The following contains some story spoilers for Days Gone and Final Fantasy XIII
When a game falls under the radar, looks a little rough around the edges, or nestles into a particular niche, I tend to gravitate towards it. Sometimes that curiosity leads me towards games like A Plague Tale: Innocence, Vampyr, or The Evil Within 2—titles that exceeded all of my expectations, cementing themselves as personal favorites. Other times, that curiosity results in a weird love affair with some misunderstood trash like Too Human or Earth Defense Force 2017. But every once in a while, curiosity gets the better of me, sending me down a dark road.
For the better part of the last two months, I played through the entirety of Days Gone. I don’t know why I stuck with this open-world, zombie apocalypse, Rockstar-wannabe long enough for it to grab me, but by the time it did, I’d invested too much time to turn around. There was only one problem: when I decided to see it through to the end I still had so, so much of it left.
The last time I fell into this trap was with Dragon’s Dogma. Before that, Final Fantasy XIII. It’s the same story every time. The games all seem terrible at first. Dragon’s Dogma tested my patience with its painfully repetitive dialogue and grueling lack of fast travel. Final Fantasy XIII had me cringing with its insipid characters, ridiculous terminology, and painfully linear dungeons. And now, Days Gone had me groaning with its cast of lame biker bros and morally awful quest-givers.
For the first five hours, I HATED Days Gone. Protagonist Deacon St. John was a constant source of mumbly, bizarrely-delivered dialogue. His motivations—a long-lost wife and a sick biker friend named Boozer, were barely addressed or developed. Meanwhile, all I had motivating me to continue was a series of jobs from a vaguely-white-nationalist asshole and a shameless slaver.
In the online discourse, those who played the game further said the plot really picked up after a while. It was the same story that drove me to complete Dragon’s Dogma and Final Fantasy XIII. “It takes <insert unreasonable number of hours> to get good.” “Some of the best moments happen towards the back half.” “The ending is nuts!”
Apparently those proclamations are like catnip to me, because in all three cases I stuck with the games, with largely the same result. Days Gone does get better. Once I met the game’s third faction, a camp of do-gooders led by pacifist Iron Mike, the game and its cast of characters started to find their soul. Deacon became slightly less of a disinterested wet blanket. Boozer started constructing full sentences. Suddenly, the drama of my quest-givers actually interested me, and Days Gone developed into a compelling morality play.
The heart of Days Gone comes from the clashing of these various factions and Deacon’s place within them. Can pure pacifism succeed in a world where cultists cut into their own flesh? Is the military might needed to save the world worth it when the people with the guns are rotten? Why are we still doing quests for these two idiots from the beginning of the game? Deacon moves from faction to faction as the story progresses, ultimately stumbling into the answer to a question he never asked: what is the kind of society I’d actually stay and fight for?
The game makes dozens of missteps along the path to finally hinting at something meaningful. That includes several moments where Deacon contradicts himself or barks sadistic proclamations in the middle of every gun battle.
He has a code about not hurting unarmed women, but he still does and says a lot of questionable things along the way that go unexamined. That slaver woman from the beginning? She just keeps on slaving, and no one questions it.
But outside of being a morality play with murky morals, my biggest issues come from the story of Deacon and his wife, Sarah. Their relationship and her disappearance is told through brief flashbacks over the course of dozens of hours. Each flashback is a little nugget of character development sprinkled over hours and hours of repetitive missions.
Each time a new flashback started I thought back to those miserable initial hours, and how much better Days Gone would have been if it spent those hours going through the flashbacks linearly instead. When Deacon finally finds Sarah, in the third act of the game, he hasn’t seen her in years, but I was still getting to know her in flashbacks. I can’t help but wonder how much stronger that story would have been if you didn’t see her again for a long stretch of time, simulating the distance between them.
While the story of Iron Mike and his faction is one of the highlights, my favorite moment of Days Gone comes when Deacon finally finds Sarah. It’s not romantic. It’s not satisfying. It’s awkward and messy. It takes a long time for them to warm up to each other again, and it’s questionable if they ever will.
I call this Days Gone’s Final Fantasy XIII moment, even if that probably only makes sense to myself. In FFXIII, Sazh and Vanille, two of the game’s protagonists, end up at an amusement park. The momentary escapism has them considering abandoning friends, family, and the greater quest. For a little while they become deserters and cowards, and the shame from their moment of weakness almost destroys them. It’s a weird, emotional, poignant sequence in a game that’s largely unrelatable.
Both of these moments come after dozens of hours in each game. The stories largely devolve into good versus evil heroics and never really address those strange, melancholy, human moments again. They’re moments that a game like Nier Automata is brimming with, but can be so rare in most AAA games.
Were the brief moments of relatable humanity and compelling morality worth enduring Days Gone’s 50-60 hours of gameplay? Hell no. And they weren’t worth it in Final Fantasy XIII either. Regardless, I’ll likely never forget these brief sequences stuck within these two bloated, flawed video games.