The final, retail version of Days Gone will not allow players to make binary choices at various junctures in the story. Back when Days Gone was originally shown off to the public, players were able to make choices that would have a minor effect on the character of Deacon St. John, the protagonist portrayed by Sam Witwer. Now, those choices are no longer part of the game.
We spoke to Days Gone writer/creative director John Garvin about both the new game and his career in the gaming industry. In particular, we discussed the many changes the game has gone through since it was first unveiled at E3 2016, including the removal of binary choices the player makes for Deacon at various points in the narrative.
The reason why they removed these choices has to do with strengthening the character of Deacon St. John and serving the narrative of Days Gone. As John Garvin explains it:
The thing about player choices is, players didn’t get it! (laughs) …We thought it was going to be this awesome thing where Boozer’s morale was going to be this 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.
Basically, player choice was getting in the way of the game. Days Gone is a narrative driven experience, but it’s not Mass Effect or a Telltale game. The choices were intended to add color to the player’s perception of Deacon, but they wound up making him an unclear figure, and even unlikable. The story of Days Gone is cinematic in nature. One of the goals of Sony Bend was to apply their experience making linear, narrative driven titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Syphon Filter, and apply that to an open world game. That cinematic approach is another factor which led to the removal of binary choices. John Garvin elaborates:
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.
There are some games which have deliberately unlikable protagonists, like Kratos from the original God of War or the titular protagonists of the Kane & Lynch titles, but it’s a delicate balance, and Days Gone didn’t want to present Deacon St. John as a total jerk, but to make him someone players could root for. To achieve that, binary choices had to go. The two big examples which had been showcased were whether to kill a wounded enemy, Leon, or allow him to burn to death in a horrible fire, and giving an ally, Boozer, his shotgun or having Deacon keep it for himself. Regarding these choices, Garvin says:
“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. 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.”
The solution to the problem came in the form of simply removing the choices. Instead of being given the option to keep Boozer’s shotgun, the game automatically has Deacon return the weapon to its rightful owner:
But the biggest thing was, it made Deacon’s character stronger. 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.
There are some instances where player choice is an important factor in shaping a story as it unfolds, but that’s not always the best solution. For Days Gone, despite its open world nature, the decision was made to keep Deacon St. John’s character arc out of the hands of the player, and to have his key interactions with other characters be crafted entirely by the game’s developers.
More: Days Gone is 30 Hours Long, With 6 Hours of Cutscenes