Crumbling Infrastructure Is The Real Monster – A Review of “Days Gone” (2019)

It’s hard to review Days Gone without somewhat of a bias.

After all, the entire experience is based in Central Oregon, where I’ve spent the last several years of my life. In fact, Bend Studio is right down the road from me, and I was neighbors with one of the employees who was, ostensibly, working on the game before he moved. Going into it, I knew I’d be rooting for the maligned PlayStation exclusive, and I questioned whether or not I should even review it because of that.

However, I’m slowly starting to realize that it’s precisely because I live here that I’m perfect to say a few words on it. Because for all of its familiar open world trappings, the musings of whether or not humans are the real monsters in a zombie apocalypse, and the worn anti-hero trope that makes up protagonist Deacon St. John’s DNA, there’s something a bit more profound lurking beneath the surface of Days Gone‘s lengthy narrative.

It’s a fear of tourism.

More precisely, it’s a fear that outsiders are congesting a once-beautiful piece of land, and are gradually eroding its culture, identity, and community. In Bend, which the game’s Farewell is based off of, there’s a popular bumper sticker which reads, “Bend Sucks, Don’t Move Here.” On top of that, it’s common behavior to badmouth anybody with a California license plate, and the local government is staunchly resistant to building any kind of affordable housing, or even expanding the city limits. The population is ballooning with people enticed by the beautiful scenery and the seemingly low-key lifestyle here, but the government is doing nothing about it, to the point where Bend is becoming less and less pleasant to live in by the day.

Of course, I don’t really expect most other critics to get this aspect of the game. Indeed, all of the musings made by practically every character in the game about clogged highways, and all the parallels to summer vacationers and zombies, probably just seems like filler dialogue to most. You know – the kind of stuff that makes up 99% of every Ubisoft game’s threadbare plots. However, as a transplant to Bend, I can vouch for the fact that the game is a thinly-veiled critique of both tourism culture and of society’s lack of preparedness when it comes to maintaining infrastructure and providing shelter. Furthermore, it’s an interesting examination of what happens when “us versus them” mentalities take hold of a small populace, and the kind of violence that can beget. In the game’s four or five major factions, I can see parallels to every type of Bend citizen, and it’s almost painful how accurate it is.

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But before we get into that – what’s Days Gone about, anyway? Initially, the game follows the widowed Deacon St. John and his pal, Boozer, aka “Boozeman.” Both men are remnants of the Mongrels, a biker gang that hung around Farewell, and have continued to embody the free-wheeling spirit of that gang well after a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the planet. We join the men, however, when they realize that living together in an old watch tower isn’t sustainable. If they’re to live, they need to reach out for help, and unfortunately for them none of their options are very enticing. An Alex Jones adjacent militia leader, a “both sides” cowboy in flannel, and a literal slave trader… nobody seems like a great fit. However, as the game progresses, they discover that Mr. Centrist himself, known as Iron Mike, is probably their safest bet for a comfortable existence. But their problems don’t end when they find their way into Mike’s camp. They still have to contend with a group of low-rent War Boys known as the Rippers, and eventually, an armed militia led by a man who believes he’s going to bring about the second biblical flooding of earth. And what about Deacon’s wife, who may or may not be dead? Will Deacon find her, and if he does, will she even be the woman he remembers?

If you’re currently playing the game and the last quarter of that paragraph doesn’t sound familiar, that’s understandable – Days Gone is a fucking long game, arguably too long. Thirty hours in, the game was still introducing new mechanics, and if you’re thinking, “jeez, how many ways to kill zombies can there possibly be,” let me tell you – more than you’d think. Plot twist after plot twist unravels, parts of the map open up and close off based on the plot, and side missions begin to clog up your menu. While it never reaches the critical mass of last year’s bloated and soulless Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, or 2017’s exhausting Horizon: Zero Dawn, it still is a game that feels desperate to milk players for every spare second they have to give. By the time the third or fourth major antagonist is introduced, you start to feel as if the whole thing might’ve benefited from some strategic cuts.

That being said, the narrative itself is pretty dang good, and definitely where the game shines brightest. Deacon is given profound and interesting character development throughout the game’s runtime, and his worldviews are challenged at almost every point. He’s a man with trauma and emotional baggage, who’s terrible with people but has no choice but to deal with them. He consistently walks the line between “angry, bitter loner” and “begrudging hero” without ever falling victim to the insufferable centrism found in Rockstar’s protagonists. Furthermore, the writers go out of their way to make the world feel unique when held up against other zombie apocalypses, something they accomplish by doing a real deep dive into the biology of the “Freakers” and establishing some fascinating lore that pertains to how the zombies took over. There’s a distinct plausibility to everything that happens here, and I’d say it’s spiritually akin to things like 28 Days Later and the original World War Z novel. An interesting protagonist grounds this world-building, along with a diverse cast of eclectic and memorable characters, and results in something that validates its own existence in the face of 1,349,872 other pieces of zombie media.

The same could kinda, sorta be said for its mechanics. See, while Days Gone is ostensibly a zombie game, you… don’t really spend all that much time killing zombies? They’re kind of just part of the environment, and for the most part you ignore them. Most of the time, you’ll be killing other humans. Rogue “Marauders,” “Anarchists,” Rippers, militia members, et cetera. Eventually, you’ll get to the actual zombie killing, which manifests itself in the horde mechanics seen in the E3 trailers. Only you’ll ever have to actually do two of these, as the rest are just optional side content, and you only get access to them near the end of the entire game. Yes, the sole marketing point of this game aside from “yay, motorcycles!” is basically just a glorified side mission type, which speaks to a developer confused as to what they actually want to make.

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Luckily, regardless of what you’re killing, the stealth and shooting mechanics are pretty solid. There’s a real weight to every shot you fire, and a genuine desperation you feel as you’re trying to use shitty, broken-down weapons to fend off better-prepared foes. Sneaking behind people and giving the ol’ stabaroo also feels pretty satisfying, if a little rote due to it being a contextual action. Riding around on your shitty motorcycle keeps that vibe going, as you’ll constantly have to repair and refill the damn thing until you get some upgrades for it. There’s a real scrappiness to everything in Days Gone, and Bend Studio should be commended for making every action feel like a struggle in the face of overwhelming odds.

What’s not as commendable is how, about three-quarters of the way through the whole shebang, the seams of the game begin to burst. Mission types start to repeat. Dialogue is recycled. The game becomes more prone to serious technical failure, such as crashes and game-breaking bugs that halt progression. There’s also the fact that the game’s twisty, long, complicated narrative starts to collapse under its own weight, meaning that whatever salient points it makes early on start to fade away as you become increasingly aware that, oh, fuck, there’s like ten hours of this fucking thing left, what the hell?! What can they possibly do!? While I do think the overall story is a good one, and one worth telling, there’s something to be said for knowing when to wrap something up instead of dragging it out for umpteen more story arcs. It feels like the writers loved every idea they had, and had nobody to tell them, “hey, just save that for the sequel, this thing’s like thirty hours long already!”

Have I deliberately replicated this in my review to give you a good sense of what it feels like? Maybe, maybe not. You decide.

For its faults, however, I mostly like Days Gone due mostly to how much I respect its basic thesis. That thesis is that there’s a massive problem in the developers’ hometown, a problem that lies in both the tourist culture the town promotes and the local government’s inability to support that culture. Bend Studio seems to be arguing that the more people swarm to Bend, the worse off the town gets because of bureaucracy and unwillingness to change. Because of that, the roads start to crumble, the housing prices skyrocket, the scenic landscapes become more polluted. On top of that, with more people come more unique problems, and a growing sense of myopic, fearful tribalism. In Days Gone, I see Bend’s wealthy white liberals, its gun-toting Trump voters, its millennials, bikers, outdoorsmen, and everyone else reflected in its characters – all with just as much animosity towards each other as they have in real life.

Days Gone seems to suggest that, if the end times should ever hit this town and our crumbling infrastructure finally buckles, these groups will not come together but rather pit themselves against each other even more. Struggling for every last resource until the bitter end. Letting old grudges drive them further apart, instead of banding together and trying to survive the brave new world they’re faced with. It’s a harrowing and frankly depressing sentiment, but one that I admittedly am liable to agree with.

Maybe I ought to move, huh?

Score: 7

Random Musings:

  • It’s worth noting that I played this on a PS4 Pro. Apparently, on base models, the technical issues are markedly worse. I experienced numerous frame rate drops and short lock-ups, which have kinda sorta not really improved after eight patches. Buyer beware.
  • That said, Days Gone is a visually astonishing game. Weird though this may be, it made me appreciate the mountains, rivers, and forests I get to see every day.
  • The voice acting in this game is top-notch – probably the best in a video game this year, if I’m being entirely honest.
  • This game’s more racially diverse than Central Oregon actually is lol
  • Something cool is the game’s casual and well-written approach to a certain character’s bisexuality. This character is very well-developed, and I dug their presence throughout my time with the game.
  • Some of you may follow me on Twitter, and might recall that I listed this game pretty high on my “Best of 2019 So Far” list – which may be surprising, considering the score. This would be an excellent time for you to revisit my scoring rubric, and understand that to me, a “seven” means “two steps above average” – which is pretty damn good!
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2 thoughts on “Crumbling Infrastructure Is The Real Monster – A Review of “Days Gone” (2019)

  1. This is a great review! It’s not often that I run across other bloggers who looks at cultural messages in video games in the same way that I do. Your ethnographic take on it as a previous citizen of Bend is fascinating.

    I love the ability of video games as a medium to portal societal messages in ways that film and print cannot. Humans tend to be fearful of the new, the unknown, the outsiders. This game seems to reflect that accurately along with specific messages about the dev’s town. Tourism influx can really upset the balance of an area for sure.

    Thanks for the write up!

    Like

    1. I really appreciate the kind words, Angie! It’s hard for me to not run my mouth when writing about a games, so I appreciate that you’re into it. Thanks so much for the read!

      And yes, 100%. Games are such a great way “experience” things in a way that you just can’t when you’re passively engaging with them. It’s one of their greatest strengths as a medium!

      Liked by 1 person

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