Days of Ruin: Will, Society, and Nihilism

(Yes, I know the game is known as Dark Conflict in Europe and Australia. I played the American version. It's what I know. The only difference I can keep straight on my own is the Isabella/Catleia thing. So I'm sticking to the American translation for names)

Days of Ruin is kind of an odd game for a post-apocalyptic story. Post-apocalypses tend to focus on the scramble to survive, the throwback to subsistence living but with incongruous modern technology mixed in like machine guns replacing the good ol' bow and arrow. The initial portion of Days of Ruin's plot deals some with this idea, with the sun blotted out and our heroes trying to find some way to feed people under such circumstances, but...

... when it gets down to it, Days of Ruin is primarily wrestling with philosophical questions about society and how people relate to it, with the 'collapse of society' providing a kind of before-and-after to help illustrate how they viewed the 'normal'.

Will is coming from the position that we should pull together and help each other because, basically, it's the right thing to do. He's the only person in the plot who holds this view, and his friction with others provides a way to explore these things.

If it's not obvious, this post will be dealing with Days of Ruin spoilers.

Let's start with the Beast.

Why do you care?
I originally assumed the Beast and his raiders were the stereotypical "we're desperate enough we don't care about morals" sort of raider that's fairly typical of post-apocalypses. But... there was one exchange in particular that stuck with me, where the Beast asks Will, "Why do you care?" I forget Will's exact response, and it's not terribly important. It's only relevant because it got me thinking more about the Beast's other dialogue.

The thing is, the Beast isn't desperate. That's not why the Beast is looting, killing, etc. The Beast makes it extremely clear that he considers society to be a set of shackles thrown upon people, that people need no reason to be cruel and brutal beyond, "It's fun!" and the only reason people are polite and well-behaved among each other is because of the looming threat of the Authorities if you misbehave. He is literally unable to imagine someone who wants to help others, viewing morality as an artificial set of restrictions imposed by 'society'. To him, the apocalypse has freed everyone to be who they always were on the inside: cruel and heinous and enjoying it.

It's interesting, in part because Will 'wins the argument' pretty much by virtue of existing. The Beast's view of how people are is wrong, because if he was right, Will wouldn't exist.

So it's appropriate, in a way, that the Beast's plot resolution is an anticlimax. He lost the philosophical argument pretty much the second he came on-screen anyway. Everything he does after that is only relevant in an immediate physical sense, and he's not that threatening in that capacity either.

The only good Rube is a dead Rube.
Will's friction with Tasha highlights a different point. The apocalypse has happened and ruined both Rubinelle and Lazuria, and here's Tasha still obsessively trying to hunt down and kill 'Rubes' (A slur I always found quite clever, so kudos to the American localization team there) instead of, you know, trying to rebuild Lazuria.

Will just cannot fathom this. To him, the apocalypse should be a clean slate, an opportunity for Rubinelle and Lazuria to let bygones be bygones because recovering from the apocalypse is just obviously more important than winning a war with some country that really ought to be, itself, busily focusing on recovering from the apocalypse.

Tasha doesn't care. She's convinced herself every Rube deserves to die, and it's not until Brenner's sacrifice to save the Lazurian POWs from mass execution after they surrendered and, following that, Will's refusal to throw the Lazurians to the wolves, that she's shocked out of this belief by extremely strong evidence to the contrary. Prior to that point, Tasha is perfectly happy to let the entire world collapse around her if it means she gets vengeance for her brother's death.

I originally took Tasha as more of a typical "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind", but at this point I think she's closer to "There's a time and a place for vengeance. This isn't it." But my reasons for that are derived in part from other characters, so let's keep going.

What's in it for me, brother-man?
Of course, the same mission we meet Tasha in is the one we meet Waylon in.

Waylon is interesting, in that, like the Beast, he views the way people behaved before the apocalypse as being a result of how society was structured, but unlike the Beast he's not really bothered by that. Waylon will do whatever gives him a comfy life, and will adapt himself to meet new circumstances. He also seems to have some sort of dislike for people who won't do the same -when Will talks about honor, Waylon's response is basically "Man, that's in the past. Why you gotta be trying to bring back history?"

The general implication is that Waylon doesn't really care how society structures itself. He doesn't think it should be moral or just. He just cares about getting what he wants within the system, whatever the system might be.

Will does care about society being moral and just, and won't stand idly by and try to work by the rules of what he views as corrupt or evil, and Waylon's presence in the plot helps highlight this point.

Now, in a society that rewards good behavior, Waylon would appear to be a shining paragon of justice. So it's rather important that Waylon has access to a society that doesn't work that way if the story is to illustrate what kind of person Waylon really is. That brings us rather nicely to...

Rank has its privileges, and I have the highest rank.
... Greyfield.

When I first played the game, I assumed Greyfield was a generic greedy tyrant sort of figure. It was only recently that I realized he's actually got an internally coherent philosophy -and that it clashes with Will's.

To Greyfield, higher rank=more privileges. This isn't just how he justifies hogging the best stuff for himself, he really, actually, genuinely believes this and has implemented it into how the New Rubinelle Army operates. This is why Waylon is 'loyal' to him: Waylon can climb the ranks to benefit himself, and living the sweet life is all Waylon wants.

Will's view on rank is entirely opposed to this. He views himself as responsible for those below him, obligated to take care of them as best he can. The idea that he might be compensated for such doesn't even seem to occur to him: doing good is, in his view, its own reward. This is true in general, but contrasting it against Greyfield makes it a lot more obvious.

The Greyfield/Waylon combination also serves to illustrate one of the dangers of a "rank hath its privileges" model: when you give people in charge more latitude, you risk them taking that latitude and using it to ruin everything for everyone except themselves.

Of course, if Greyfield weren't pushing the New Rubinelle Army to exterminate Lazuria, he'd be a fairly low-grade villainous force. He'd be more the sort of person who eats well and shrugs if someone points out that orphans are starving in Africa. So Greyfield's position as a member of the military is fairly important, narratively -he's implicitly justifying his authority via the war. If there's no war, it's a lot harder to get people to obey a military dictatorship.

We see this in action after Lazuria is defeated: Greyfield just can't hold onto his troops now that there's no enemy to point at and say, "We must be ready for them!" It's just too bad the story didn't do a better job of calling the audience's attention to how this is part of why. It's very easy to think the story is just going for a generic "villains' minions abandoning the villain once it's obvious the villain is evil" sort of plot.

I'm better than you, so I can do what I please.
Ah, Tabitha. She's a genetically engineered supersoldier, she's tougher, stronger, smarter, faster. She does what she likes because who can stop her?

She also seems to genuinely believe that weaklings deserve to die. My impression is that Tabitha basically thinks that not only is, "superhuman supersoldiers push out and replace regular humans through natural selection," how things work, but how they should work. She has no compassion for those who can't take care of themselves. Will's counterpoint is basically a variation on the Greyfield issue: to Will, you should use your strength to protect those who can't protect themselves.

It's a bit unfortunate that the story doesn't seem to have an idea of how to really refute Tabitha, though. Will's response to Tabitha is pretty much, "But that's mean!" and that's not much of an argument when Tabitha knows she's being mean and considers that to be morally correct given her circumstances.

It's not like it's actually all that difficult to refute Tabitha's philosophy. There's honestly a lot of flaws with it -no one can be 'strong' all the time, every time. People get sick. People get old. People break bones, and need time to heal. "I'm the strongest, so I can stomp all over everyone else!" sounds great when you are currently the strongest, but it carries the nasty implication that you consider it right and proper for people to do the same to you when circumstances conspire to knock you down.

Buuut the story doesn't really touch on any of that, leaving a hanging implication that Tabitha isn't really wrong, and if she's not really wrong then being a jerk isn't a problem with her position.

I consider the way Tabitha and Will play off each other to thus be a bit of a fairly major misstep, and I consider...

Everything is meaningless. So. Why not?
... Caulder to be the other major misstep.

Caulder is probably the bluntest gets about Will having a philosophical clash with someone. With other characters, Will and the other character clash because they have different values, but neither of them really bothers to spell out what those values are. We have to infer how Greyfield thinks, he doesn't lay down a diatribe explaining as bluntly as possible how he thinks things are and ought to be. Caulder just comes out and tells us that he thinks the entire world is inherently pointless, that, "life is the most pointless thing of all!"

Now, where the story doesn't really try to refute Tabitha's position except by pointing out that it's pretty awful for everyone who isn't Tabitha, it actually does try to refute Caulder's view.

Unfortunately, said refutation is literally schoolyard-tier: "Nu-uh! You're wrong! 'cause I said so!" More specifically: "No! Things aren't pointless because I have feelings about things! This somehow is relevant!"

When it gets down to things, I consider Caulder's premise to be essentially correct. The world is inherently pointless, and trying to attach 'meaning' to it via religion or whatever doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. I'm not going to go into the full thing here, but the main point is that you can't really use logic to resolve the issue, and so in some sense Caulder is 'provably correct'.

However, saying that Caulder's premise is correct doesn't mean his conclusion is correct. Caulder's position is basically that since everything is pointless, he can do whatever he wants and not care about things like 'morality', 'ethics', or 'everybody will try to kill me if I do this'. This is not true in the slightest, not without starting from the premise that your nihilism extends all the way to not caring what happens to you.

People who lean toward nihilism do not, as it happens, lean toward being perfectly happy to suffer and die. If you really think the world is pointless and that your death will be the end of you, no afterlife, no reincarnation, no nothing, you're a lot less likely to be okay with dying than someone who is convinced that dying in the correct way will result in being rewarded after death. Caulder himself is not, in the end, okay with dying. He's okay with other people dying. He's not okay with him being the one that dies.

So actually, Caulder's conclusion is dead wrong. All his premise really implies is that he can, if he feels like it, replace "Is this moral/ethical?" with "Am I confident I'll get away with it?"

But Will -and his friends- don't really bring up anything like that to refute Caulder. At most you can argue that killing him constitutes a minor victory in the realm of the debate, and even that's a bit debatable, as disproving Caulder's conclusion doesn't defeat the part where he brought up his premise -and his premise is a pretty big blow to Will's philosophy. If everything is pointless, it's really hard to justify, philosophically, trying to help people, and Will has no counter-argument beyond "Nu-uh!"

In a way it's kind of fitting that, philosophically, they both lose, but I have my doubts it aligns with authorial intent.

Yay! Let's play, Mr. Bear!
Penny is odd. For a long time I wasn't sure what to make of her presence in the plot. She's the only bad guy who gets redeemed -I don't really count Tasha and Gage, since it's clear they're not really bad guys from second one- and she's this weird child who treats everything like a game. For a bit there, I wondered if maybe she was some kind of indirect snipe at the players of Advance Wars. "You guys are so out of touch with reality! Like Penny here!" Even her betrayal of Caulder doesn't serve a clear narrative purpose, as the way the events go down wouldn't really change if she was killed instead, beyond that she'd be dead and Isabella would probably be sad. Maybe Will, too, I guess.

It was only in drawing up the draft of this post that it occurred to me that Penny actually is playing off Will, just in a fairly subtle way. Will is earnest and serious, because life is serious. Penny is treating what she's experiencing like it's not real, like she's the one playing a video game, not the player. She goes turncoat when it finally gets through her head that this isn't a vivid game of make-believe, because she was only ever serving under Caulder because she genuinely didn't realize there were actual consequences to her choices.

The plot doesn't do a lot with that, unfortunately, but it's interesting to me anyway. One of the more common ways for bullies to get away with hurting people is to play off their cruelty as "It's just a game" or "You need to learn to take a joke" or otherwise saying, essentially, "It's not real so it doesn't count." Penny is basically the naive version of that: she commands armies to ruthlessly slaughter people because she believes it's not real, and so it doesn't count.

Will's implicit counter-argument is that it is real, so it does count. That holds up perfectly well.

... now if only her gameplay were so compelling.

Morals make people happy, but happiness doesn't matter.
If you've played the game yourself, you're probably not surprised that I consider Lin to play off of Will on a philosophical level. Lin is pretty blunt all the way to the beginning of the game that she doesn't see the point in coddling people who can't pull their own weight. One could argue Tabitha is like a darker reflection of Lin, actually, as they both don't see much point in helping those who can't help themselves. The main difference is that Lin would rather abandon those useless to her and hers where Tabitha would be inclined to kill them for the sin of being useless.

This is tempered by Lin's loyalty to Brenner, which is honestly probably the only reason Will and Lin don't end up at each others' throats at any point. Even so, Will and Lin still get to play off each other; Lin the selfish pragmatist, Will the guy who just wants to help people.

In the end Lin basically tacitly admits to being wrong. She recognizes that her way of thinking and doing things doesn't win loyalty from people, and pushes Will to the position of leadership because his propensity for kindness means he can get people to listen to him because they like him. In doing so she's acknowledging that feelings and morals do matter on a practical level.

Incidentally, I find it interesting how it's Lin who executes Greyfield in the end. I originally sort of sighed and took it as a fairly typical, "The relatively evil member of Team Good doing an evil thing so nobody actually Good has to dirty their hands," sort of thing, but it wouldn't have been that hard for the plot to arrange for Tasha to do it in anger, or Gage to do it because 'duty' or whatever. Having thought about it more, I've since taken it as building on her loyalty to Brenner -Greyfield killed the only man she respected, so she killed Greyfield. Something like that.

I don't want people fighting. Even if it means being hurt, myself.
For most of the game, Isabella is a passive mystery. I sighed and facepalmed at her turning herself in to Caulder, and sighed and facepalmed again when Caulder revealed that he had no intention of keeping his word.

I still don't really like the plot sequence (Okay, Isabella, turning yourself in didn't do what you wanted. Are you going to do anything else? Anything?... no?... why?), but I better see what it's about, now. It's one of the clearer, earlier signs of Caulder's philosophy and how it clashes with Will -he's not simply breaking his word because "lol evil lol", he's doing it because he doesn't see value in things like honor or honesty. Everything is pointless, so he can do whatever he feels like.

But it also, oddly enough, shows that Isabella isn't simply a little waif following Will around and parroting him and his morals while providing the occasional deus ex machina, and illustrates something about Will himself. Isabella is a pacifist, one who would sooner fall on her metaphorical sword than stand by while others fight. Will doesn't like pointless fighting: he's surprisingly fine, philosophically, with self-defense, and even 'preemptive self-defense', where I'm much more used to seeing protagonists who object to fighting at all being full-on pacifists whose approximate opinion on when it's appropriate to fight is: never.

I even see this from stories whose protagonist is in the military!

So it was kind of nice/interesting realizing that Will has a bit more nuance to his dislike of fighting -that he recognizes that there are circumstances it is justified or even necessary to fight, and his issue with so many of the other characters isn't "Why are they fighting?" it's 'Why are they insisting on fighting when it's not necessary?"

This ties back, in part, to what I was saying about thinking Tasha's message is more a time and a place for vengeance. Will never does, to my recollection, actually say or imply that he thinks vengeance per se is dumb. He's just baffled as to why people are still pursuing it when the war is over, everybody lost, and it's a post-apocalypse!


Next time, I'm going to do a smaller talk about Brenner, and the two COs I didn't cover here.


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