I’m an emotional sort and, if there’s one thing guaranteed to win over my sensitive side, it’s a good love story. I’m putty in the hands of any number of saccharine-sweet chick flicks, there only to sell us on the dream of the fairytale romance far removed from real life.
We all know that, but folk like me will buy into it every time anyway. Because it’s love. And what could be more special than true love, even the Hollywood-manufactured kind?
This article contains story spoilers for Days Gone. If you haven’t finished the game, I’d recommend not reading ahead.
It’s also a kind of story that’s not quite so pervasive in video games. Sure, there are star-crossed lovers out there: Cloud and Aeris; Squall and Rinoa; Link and Zelda; Max and Chloe (if that’s how you played the game); Nathan Drake and Elena. But it’s rare they feel real or tangible. Romances in video games are usually little more than a plot point, a princess to save or a girl to brood over.
You could argue the same about Days Gone – Deacon’s love for his wife Sarah is the entire reason his journey through the game exists, after all – and yet, there’s something so pure about the way it’s presented. Say what you like about this gruff biker dude. He may spend far too much time talking to himself, and he may be relentlessly violent: but there’s no denying how much he loves his wife. It's a beautiful thing.
Sarah doesn’t have much of a physical presence in the first 20-or-so hours of Days Gone, and yet she’s still the most important character. From the tattoo on the side of Deacon’s neck to the way he constantly talks about her, it’s clear that his wife is woven-through his consciousness. Even in his grief – grief which can often be ugly, painful, twisted and spiteful – his love for her remains pure. He regularly visits the memorial stone he’s created for her, talking to the memory that’s alive in his heart: discussing what he’s gone through that day, or simply reminiscing about the times they’ve spent together. These interstitials feel loaded with emotion.
Days Gone isn’t really about the apocalypse, or the virus that’s turning people into flesh-hungry monsters. It’s about survival, sure, it’s about hope, it’s about human resilience – but more than anything, the biggest theme is love, and love lost.
Deacon isn’t the most likable character in Days Gone for the opening hours. He seems arrogant, vacuous, like he doesn’t care about much other than himself. But once you're introduced to Sarah through his flashbacks, that’s when another side starts showing.
Deacon has a heart and soul. It’s clear his main driving force for surviving those last two years is Sarah. She’s dead, and a part of him knows that. But there’s another part, an irrepressible urge, that clings onto the hope that she’s out there, somehow, somewhere, despite all the odds.
Before Days Gone begins, Deacon’s been surviving on his own for two years. He’s drifted from place to place on his motorcycle, never committing to anything or anyone, simply doing the bare minimum to stay alive. On the day that the outbreak happened, he put his wife Sarah into a helicopter – a helicopter that he soon learned crashed. For two years he’s lived with the reality that nobody on that helicopter survived – including his wife.
Yet he still hangs onto the gossamer-thin possibility that maybe, maybe, she did survive. Deacon's found nothing to sustain that but it’s alive within him – and what keeps him going. It isn’t until two years later, when we’ve joined Deacon on his journey, that a certain turn of events gives more substance to his hope.
Deacon and Sarah are an unlikely match. He’s a wayward biker; she’s prim and proper, well educated with a good job. Their pairing may not initially seem wholly believable, even given the old adage that opposites attract (something I’ve never found particularly true), but their feelings for one another shine strong as Days Gone progresses.
From awkward flashbacks of their first meetings to romantic moonlit walks through the forest, their love feels more real than the characters themselves. Being more attached to one person than anyone else in the world is something many of us can relate to.
As Deacon chases the hope that Sarah may be still alive, I was soon right there chasing with him. It’s painful to imagine losing a loved one, impossible not to empathise with someone going through that – and so our heart beats alongside Deacon’s as that dream of being reunited grows stronger. Even if, after all his searching, Sarah isn’t alive, their connection and love for one another has kept Deacon alive this long. That counts for something, right?
And then… against all the odds, in a Hollywood movie moment, the pair are reunited. It’s emotional, but it’s not magical. Fireworks don’t explode in the sky. The pair are shellshocked at the sight of a face that has only existed in memory for the last two years. It’s a lot to process; overwhelming to the point of numbness.
As a player, watching the scene happen, you want nothing more than the pair to rush into each other’s arms, embracing with two years worth of lost passion. It doesn’t happen, and so feels slightly anticlimactic. But the pent-up charge and pressure beneath this meeting tells us that their marriage isn’t what it used to be.
For all that the plot-twist of Sarah's survival might strain credibility, what matters is how Days Gone uses her character to begin telling another story. Over the second half of the game we see the pair learn how to be around each other again. A lot has changed in the world in the time they've been apart from each other; arguably, they're completely different people to the last time they looked each other in the eyes.
They're still husband and wife for all intents and purposes, but they're also strangers, divided by a rift created when the world went to shit. As much as the player wants to see everything around them stop while they embrace – and a part of Deacon and Sarah clearly wants that too – it's not quite that simple anymore.
You see, when they're reunited, Sarah is a high-ranking officer in the Militia, a civilian army that Deacon has just signed himself up for. He's her subordinate, so he has no choice but to take her commands. And nobody can find out their history, because... well, just because. That means the only time they can even attempt to address each other as husband and wife is in secret, when no-one else is around.
It's more of a strain for Deacon than it is for Sarah. She's used to giving out orders by this point. Unlike Deacon, she accepted long ago that he must be dead. She hasn't clung onto hope that one day they'd be reunited. When Deacon tries to kiss her and tells her they can run away together, she pulls away. She can't.
She doesn't want to leave everything she's been working towards. And yet, over time, we see her newly-acquired cold exterior start to fall; the walls she's put up for herself over the last two years eventually give way to let her love for Deacon seep back in.
After a particularly tough mission that Sarah and Deacon complete together, they find themselves holed up in a log cabin to escape from a blizzard. Sat by the fire in their underwear while their snow-sodden clothes dry... you know where this is going, right? Sarah says to Deacon, "I never thought I'd – get warm again." Perhaps she means simply from the cold weather, but there's a pause there, a hesitation; she clearly means something more.
For this whole scene, the pair sit awkwardly side by side, almost afraid to look at each other, definitely too scared to touch each other. Sarah avoids Deacon's glances, and tries to distract the situation by suggesting they eat. But when they do finally catch each other's eyes, and do finally touch – the electricity is palpable.
Two years of lost feelings are laid bare; to each other, and to us, the player. It's raw with emotion and packs tenderness so rarely seen in a video game. And sorry to disappoint, pervs, but it fades to black. We've already seen what we need to.
It only seems right that I briefly touch upon Days Gone's wedding scene, which gathered some controversy around an apparently cringeworthy line delivered by Sarah, in which she asks Deacon to "promise to ride me as much as you ride your bike."
Without context it does seem ridiculous. Who would say that in real life, never mind in a church? But further into the game, that line gets some context that changes everything. Out on a midnight walk, Deacon gets down on one knee to ask Sarah to marry him. Overjoyed, she accepts. But only if he accepts her terms:
"On two conditions. The first one is that we don't have one of those biker weddings where you say that you're going to ride me as much as your bike."
Biker wedding vows are a thing, believe it or not. So as hurl-inducing as that line may seem in isolation, there are real people in the real world having real weddings, saying something similar. As far as Days Gone, it's there because of Deacon's immersion in biker culture. And the fact we see Sarah scoff at the idea following Deacon's proposal, but knowing she's actually the one to say the line at the wedding unprompted, says a lot about their relationship.
It's the kind of stupid in-joke that couples have for each other. The line is completely out-of-character for Sarah, but that's why the two characters take such amusement in it. Out-of-context it looks like video games being video games. But in context, it's a well thought-out piece of writing that shows a couple half-mocking and half-playing with each other.
It also shows that she accepts him, his bike, warts and all – even if that means some laughable vows. They may come from different places, but Sarah's love for Deacon is strong and, even if the world ends, true love doesn't.
I enjoyed a lot of things about Days Gone. It’s a beautiful landscape with a lot to see and do, and a great example of open world game design, even if overfamiliar in style at times. What sets it apart from other games is the love story running through it. Deacon and Sarah's love is at the heart of the game; it’s Deacon’s greatest motivation, and soon enough becomes our reason for playing.
It's easy to look at Days Gone and just see the post-apocalyptic setting and the motorbike and the combat, and feel that you've seen it all before. But few video games provide such a lens on complex human emotions and, for that alone, my journey with Deacon and Sarah was unforgettable.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.