Sunday 2 June 2019

Everyday Survivalism in Days Gone

What happens when the living dead prove more culturally virulent than an outbreak of zombie flu? You get a long-running TV franchise, many an imitator, films and, of course, video games. And so it came to pass that Sony's latest flagship release for the PlayStation 4, Days Gone is an open world zombie survival affair. You just can't get away from the damn things.

For the uninitiated, Days Gone casts you as Deacon St John, a drifter and former biker eking a living out of the virus-blasted backwoods of Oregon with his partner-in-crime, Boozer. The game is set two years after disease swept the world killing billions of people, including almost all children, and turning a good chunk of the survivors into Freaks - mindless and hyper-aggressive, um, zombies. They are alive, but like the infected from 28 Days Later have no vestiges of humanity left. What passes for remaining civilisation huddles around fortified encampments and hoping the huge hoards Freaks tend to congregate in pass their communities by. Yep, it sounds like virtually every other zombie apocalypse scenario.

There are a few innovations Days Gone brings to the table. The game, which obviously has a great deal of attention lavished upon it, is one of the best-looking titles you're ever likely to play. The wooded vistas and mountain passes, the dynamic weather, the fact wild animals and Freaks appear to have existences of their own (Freaks do follow certain behavioural routines if you watch them without being detected). If you fancy yourself the apocalypse's answer to David Attenborough, knock yourself out. Also, as you scoot about the countryside on your bike you have to make sure you take care of it. Like your nag in Red Dead Redemption II, the bike has to be kept fed and groomed, but luckily there's plenty of petrol and scrap metal scattered about to achieve this. Practically every truck wreck, untold dozens of which lie abandoned, has some gas. But easily the most exciting part of the game is taking on the hordes of Freaks. We're not talking 15 or 20 of them, but dozens upon dozens.

Okay, game mechanic-wise, none in and of themselves break new ground. The creation of an immersive environment has been around since the first primitive text adventures, of developing an ethic of care toward a digital entity as well worn as the tamagotchi, and the threat of getting swamped goes back to your Robotrons, Gauntlets, and Smash TVs. Why then Days Gone's appeal? Why does this sort of thing appear attractive and gets the punters buying it?

In her 2013 book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Jennifer Silva argues that capitalist society is harsh and unsparing. Interviewing groups of young workers, she finds an embedded sense of self-reliance and a rejection of dependence on social groups and institutions. Hardship isn't something to complain about or seek help to deal with, but are trials to overcome. Success then isn't necessarily conceived in the usual trappings of fame or wealth, but survival. This ability to cope, this resilience is a source of pride and self-worth. Here, only individual effort is morally significant and from this flows a scepticism toward collectivism and solidarity, because resting upon them infringes one's moral value. This suggests fantasies of the Days Gone type hook into an already-existing experiencing of the world, and reproduces in-game key touchstones of a particular form of neoliberal subjectivity; what you might call everyday survivalism.

Deacon as a biker is, like so many video game characters, the acme of declassed but petit bourgeois individualism. He comes and goes as he pleases, lives off the wreckage of civilisation, and makes his money scavenging or turning in bounties (ear "clippings" of dead freaks and deceased outlaws). Yes, the persistence of cash proves the old adage that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And this is very much a masculine individuality. Deacon's backstory contains a tour of Afghanistan and then years in the rough and tumble of the west coast biker scene/underworld. He dishes out violence aplenty, albeit without the amorality of something like the GTA series, and there's the usual, gruff mano-o-mano confrontations with other notable male protagonists. Why can't blokes in (American) video game land get along without wafting their willies about like most men manage to do in everyday life?

As such, much of the game is taken up by Deacon doing fetch quests and other jobs for a number of camps. Rescuing someone here, clearing out a camp of marauders there, the odd assassination, collection of polystyrene cups (yes, really), and whatever else folk do after the collapse of civilisation is the meat and gravy of the game. Life is brutal and nasty, and you've got to look to your own resources, ingenuity and skill to get on. So far, so survivalist. Underlining it further is the common trope of the zombie genre. It's never really the walking dead, the infected, or the Freaks that are the real danger. Hell is, well, other people. The pockets of civilisation left aren't exactly shining beacons of human solidarity in a hostile new world. One camp practices slavery, another is run by a conspiranoid don't-tread-on-me-style wingnut, and the best is the one you end up spending most of the game affiliated with, run by a patriarchal but dismally unambitious former biker from back in Deacon's day. What can be more terrifying than stagnation?

Trouble comes from two communities in particular. The first are the Rippers, a psychotic cult who shave their heads and self-mutilate to look like the Freaks. They envy their lack of reason and all that is human, and often catch unwary travellers to feed to passing hordes. Charming. And yes, they're irredeemably violent and just so happen to have placed a price on you and Boozer's heads. As you can imagine, it all comes to a violent conclusion eventually. The second is Deschutes County Militia, a militaristic community under the iron rule of Colonel Garrett. Their purpose seems benign - take the fight to the Freaks by developing weapons to wipe them out, as well as collecting journals and books to assist rebuilding in the future. But after too many twists and turns, Garrett goes off the deep end and determines the biggest threat to recovery are ... all other human communities. More violence and explosions.

In all cases, while Deacon is dependent on communities for supplies and upgrades to his bike, the relationship is strictly transactional. Except when they become a problem to overcome, as per other zombie media. It is humans with their cruelties and petty jealousies, outside a chosen few, who present and represent threat. You know where you stand with a Freak, but the twitchy guard and the green kid with something to prove? Communities, collectives are your biggest obstacles.

The ballad of Deacon St John is the sound track to 21st century life. The reason why zombie games are popular, why surviving the end of all things appeals is because, as preposterous as it sounds, such games are relatable. The experience of actual disasters and adversity, which are more exercises in human cooperation and compassion than the law of the jungle, are immediately coded here as suspect, illegitimate, and the bearers of the same old crap. To sell the genre, zombie endism is squeezed through the sausage machine, and what comes out are near identical links of misanthropy. And it in turn feeds back into the survivalist mentality, preparing more ground for further cultural product of this character and buttressing the cognitive supports of a world that cares not. As with all good science fiction, Days Gone is less a vision of the future and more a reflection of our present.

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