FEMA, Militias and Motorcycle Gangs: Days Gone's Apocalyptic Politics

We talk to Days Gone's creative director about the politics of Sony's new zombie survival sim.

Days Gone isn't shy about its politics. Where other publishers have run screaming from any kind of overt political message, Days Gone is taking the opposite approach. Unlike most other project leads, creative director John Garvin is happy to talk about the politics of its apocalypse.

"There are a multitude of viewpoints in Days Gone. You've only had a chance to experience two of them," he says. He points to Copeland, a Days Gone NPC who runs one of post-apocalyptic Oregon's many settlements, and who talks frequently about what the U.S. Constitution means to him (a lot). "Certainly Copeland with his truther theories, and if you're playing the game, you might hear one of his Radio Free Oregon broadcasts. Copeland espouses this kind of libertarian viewpoint that's anti-government, as well as conspiracy theories and whatnot."

In Garvin's opinion, characters like Copeland would flourish in a post-apocalyptic environment. After all, Garvin has had the chance to see some of these elements up close for himself. His mother was one of the founding members of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, he says. The group that created the catchphrase, "You may pry this weapon from my cold, dead hands."

He says he doesn't subscribe to that group's outlook, but that he wants to be truthful to what he thinks Oregon would be like in the event of a zombie apocalypse. "[The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms] is very, very, very right wing sort of conspiracy theorist, hate the federal government, blah, blah, blah," Garvin says. "In Oregon, there's a hotbed of that. We definitely want to try and be grounded and remain truthful to what I think the world would become after it ends. I think that's a huge part of it."

Garvin isn't wrong about Oregon being a hotbed for right wing militias. Bend Studio itself is based in the town of Bend, Oregon, which sits about 250 miles away from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—the sight of the occupation by Ammon Bundy and his gang in early 2016. It was the opening salvo in what would be probably the wildest and most depressing year for politics in recent memory. It's against this sort of backdrop that Days Gone establishes its setting.

By most measures, Days Gone is a pretty conventional zombie survival sim. You play as Deacon St. John, a motorcycle gang member who loses his wife, Sarah, in the apocalypse. You tool around a large sandbox on your bike collecting items that can be turned into guns, bandages, and molotov cocktails. Zombies are everywhere (I refuse to call them "Freakers"), and so are the Rippers, maddened thugs who seem to exist solely for violence. It's a well-worn genre at this point, Days Gone's main point of differentiation being that it has motorcycles, and that it's more political than you'd expect.

While Copeland says that Days Gone represents many political views, it has a strong libertarian bent that can't easily be ignored. Garvin asks rhetorically, "Who's the most likely to survive an apocalypse? It's guys who know how to ride bikes, because if you're in a car and you're stuck at one of these traffic jams and the hoard overruns you, you're gonna die. And if you're on a bike, you can just split those lanes. You can go off on a trail. If you're a biker, you know how to use a baseball bat for more than hitting baseballs. You know how to use a knife. You know how to use a gun. You know how to use your fists. These guys really know how to survive. They're fighters."

I ask Garvin if he's read Hunter S. Thompson's classic book Hell's Angels, in which he embeds with a chapter of the infamous motorcycle gang. Garvin says he hasn't, but that he's done a lot of research on the Hell's Angels, who remain active today.

Hell's Angels aficionados will know that the group has always had a broad libertarian streak to it. Founded shortly after World War II, the Hell's Angels were initially comprised of disaffected veterans struggling to reintegrate into society. As the Hell's Angels grew, they deliberately set themselves in opposition to the federal government and society at large. They engaged in organized crime, but also legitimate activities. In a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, boxing promoter Bob Arum tells the story of how the Hell's Angels offered their services as enforcers in exchange for little more than a few meals.

The Hell's Angel's outsider outlook eventually translated into right wing politics. In 2016, Oakland chapter founder Sonny Barger, who featured heavily in Thompson's book, threw his lot behind Donald Trump. "I, for one, am voting for Trump, because it's time to change," he wrote in a Facebook post, referencing what he called a rigged political system.

It's hard not to see a large dash of Sonny Barger's politics in Days Gone's premise, which squarely positions the federal government as a malevolent post-apocalyptic force. In the early going, Deacon and Boozer evade a shadowy government organization called NERO, which Garvin characterizes as a "sort of cross between FEMA and the NSA." You occasionally encounter NERO's helicopters when exploring Days Gone's open-world, and it's strongly suggested that they are somehow culpable for the apocalypse, as raiding their abandoned checkpoints is how you learn more about how the world ended.

At the onset of apocalypse, the government herds citizens into refugee camps, but Deacon and his friends flee into the wilderness. "When the federal government is telling everybody to go to these refugee camps, Deacon and his friends are saying, 'Hell no. I'm not doing what you say. That's a death trap. It's suicide. We're not doing that.' The fact that they're rebels and the fact that they flout the law I think plays into their ability to survive," Garvin says.

"These guys really know how to survive. They're fighters." | Sony Interactive Entertainment

Deacon St. John evading the NERO camps is evocative of the conspiratorial hand-wringing over so-called "FEMA Camps," which holds that the declaration of martial law will result in U.S. citizens being imprisoned in government concentration camps. Copeland, with his Alex Jones-like outlook, is presented as a kook, but his camp provides both sanctuary and weapons.

Lest I make it sound like Garvin is being disingenuous when he talks about a "multitude of viewpoints," there are hints that Deacon's own perspective changes as the story unfolds. Early on, one of Deacon's companions is badly injured by marauders, leaving him shaken. "Everything is tied to two things: survival and making the world safer," Garvin says. "One of the themes of the game is that surviving isn't living. Once you get further along into Deacon's story, you learn that, okay, he hasn't always felt this way, but he's beginning to now because the way his friend has been injured. And when he's trying to deal with his past, he begins to realize that the world is blowing up, and he wants to do something about it. Everything in the game is tied to that."

Garvin also talks about the other camps, which seem intended to highlight different political viewpoints. He refers to Tucker in the Hot Springs camp, for example, who is a former prison matron. "Her idea is literally about control and about trying to keep the criminal element in check by very strict rules, and there are going to be encampments that you meet later on where people have completely different philosophies."

Garvin adds, "Me personally, I don't follow Copeland's line of thinking, but it's definitely represented in Days Gone because all viewpoints are represented in Days Gone. That is one of the things we want to do is say, 'Hey, if the world ends and people start building their own societies, what would they base those on?' And how would each of these encampments feel, and how different would they be based on who their leaders are?"

It will be interesting to see how this approach plays in one of the most politically polarizing eras since the Civil War. But while Days Gone may promise to represent all viewpoints, that doesn't mean that it doesn't have a philosophy of its own. With its strong anti-government bent and lionization of self-reliance, it feels very much like Red Dawn with zombies and bikers—a survivalist fantasy of the sort that Copeland would probably love. And agree with it or not, Bend Studio isn't shy about owning it.

Tagged with Feature, PlayStation 4, SIE Bend Studio, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Survival.

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