Revisiting Days Gone After Five More Years of American Decline

“Do You Know Why We Keep Going?”

Games Features Days Gone
Revisiting Days Gone After Five More Years of American Decline

The Deschutes National Forest is home to the Lava River Cave, the longest lava tube in Oregon. It was discovered by Leander Dillman on an 1889 hunting trip, but flakes of obsidian found in the 5,211 foot cave system suggest indigenous populaces made use of them far earlier. Considering the Mount Butte eruption that formed the cave system happened over 20,000 years ago, it’s safe to assume centuries of use were eroded and trodden upon by colonizers.

In Days Gone, tubes inspired by both this and other regional cave systems are a central crux point for the rise of Freakers—American citizens who have fallen victim to a homegrown bio-weapon. These civilians attack infected and non-infected alike, in a wanton blitzkrieg on public infrastructure. As the world collapses, Central Oregon is faced with a very specific regional threat. Cave systems are swarmed by hordes of Freakers who can occupy caverns and use them to attack in perpetuity. What few humans have survived exist in secluded enclaves, in constant fear of being outnumbered and overtaken amid the mountainous coastal splendor.

The Freaker menace exists ancillary to the main antagonists of Days Gone. They mostly lurk among trees and crowd around key outposts. In fact, the much-marketed horde sequences are few and far between compared to the real threat: other humans. Infrastructure collapse has segmented hyper-partisan collectives into militaristic factions. Our perspective character, ill-tempered biker Deacon, has no interest in allying himself with any of them, but does odd jobs for the groups that provide resources. But after the player familiarizes themselves with each militia, it becomes clear that Deacon will have to make a hard choice at some point—or risk being beholden to homespun traffickers, right-wing conspiracy theorists, and dangerous cults of personality.

Extermination rhetoric is at the heart of Oregon’s history. Founded as a “white utopia” to escape the Civil War—it passed a black exclusion lash law in 1844—the state still harbors resting tension between exclusion and integration. Whites make up over 85% of the state; the black population is a distressing sub-3%. Before European colonization, Oregon was comprised of over 60 native tribes that—between them—spoke 18 different languages. What colonizers took for untamed wilderness was, in fact, a carefully maintained ecosystem tended over millennia. Disease and outright slaughter was employed to make way for the “white utopia.”

“They tasted land and there was resources almost unbound, and Indian people were just in the way,” Warm Springs government affairs director Louis Pitt Jr told OPB 2017.

In the 1830s through 1840s, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman killed over 200 Cayuse in their care with measles and poisoned meat. In 1847, Cayuse men Tomahas, Kiamasumpkin, Iaiachalakis, and Klokomas—led by chief Tiloukaikt—mounted an attack on the Whitman estate in retaliation, killing both the husband and wife along with 11 others. They held 49 captives for ransom over the course of a month; however, over 500 volunteer soldiers chased, captured, and murdered the Cayuse into surrender.

Five men were demanded for the Whitman massacre. Those men, referred to as the Cayuse Five, were tried and convicted for the murders. This case was instrumental in the foundation of the Oregon Territory, as Congress officially recognized and offered support to white settlers in 1848. The Cayuse Five were hung in 1850.

“Much like your savior Jesus Christ gave himself for you,” Tomahas reportedly said before his execution, “we are giving ourselves up for our people in order to stop the Cayuse War.”

In 2024, there are nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. One of those is the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which itself is comprised of four Tenino sub-tribes, two Wasco bands, and the Northern Paiutes. The Warm Springs Reservation is a 1,019 square mile stretch of land to the east of Portland and Eugene.

In Days Gone, an analog for this reservation—called Hot Springs—falls to the hordes and is occupied by former prison warden, Tucker. Tucker turns to work camps and slave labor to keep her people in line; she does so through violence, intimidation, and denial of resources. At first blush, she seems amicable and even charitable. But soon, players understand that this is part of her power—luring in the vulnerable and trapping them for personal gain.

When society collapses for colonizers, the first safeguards to go are those set in place for protected indigenous nations. We’ve seen it with the long, hard-fought protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which directly threatens access to water from the Missouri River. Our perverse culture demands more crude at the expense of those who oil lobbyists deem as “lesser.” Days Gone shows this in microcosm; a former whip of the state has no qualms about setting up shop atop desecrated remains. It’s no coincidence that this is the character who trades in flesh, blood, and labor.

In an early mission, isolationist prepper Copeland opines to the player that his encampment’s lake is going dry and may soon run out entirely.

“Just like everything else,” Deacon replies.

As Deacon rides the hollowed remains of Central Oregon, he stares down the tension of human survival at odds with nature’s inevitable progress. Townships and suburban sprawl are picked clean by humans, then overrun by pines, vines, and roots. Hundreds of stripped, emptied vehicles litter the game, left to be claimed by dune grass and wildlife alike. A nation defined by destroying nations and paving over them now is claimed by its ultimate master—the Earth herself, tired of our violence and our excuses. The overgrown parkways and distant snow-capped peaks of Days Gone are idyllic but littered with mechanical detritus, a contrast to European expansionist aesthetics. This is not a place for Deacon to claim—it is an ecosystem he must survive within.

Farewell, Oregon—where Deacon lives before the fall—is taken by Freakers in the earliest days of the infection. Farewell is named for “Farewell, Bend,” the original name of what is now Bend, Oregon. Key flashbacks take place near the Old Mill Shopping District, a posh retail-residential space built on either side of the Towarnehiooks. The reconverted mill is identified by its three defunct smokestacks. This is where Bend Studio is located, tucked behind a gated complex overlooking the rest of the white collar riff raff. The district is also home to the Hayden Homes Amphitheater, frequented by a rotating stable of legacy acts, and the town’s annual Beerfest.

I lived on Quail Pine Loop, just a few miles uphill from Old Mill, between 2016 and 2019. Forest fires fumes are still etched into my nasal cavities. Each summer was worse, with less and less time to spend outside among the trees. More tourists flooded the river each year; more reactionaries with money to burn moved in next door. Roundabouts flooded with California license plates and resentful locals with “Bend Sucks… Don’t Move Here!” stickers. A town built around one stretch of highway can only contain so many people desperate to see The Last Blockbuster.

Bend’s own real-life infrastructure issues are echoed by the ruinous collapse witnessed by Deacon. Between 1990 and 2020, the 33.27 square mile city’s population grew from 20,000 to just under 100k. That’s around a 400% increase in just three decades.

The city and its surrounding areas are home to over 30 breweries. Predictably, alcoholism is a problem in Bend. In 2023, the Bend Parks and Recreation Department reported an uptick in both public drinking and drinking among minors. In 2016, it ranked high on alcoholism in a national poll. In 2012, actor Matthew Fox was busted with a DUI and issued an apology to the whole town. Drinking is baked into the social fabric of Bend, which also known for its pedal pubs and ski lodges. Characters’ drinking issues in Days Gone feels lived and suffered.

Public concern for lack of sustainable living options and dwindling resources has led to larger plans for expansion and infrastructure improvements. Yet one must ask: what, exactly, is the utility purpose of cramming thousands of people together under 50 square miles in a ski resort town? And what, further, entitles the city’s government to claim more land simply because they’ve mismanaged the plots they’ve already stolen? How does white people having more space to drink benefit society?

The Freakers in Days Gone are best understood as retribution. They are the refuse of our culture, born of a fetishistic desire to end life in more efficient ways. Beneath the cannibal rage lies an innate terror born of our own colonizer’s anxiety. Our current social order and way of life being threatened is a fear that guides so many contemporary anxieties, and it’s a fear that anchors this game. We fear what we did to be here being done to us, and mythologize the struggle to sleep easier at night. But nothing can keep us safe from one another—products of acceleration and bloodshed.

Do you know why we keep going?” Deacon asks his lifelong friend and biker gang brother Boozer. “Because what the hell else are we gonna do?”

This ethos is at the heart of how Days Gone reconciles its fraught and uneasy subject matter with mass market storytelling. Further, it’s an attitude that helps to soothe the inherent guilt and queasiness players are sure to feel by this point. Both contemporary reviews and Reddit posts point to widespread discomfort at playing further after the game forced them to kill children—a no-no for certain folks. It gamifies a deplorable act and necessitates it to progress. Further, Deacon takes actual delight in killing the “Newts” until being reunited with his wife, who is horrified at the detached violence her husband is now capable of.

However, this ludic element drives home the resting level of guilt Days Gone operates on. The developers want the player to feel participant in something ugly. Because what the story tries to communicate—above all else—is that we are all complicit. Our own way of life is inevitable mass suicide and murder all at once, infanticide on a level that would make any right-wing politician’s head spin if they cared about non-white babies. When a white centrist Central Oregonian biker takes appraisal of the blood on his ancestors’ hands—on his hands—he’s left with little to do but drink, kill, and hope that any of it makes sense one day.

Days Gone is about life lived, not lives idealized. It’s not a power fantasy—not even for Deacon.

This is reflected in the mechanics. Everything breaks. Ammo is sparse. Deacon’s bike can get clawed to bits or shot to pieces mid-ride. Gasoline is a finite resource, and always needs to be found so it can be replenished. It’s also used for powering generators and clearing out Freaker nests, which forces players to choose how they use it. It’s similar to Avalanche’s Mad Max, but less tedious and more meditative. Bike mechanic Manny cites Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair in a conversation with Deacon, which hints at a point of influence on the game’s design.

Players are encouraged to find safe enclaves to rest, repair, and refuel. They’re meant to learn not to hammer the accelerator every second; to learn how their bike feels coasting down a hill, absorbing each bounce in its rickety suspension. Learning the land and how to navigate it is part of Deacon’s journey, which makes it feel less exploitative than many of its open-world peers. Through learning the mechanics, the player is taken through the same process of adaptation and survival as Deacon. It’s the quintessential promise of a survival horror game—getting by versus truly “beating” anything.

Days Gone itself, however, will likely not survive among PlayStation’s portfolio. According to Jeff Ross, the departure of Shawn Layden—a huge proponent for the game—stifled any chance at a continuation. A sequel was pitched to Sony, but rejected. Internally, the game was held over the studio as a failure; it sold an estimated 5.8 million copies as of 2022. Bend Studio is still active as of 2024, but creative director John Garvin and open world designer Eric Jensen are no longer with the company. Garvin has attracted controversy for his assessment that subscription services and secondhand markets affect the bottom line profits of triple-A games. He was fired for his “disruptive personality,” and has blamed “woke reviewers” for the game’s middling reception.

While his phrasing is inelegant, there is a truth to Garvin’s comments. The gaming marketplace was too saturated for enough people to take a risk on a new $60 zombie game centered on a gruff white biker. Yet those that did were treated to a lived and true treatise on the grim reality of urban decay in Central Oregon. A game with complex depictions of addiction, queerness, and disability that could only come out of a town like Bend. Days Gone proffers no answers, but its honest dread is refreshing and memorable. Five years on, the game is a meditative and cathartic journey through post-pandemic grief that makes more sense now than perhaps it did in 2019.

I left Bend for personal reasons in 2019, including its effect on my own struggle with alcoholism. After a few months in Atlanta, I found myself at odds with the city that raised me, and flew back to the Pacific Northwest to be with my current partner in January 2020. I visited Bend in 2021 and tried to find my old drinking spot—Level 2 Bar in Old Mill. The bar is actually recreated on the Days Gone map as a burnt-out, standalone building; one can only assume it was a favorite drinking spot of the developers. It was the first place I went out in make-up before my transition and felt safe. Now it’s a tiki bar in a town that feels hostile to queer folks after sunset. I won’t be going back any time soon.

I live just outside of Portland now, which—according to some—is a warzone burning to the ground run by trans fentanyl addicts. It was a hip mecca just five or six years ago; now, the Pacific Northwest is a punchline. Conservative hitjob narratives can be adopted on a larger uni-partisan level, as it turns out. Sometimes, I wonder if the issues of the region—stifling whiteness, conservative encampments on the periphery, the Unipiper—will drive me somewhere else.

America as we understand it is collapsing. No city is exempt. Capitalist expansion and fascist acceleration have come home to roost in each and every one. Eventually, you have to pick a place, hold your ground, and keep the people you love close. You’ll watch friends drink and turn guns on themselves. Watch adults torture children for expressing themselves. Watch those children grow up with no direction or fighting chance. Yet those people—your people—will make it worth staying alive for. Worth being sober and living your truth for.

Days Gone embodies the lived reality of late capitalist America—devoid of any true noble sides, with only clear moral rights and wrongs to guide us. An escalating conflict with no clear end, a steady march to our own demise, a somber snare to the beat of climate extinction and AI-assisted state killings. Ironically, Patrick Klepek put it best in the byline for his largely negative review at the late Waypoint, a site that—too—has been subsumed by cultural collapse.

“Days Gone Is An Ugly, Miserable Experience,” the header read.

I call it art, imitating life.

Madeline Blondeau is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest, and lived in Bend between 2014 to 2019. She’s written for Paste, Anime New Network, Anime Feminist, Anime Herald, and Coming Soon. Her writing has appeared in A Handheld History and Lock-On. You can support her work and read further writing on anime, film, and culture at at her Substack or her blog.

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