it was still alpha. We were working on the game up until even now. We’re always making it better. The thing about player choices is, players didn’t get it! (laughs) We have ongoing focus tests where we bring in twenty players at a time and have them play the game from start to finish over a week. We’ve done that dozens of times over the past two years. The data just kept coming back, you know? We thought it was going to be this awesome thing where Boozer’s morale was going to be this awesome thing players would have to watch, but players just didn’t understand it. For the amount of work we were putting into it, there was no payoff. It was hurting the player experience. When we got rid of it, it made a huge difference in a number of ways.
That’s so interesting.
John Garvin: As a writer, one of the lessons I had to learn that was really hard early on, was this: on a motion picture script, you’ve 90 to 120 pages, give or take. You want your character to start out flawed and broken, and you want them to be in a place where they have a lot of room to change and grow. For Deacon, he starts out as this nihilistic, broken guy. Honestly, he isn’t very likable at first. The thing is, in a movie, you’re doing that for ten or fifteen minutes before you have a catalyst that makes him begin to change. That turned out to be eight hours in Days Gone, and I didn’t realize that until I played the game for the first time, in December of 2017.
Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious, but it must have been so uncomfortable for you!
John Garvin: It was just like, “okay, so all these binary choices are also hurting that.” If Deacon has the ability to leave this guy to be eaten alive or to put him out of his misery, the player, at that moment, doesn’t really know what the right thing to do is. In either case, it makes Deacon out to be… If he leaves him to be eaten alive, it turns him into a real a**hole! The same with taking Boozer’s shotgun. Kind of going along with that, if you have an obvious choice to make, players will always choose the good thing. It’s something that we learned from looking at something like Infamous. The number of players who choose dark over light is actually very small, believe it or not. We want to be “good” in video games. We want to play the good guy. But the biggest thing was, it made Deacon’s character stronger. It made players less confused about what was going on, and it saved us production time because we didn’t have to polish all the cinematics that were resulting from all these binary choices.
When you changed the choices, did you rewrite how it played out, or did you make the choice for the player?
John Garvin: We just made the choice for the player. So Deacon will always shoot Leon in the first twenty minutes, and Deacon will always leave Boozer’s shotgun. We just basically made the choices in every case where we had them, and it was always making the character stronger.
Okay, now I have to ask you, and this is tremendously important: can you turn Deacon’s backwards cap around so it’s facing forward?
John Garvin: (laughs) Can the player choose to do that? Hmm… Here’s the thing. This is a bigger question, honestly. One of the things a lot of open world games have in common is that there’s a lot of player choice in the way the main character looks. We decided, very early on, that we weren’t going to do that. The reason is, the way Deacon looks has huge story implications. This is something the player may or may not notice, but in flashbacks, Deacon is pretty clean shaven. He doesn’t have his scruffy beard. I wanted there to be this really stark contrast between these periods in Deacon’s life. From flashbacks with Sarah to the prologue where you see him having to make this horrible choice between saving his wife and saving his best friend, and then the game itself, where you see things happening two years later. These different time periods all have a different version of this man. Going back to biker culture, it’s completely reflected in the way he dresses, including his hat and his hair and his facial hair. We had to make sure that the player couldn’t mess that up. We don’t want the player to say, “I want Deacon, in this flashback, to have a big scruffy beard.” Well, no! That’s not who he was then. During the course of the game, for story reasons, perhaps the hat’s not there at all…
John Garvin: Let me tell you, I took a lot of s*** for that in the wedding trailer; a lot of comments were, “hey, why is he wearing a hat at his wedding?” And he’s wearing it the same way, backwards. But I can tell you, and I know from the research I had done, bikers do that! I got a lot of support from people who are actually in biker culture. They said, “yeah, we don’t dress differently just because of a special occasion; we are who we are.”
That’s really cool. I really like that answer. It’s the same as the binary choices. Sometimes, the players can have that intimate control over the character’s story, but sometimes, it has to be the way it’s written, the way you wrote it and the way the actor did it.
John Garvin: One thing, though, you can change how the bike looks. So, that was the compromise we made. There’s literally millions of combinations of colors and trim and all that, and it’s entirely possible to create a bike that looks like one Deacon St. John would never sit on. You can have a pink gas tank and green chrome and it can be garish and ugly. But if the player wants to do that, they are empowered to do whatever they want with the bike.
I’ve got time for one last question. Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow. Did Teresa and Gabe survive that ending?
John Garvin: (Laughs) …Maybe, hopefully, we’ll find out someday.
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