The Ground Beneath ‘Days Gone’
In the summer of 1855, a reader’s letter was published in the Oregon Statesman newspaper. Credited only to ‘a miner’, the letter warned of an incoming mass-slaughter of white people by the local Native American population, or ‘Red-Skins’, as they were described. In response, a volunteer militia of over three-thousand white men was formed in Willamette Valley and, with local government approval, subsequently drove dozens of indigenous men, women and children out of their homes and killed them.
It was later discovered the warning contained in the letter was false and the ‘miner’ was rumoured to be a government official.
This level of violence was nothing new for the American state of Oregon. Since the time of white settlement in the early 1800s, the Pacific Northwest region of the United States had seen the gradual destruction of its indigenous population through denial of native land rights, forced integration into white communities and a staggering amount of bloodshed. It is estimated that in one year alone, 80% of Oregon’s indigenous population were eliminated or driven out of the state. Whereas once over 50 officially recognised tribes lived within these borders, today there’s less than ten.
Oregon, like much of America and beyond, is built on Indigenous blood. A deep, undeniable foundation of murder on a scale that warps the mind. If history’s most notorious serial killers somehow teamed up, they still wouldn’t be able to achieve anything close to something of this magnitude. It has left an unhealable wound everywhere in this part of the world – on every tree, in every river, all through the blood-soaked grass of this vast, temperate wilderness.
This is the ground beneath Days Gone.
Throughout the forests, deserts and puddles of Bend Studios’ open-world post-apocalypse are collectible ‘historical markers’ – tourist signs filled with environmental backstory to give context to these beautiful vistas which are now littered with dead bodies and derelict cars. A majority of the markers tell tales of murder, shame and brutality which gave birth to modern Oregon. Chapters of a horrifying hidden story dotted about the landscape for the player to discover.
All of these markers are completely optional and it makes sense that someone like Deacon St. John wouldn’t stop to give a shit about any of them. He’s too busy killing ‘freakers’, the ravenous zombie-like creatures that blanket Oregon like a plague. They live in nests, attack in groups and sometimes move about in massive hordes.
Their overwhelming presence has shaped the world in Days Gone. It has forced a return to the basic necessities of survival and murder for every dirt-covered human that is crying themselves to sleep at night or basking in the freedom of their own frenzied violence. People huddle together in camps telling stories of horror whilst drying their clothes, cooking wolf meat and using freaker ears as currency. As the rain or snow falls on their beds, they fool themselves into thinking their days will get better. That things will return to what they remember as ‘normal’ some day. But this part of America wasn’t designed that way.
Chapters of a horrifying hidden story [are] dotted about the landscape for the player to discover.
In 1854, white settlers in Oregon burned out two villages belonging to the native Cheti tribe and as the occupants fled their homes, the settlers gunned them down. These two dozen men and women were murdered so a ferry service could be established in the area for white miners. No conviction was ever given against the settlers for the slaughter.
A year later, the Grande Ronde River Valley was the site of the slaughter of almost 60 women and children in an Indigenous village. The leader of the militia, Colonel Benjamin Shaw, went on to retirement with his family and spent years campaigning against the land rights of Native Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Numerous massacres made up the backbone of what has been called the ‘Rogue River Wars’ during this time throughout Oregon. But every battle throughout these ‘wars’ consisted of an angry armed militia on a mission to murder men, women and children. The general response around this time wasn’t outrage but rather a widespread acceptance that the Indigenous tribes were less than human. As one Oregon newspaper stated at the time, the local native population was seen to “have nothing in common with Humanity but the form; and God has sent us to destroy them”.
Deacon St John murders men, women and children. Well, to be specific, the only children existing in this ravaged wilderness are infected adolescent monsters. Grown adults are either enemies or responsibilities in Deacon’s life. People to either murder or do jobs for. He has acquaintances and old friends but in reality, he is painfully lonely. Talking to himself as he walks in the woods and angrily screaming at people he’s just killed with the adrenaline of a madman. He is both grieving and furious.
His only true friend is his motorcycle and as the game progresses, the relationship between man and machine emerges as a legitimately rewarding bond. The bike is a supply hub, save point and getaway vehicle. It needs constant maintenance and the assorted camp mechanics offer paint jobs for aesthetic flair which serves as the only possible spark of happiness Deacon has in his grey existence. I currently have a mermaid painted on my bike’s gas tank and I absolutely love it.
Deacon lives on a knife’s edge of perpetual frenzy and exhausted obligation. He rises each morning from whatever desperate hole he’s chosen to sleep in and grumbles to himself encouraging words like “Okay let’s go, back at it”. After 700+ days in this hopeless new world, his life resembles that of an overworked single parent – forever spinning plates in the hope that the small civilizations he regularly helps don’t fall into same insanity that has befallen the rest of Oregon. All the while holding on to an empty, directionless dream of greener pastures and trying not to have a nervous breakdown.
Deacon lives on a knife’s edge of perpetual frenzy and exhausted obligation.
This is where the minutiae of Days Gone becomes apparent and, surprisingly, slowly effective. The day-to-day activities of fuelling and repairing your motorcycle, gathering antibiotics, searching abandoned police cars and clearing freaker nests creates a quietly comfortable cycle of a twisted, post-apocalypse career.
Deacon’s solitary exploration in this horrible line of work lies at the heart of this game. Everyone will experience this journey differently but personally, I found that the more time I spent inspecting gutted petrol stations and abandoned bedrooms, the more gratifying Days Gone became. Not necessarily because I found more scrap for my baseball-bat-with-nails-in-it, but just that my comfort levels rose with each passing in-game day by simply walking through a forest or taking photos of lakes. Early on, it was clear that finding peace in the grim landscape was to be a crucial factor.
I sat hidden within a collection of bushes as I watched a rabid mountain bear run through a marauder camp to kill everyone and then come after me. I crouched near my bike to admire a sunset while at the same time, calculating if the freaker horde occupying that train carriage is too risky to ride past. I was shocked by the sudden falling of snow while out on an abandoned street and not realising my footprints told the world where I was headed. All of these quiet moments were tightly wrapped in the crisp audio design of oncoming rainstorms, windy caves and howling wolves. It’s an environment designed for you to want to sit, breathe and survey the horizon but sooner or later, that choice becomes dangerous.
This colossal, ruined environment is Deacon’s workplace and it is a fascinating monument to this particular flavour of catastrophe. Making your way through the mud, blood and shit of Days Gone is both beautiful and bleak. It’s a poetically miserable landscape which contains matter-of-fact levels of brutality met with jaw-dropping panoramas. The more time taken to explore this wilderness, the more it seems like it is somehow correct for this place to be the last gasp of what we’ve come to know as ‘civilisation’. The moment-to-moment responsibility of what Deacon’s life has become is one of the two glues which binds Days Gone together. The other is Oregon’s violence.
Before the collapse, Deacon was part of the Mongrels motorcycle club. He still wears their colours and despite recent events, considers himself a lifetime member. The only other current Mongrel is Boozer who spends the majority of the game severely injured and spiralling into madness. Their membership as Mongrels has been made irrelevant by the destruction of modern life but they both maintain their ‘ride-or-die’ attitude at heart.
The most notable biker group in Oregon since the 1960s are the Gypsy Joker Outlaw Motorcycle Club, from which Days Gone’s nearly-depleted Mongrels take some inspiration. Much like the Gypsy Jokers, Deacon still wears his 1% patch on his vest, denoting his status as an outlaw rather than a 99% law-abiding biker. With chapters all over the world, the GJOMC also share Deacon’s talent for savagery.
In a flashback, a character close to Deacon states that she’s barely seen a person of colour since arriving in the region and in reality, she’s not wrong.
In January 2019, a group of Gypsy Jokers were charged with kidnapping and murder of a former club member who was found with teeth missing, a large ‘X’ carved in his body and nails through his feet. Regarded as a ‘criminal organization that has sowed violence and intimidation throughout the Pacific Northwest’ by the US Attorney’s office, the Gypsy Jokers seem inherent to the history of Oregon as the bears in the woods and the rain on the horizon.
The Gypsy Jokers also have heavy ties to white supremacism. In a flashback, a character close to Deacon states that she’s barely seen a person of colour since arriving in the region and in reality, she’s not wrong. According to the 2018 census, almost 90% of Oregon is white while the Native American population sits at 1.8%. Deacon makes a note of assuring her that the Mongrels aren’t skinheads like their known rivals. If there’s a distinct difference between the real-life Gypsy Jokers and fictional Mongrels, this is it.
On the surface, Deacon comes across like a decent man but through his actions, abilities and outlaw history, you get the distinct feeling that being knee-deep in blood is not exactly outside of his comfort zone. Most of his history with the Mongrels is barely mentioned but it’s made clear that he has done things. During the course of the story, the only emotions he displays which aren’t frustration and anger are in flashbacks – in a previous life that was ripped away from him. This respite from the horror of the infested environment is always brief and fleeting, as he consistently resigns himself to his only true form – a purveyor of violence.
It makes bizarrely perfect sense in this particular setting that a grieving angry loner from an almost-extinct biker gang stands at the end of the world. Defending the scraps of his existence from certain death all the while fooling himself into thinking that everyone around him isn’t doomed. There’s no humanity left anywhere in this used-band-aid of a world and it will be that way for a long time to come.
Every in-game day succeeds in its gruesome portrayal of human beings trying to survive despite themselves. Throughout its several branching storylines, there’s a palpable sense that, while the missions, side-quests, collectibles and discoveries are enjoyable, every action is largely pointless as everyone in this post-script of society is just circling the drain. And somehow, that dread also holds value as it feels like there is a larger game at play here.
That’s because the most important character of Days Gone is Oregon itself. The overwhelming certainty that this region of the United States will survive this latest era of foolish bloodshed is felt everywhere throughout the game.
This region’s cruel history and Deacon’s senseless journey come together like the prologue and afterword for a part of America that will outlive all of its violent settlers.
What is sold as humanity’s downfall, is actually closer to a return to the birth of modern-day Oregon. It feels appropriate that these events should be happening on these muddy roads instead of inside another story of crumbled skyscrapers and desolate cities. There is a strange rural beauty that sits between the in-your-face brutality of a machete in a freaker’s throat and the gorgeous snow on the distant mountains. The apocalypse belongs here.
From a distance, Days Gone is an open-world zombie game. It has missions, skill-trees and sections of the map which unlock the further your progress. It is built on a familiar framework but underneath it all sits both a blood-boiling reality and a comfortable existence. Bend Studios have created a sense of beautiful inevitability in their vision of Oregon. This region’s cruel history and Deacon’s senseless journey come together like the prologue and afterword for a part of America that will outlive all of its violent settlers.
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect ending.
David Rayfield writes good things in good places like Gamespot, Kotaku, Medium and…elsewhere. Tweet him at @raygunbrown