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'Days Gone' video game director on rebranding zombies into 'freakers'

Screengrab from the video game "Days Gone," is shown in a handout. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Sony Interactive Entertainment MANDATORY CREDIT

TORONTO — From their humble beginnings as shambling, brain-eating monsters in shlocky horror films, zombies have shown a surprising amount of cultural staying power.

Movies, television shows, and video games found a lot of creative latitude over the decades in what might seem a limited concept, discovering new ways to feature zombies or variations of the mindless minions. John Garvin, creative director of game developer Bend Studios, believes his company’s new post-apocalyptic open-world title “Days Gone” will show there is still more to be mined from the venerable genre.

Set in the woods of Oregon after much of humanity is either killed off or infected by a massive epidemic, the world of “Days Gone” is not overrun by undead, but by living feral creatures known as “freakers.” While comparisons to previous genre hits like “The Last of Us” will be difficult to avoid, Garvin says playing through “Days Gone” will show the freakers can stand in a class of their own.

“I totally understand why we’re under the larger umbrella of zombie games, but what we’re really trying to do is create something brand new,” Garvin said in a recent interview. “I mean yes you start with this trope of ‘Hey it’s a virus that transforms people and decimates the world,’ but there’s still new things to be done with that idea, and hopefully we’re doing it.

“They (freakers) really are not zombies, they’re a new thing. Maybe in future games we’ll say ‘Freakers have been played out. Why did you do a game with freakers?'”

At first blush, the freakers seem to behave like a modern incarnation of the prototypical zombie. They appear to have a singular desire to hunt for food, and will swarm victims in large numbers to overpower them.

But as they are infected living humans, rather than undead reincarnations, freakers are also subject to human frailties. Rain can dampen their sense of hearing. The sun’s glare off snow can impair their sight.

They are seen roaming in greater numbers at night and tend to hibernate during the day. Players can use that knowledge strategically, choosing to explore the Oregon wilds in daylight to lessen the chances of an enemy encounter, or to attack a freaker nest at night, when more of the creatures will be out wandering around.

And the virus in “Days Gone” is not limited to humans. Along the way players will encounter infected wolves, capable of outrunning the protagonist’s motorbike and knocking him to the ground with a leaping attack, to freaker bears imbued with increased strength and aggressiveness.

As a narrative-driven game, however, “Days Gone” can’t rely solely on its new breed of monster. Considerable creative effort went into the creation of protagonist Deacon St. John, a former member of a motorcycle gang who became a drifter and bounty hunter after losing his wife during the early days of the epidemic. Veteran actor Sam Witwer delivers a slightly unhinged performance as the voice of St. John, who can often heard muttering to himself in frustrated snippets as he struggles to survive in the dangerous woods.

“We really wanted to give the sense that he only has his own ear most of the time,” Garvin said. “He spends a lot of time isolated. And I think if you were a drifter or mercenary or bounty hunter in this world, you would be alone a lot of the time.”

Along the way St. John encounters camps of human survivors, led by characters with their own agendas and takes on the world they now live in. One of the leaders St. John meets early on, the conspiracy theorist-spouting Mark Copeland, seems almost gleefully at ease in the new dystopia.

“He is kind of at home here because he predicted it,” Garvin said. “He’s the kind of guy who would totally relish the chance to have been proven right and then to use his own perspective to rebuild.

“Basically what we wanted to do is have every encampment embody a different philosophy.”

“Days Gone” comes out Friday exclusively on the PlayStation 4.


Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press