Days Gone tells the story of a world besieged by a virus, with what's left of humanity trying to carve out a new way of life in the fallout. At the center of this tale is Deacon St. John, a biker who lost the love of his life and potentially his humanity, on the first night of the outbreak.
Deacon St. John is a gruff dude who will do anything to keep his friends alive, but is largely uncaring about those not related to him. Days Gone is Deacon's journey from a selfish man-among his crimes is bringing errant survivors to what's essentially a slaving camp-to the hero that the wasteland needs. Deacon is a character you've seen before: a survivor who'll do what's needed, regardless of how grim that task is. Despite his coldness, there are lines he thinks twice about crossing. He reminds me of characters like The Walking Dead's Rick Grimes and Sons of Anarchy's Clay Morrow. (Days Gone feels superficially like the intersection between both properties, despite being somewhat different in practice.)
Actor Sam Witwer does an excellent job with Deacon in the cutscenes. Facial capture and voice acting is excellent, and you can see the conflict on Deacon's face in several situations as he's pulled between camps of various ideologies. There's anger and loss underneath the surface, even as Deacon tries to play the stoic in conversations with the factions. Deacon in cutscenes is pretty straightforward as a protagonist.
People tend to talk about the dissonance between the characterization of a protagonist and their playable actions. For example, a hero that has ironclad morals about killing, while the playable version kills people with wanton disregard. There's some of that in Days Gone, but for the most part, Deacon's aims are in line with the player's actions.
There's a second Deacon though, outside of the cutscenes. To keep the narrative beats going in the open-world, Deacon listens to Oregon Free Radio, chatters with the supporting cast, and in many occasions, talks to himself. These lines of dialogue are barks, meant to keep the game's audio a bit more lively, but it's here that a completely different character begins to emerge. One who's been hit harder by the events of the viral outbreak than the public face would allow.
When Copeland's Radio Free Oregon plays, Deacon loudly yells at Copeland, attacking or agreeing with his tirades about guns, government, and property. Deacon will mutter statements to himself while he's just riding around the town. When clearing out an ambusher camp, it once hit a fever pitch, with Deacon going on a loud and unhinged rant about marauders in general. As he kills them, he does his best impression of Jack Nicholson from the end of The Shining. "Here's Johnny," indeed.
There's madness in the Deacon you see out in the world. He's a little more broken. It makes his drive to save Boozer, his biker companion and best friend, even stronger. In the absence of his wife Sarah, and personally cut off from the more civil of the survivors (for events prior to most of the game's plot), Boozer is integral to who Deacon is. Boozer is his last connection to the person he was before, the lifeline between the Deacon of civilization and what he's become in the literal apocalypse. Because out on the road alone, without Boozer checking in on the radio, Deacon comes across as borderline psychotic.
In three different film versions of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend-The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and I Am Legend-there's a madness to main character Robert Neville (Robert Morgan in the first film adaptation). Every version undertakes small actions that would be seen as crazy within the civilizations they've left behind. Will Smith's Neville in I Am Legend talks to mannequins and camera recordings, because outside of his dog, he lacks any sort of living companionship. These Nevilles are survivors sure, but the madness belies their humanity. It actually enhances what was lost when humanity fell.
Deacon within cutscenes and the primary storyline is a fine character, but he's one I've seen a great deal across a lot of entertainment. Tough guy, making tough choices. The element of madness, though, is a little rarer. Tom Hardy's Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road carries this element. Even within his own reality, Max is bit... off, a little separated from the new normal. I think Bend Studio crafted a fine character, but I think it could've made a more interesting one by bringing cutscene Deacon closer to in-game Deacon. Because over the course of my playthrough, they almost felt like two different characters that shared a name and face.
It's a shame, as Days Gone leaves Deacon in a situation where he's surrounded by a bit more humanity. He begins the game mostly as a loner, and ends the game as something more than that, seemingly leaving unhinged Deacon behind. Hopefully, if Bend Studio gets the chance to make a sequel, the more interesting Deacon will be given a chance to return too.