You awaken on a beach somewhere. At first, all you can hear are your own stuttered gasps. Then the surf crashes behind you. You are running. Each foot slams into the hard packed ground with a regular rhythm. The field in front of you looks cold, its colors muted. Kneeling, trying to keep a low profile, you toss through your knapsack: a flashlight, painkillers, a bandage, and that’s it. You aren’t hungry, or thirsty, but you will be soon. That need drives you toward the nearby town, to try to scavenge what supplies you can from the dilapidated farms, sheds, and outhouses. Maybe you run. Maybe you hunch over and jog. Maybe you’re scared and you crawl on your stomach through the mud like a worm. As you approach a building that looks like it might not be picked over, a cacophony of low moaning erupts all around you. It is accompanied by irregular scraping sounds. A rural resident shambles into view. He has bad posture. His clothes are torn. One arm hangs at an inappropriate angle. His flesh is withered from exposure, his eyes black. If he sees you, or hears you, this former farmer will dash across the field, bludgeon you to death, and feast on your remains.
Welcome to the end of the world. You are a survivor in the zombie apocalypse simulator DayZ — a first-person shooter that’s basically The Road with zombies. It’s set in Chernarus, a fictional Eastern Bloc country approximately 225 square kilometers. Resources are scarce. It’s worth risking your life for beans. And risk it you shall, because the game is packed to the gills with zombies and features full-on player-versus-player conflict. Every other survivor in Chernarus is played by a real person, the mindless undead hordes are computer controlled, and you’re all competing for the same scraps. What’s more, anyone can kill you anytime they want, anywhere they want, with zero in-game consequences. There is nowhere safe from murderers. In fact, a goodly portion of the game’s population plays as bandits, folks who forego scavenging for hunting other people and stealing their supplies. What makes that risk meaningful is that when you die in this game, that’s it. Game over. No saving. No continues. You start again, panting on the beach, with no equipment, no experience points, no skills, no stats, nothing. This is a beautiful thing.
The game is an alpha-mod, which means it’s as buggy as the rainforest and built upon a pre-existing game. That game is ARMA 2, a hyper-realistic military simulator. I’d never heard of it, but I bought it in order to play DayZ. So did a million other people. In an intelligent move, the people behind ARMA hired the team who made DayZ, led by a guy named Dean “rocket” Hall. Now there’s a standalone version in the works, coming out this year, which should take care of some of DayZ’s worst flaws. Neat.
The standalone version is especially enticing because the niggling, videogame-y flaws of DayZ ultimately made it unplayable for me. Let me be clear: I love the hell out of the premise of DayZ. I convinced my friends to buy it so that I would have someone to trust in that cold wasteland. I talked about it with dudes at the hardware store. I brought it up at family functions. I even wrote a poem about my experiences and shared it at the coffeehouse. But my love for the game stemmed from the powerful emotional ride that accompanied the suspension of disbelief — and all too often that suspension was shattered by one problem or another. How could a game be both so enticing and so fundamentally flawed that it shot itself in both feet? In an early interview, Mr. Hall addressed both points, “In a way, DayZ the mod is fundamentally broken. But I guess it’s the design core that people identify with and the amazing thing is that in spite of everything else that may be wrong with it, people want that experience… that’s what people have latched onto: seeing past graphical glitches and its problems to get themselves inside the game because instead of being a bunch of mechanics, it’s a bunch of feelings.”
Where DayZ works, it works because of the strict adherence to its ambitious vision. Hall made a number of incredibly — almost fantastically — unpopular game design decisions based around some simple premises: balance is unnecessary and frustration can be celebrated. The brilliance of these decisions is that they percolate through the mechanics into the aesthetics of the game, making the experience of play a coherent language of dread. In fact, elements that may be mere coincidence (due to the grafting of DayZ’s rule schema onto the torso of ARMA 2) enhance and stimulate the experience of playing DayZ in surprising and telling ways.
Primary amongst these design decisions is the steadfast maintenance of realism. You have to find food in DayZ, or else you starve. This is one of the primary motivations in the game, at least at the beginning. You are willing to risk your life now, against uncertain dismemberment, to stave away the certainty of starvation. This pushes you deeper into the territory, to develop a kit that will keep you alive as long as possible. Additionally, there is very little on the screen in terms of displays or widgets or numbers. The way you tell if you are cold is that your character shivers. The way you tell if you are bleeding is you see some blood spilling out of you. Or, if your blood pressure gets low enough, your vision will dim, and colors will diminish. If you get hit on the head, your vision blurs. To tell what’s going on, you have to pay attention and watch the hermeneutic cues. This check-list of potential problems evolves into a radar-sweep of ailments that grows naturally, and weaves into watching the landscape for threats. It helps instill the survivor’s attitude, and make the emotional experience of the game feel that much more real. Lastly, there’s no map, no GPS hovering in the top-right corner of the screen. The only meta-game indication of where you are is a pop-up you get at the beginning of play. Otherwise you have to use road signs, the stars, or the lay of the land to navigate Chernarus.
This penchant for realism extends into the composition of the game’s physical environment. DayZ’s province is rendered realistically enough that it is very easy to get turned around in the middle of the woods, run in circles depending on the elevation, and stumble across the same landmark you’ve seen before in that most painful of horror film clichés. In fact, navigating the terrain is almost another game within DayZ. It can be so involved trying to get from point A to point B that real-world navigation skills become your bread and butter. You use shadows and the time of day to find true north, or learn how to set bearings on a compass, if you’re lucky enough to scrounge one up.
When you play with other people, this elevates the emotional experience on several fronts. First, it takes a long-ass time to round up three people who are kilometers apart in a hostile wasteland. You have to coordinate yourselves, demarcate a known landmark, and begin to work your way there. By the time you’ve come together, each of you has undergone a number of formative adventures, dodged death a few times, and begun to carve out a character based on the equipment collected and the survival style adopted on the fly. This is how the game tells a story. It puts you in this space and lets you work your way through in your own way. You start to feel like the character is yours. You’re roleplaying without being given any directives. Second, now that you’ve gone through this much trouble wrangling the team together, you don’t want anyone to get punked by the undead or a sniper. As painful as it is to re-equip yourself after losing everything, it’s even worse to know that you have a friend out there — lost, hungry, and alone. The game’s realism and permadeath make losing a teammate heartbreaking.
When the game is over, you’re compelled to wipe the slate clean and try again. From this narrative structure, distinct stages of play cleave apart organically. The opening game is spent building foundations, the mid-game is an attempt to shore-up that structure, and the late game is the closer, the finisher, following through on your strategy to its inevitable conclusion. Survival or death.
Permadeath in DayZ prompts thinking about each game as a “run.” To see how far you can make it, how much survival equipment you can find, how many zombies you can slaughter, and how much of the world you see before your painful demise. Kinda like real life. Permadeath also means that, since there is no in-game achievement beyond any particular run, all of your gain in the game is out of the game. In other words, you get better at the game, as opposed to your character getting better. You get to decide the way you play, and survival has a surprising number of styles. With the emphasis on a narrative that emerges from your experiences, DayZ becomes an engine of personal storytelling. You supply all the raw parts, and how you wend through the game becomes the story. It’s gripping, because it’s your story.
When you get better at DayZ, it means that you get better at those three stages of the game. You get to know the world and its rules better. One corollary is that you survive longer, develop a better kit, and begin to understand how to deal with the many difficult scenarios that people and zombies and circumstance throw at you. Along the way you will probably build the kind of skills and inventory that will render you more or less able to survive indefinitely, until something unforeseen crops up. You find yourself asking the question “Now what?” and maybe you’ll become a bandit, or maybe you’ll try helping people new to the apocalypse.
Curiously, another corollary of this model of play is that you end up approaching DayZ “like a game” instead of an experience. You try to undermine the rules to your advantage, and figure out how to outsmart the programming, all so that you can survive longer. If you’re inventive enough, you’ll begin to exploit the curious physics that occur due to the awkward insertion of DayZ’s code onto ARMA 2’s. And this is why the DayZ experience is self-defeating. Approaching the game as a cluster of rules in this fashion has the unfortunate side effect of dissolving the suspension of disbelief required to be really freaked out. It ceases to be an experience that messes with you, and instead becomes just another set of rules to conquer. Given just how damn inventive people are, they are willing to exploit the system at the meta level, and develop hacks that warp the code to their advantage, granting them godlike abilities due to ARMA 2’s poor security infrastructure. So you get invisible bandits who summon trucks out of the void and teleport you into the sky to watch you plummet to your death. In a game which depends so much on rhetorical realism to inspire dread and suffering, this kind of script-kiddy wankery just annihilates the right and proper tension Hall and his team worked so hard to muster.
That’s where the standalone comes in. The DayZ mod is like a rough draft, a proof of concept that can now get the polish and fine tuning it needs to reach its true potential. By tightening the security, broadening the narrative scope, and balancing the physics, the dev team can transform DayZ into the game these ideas deserve.
The scariest thing in DayZ is ignorance. When the world is still fresh and new, you have no real idea how the zombies are programmed, where bandits tend to hang out, the lay of the land, or even how to navigate without map and compass.
Donald Rumsfeld once said that there are the things you know, the things you know you don’t know, and the things you don’t know you don’t know. DayZ is full of “known unknowns,” threats that could be out there, but you have no idea if they are right now. You don’t know if there are monsters afoot. You don’t know if someone is watching you. You don’t know if anyone you see is friendly or a bandit. You don’t even know if the building you are approaching will contain something useful, that morsel of food you need to push on against despair, or maybe just an empty whisky bottle and a pile of broken promises.
This is beautiful because it haunts you while you’re playing. The woods and villages come alive with the eyes of hunters who could be lying in wait, or the zombie that might come staggering around the corner at the worst possible moment. And the threat is omnipresent, it’s always there and it never goes away. You’re never safe. You never win in DayZ. You just don’t lose today.
Whether it is stalking through the underbrush, or jogging on the periphery of a field, a lot of nothing happens in DayZ, but it isn’t boring. If the game works its spell, you are always terrified of what you know is possible. In fact, “nothing” happening is the worst. It merely perpetuates the tension, heightens it. This is another gorgeous mechanic in DayZ. Normally when you play a game, you get the chance to expel psychological backwash by pressing buttons, by straight-up doing something with your fingers. In some games, they mechanically remove your ability to do stuff at certain times to show you story or attempt to invoke a feeling of paralysis. But it doesn’t work, because you can still hit the button, and physically expel bits and pieces of tension. In DayZ you can’t even touch the buttons. You dare not, even though you are at liberty to do so at any moment. This is the brilliant gem at the heart of the game. You have to choose to keep yourself suspended in this state of ever-increasing psychological tension, easing your way across the landscape despite the howling horrors clawing at your mind.
You have the physical capacity to do things, you can fire your gun whenever you damn well please, but you won’t. The more you play the game, the more you realize how trapped you really are. First, bullets are a precious resource. Second, zombies love the report of a firearm. In the game community people call firing a gun in a heavy undead-populated area “ringing the dinner bell” because the hungry masses come charging in for chow. Any time you squeeze the trigger, you’d better be damn sure that there aren’t any other walking dead in earshot, or else you may very quickly be dealing with more ravenous moving targets than you even have bullets, let alone time, to deal with. Third, that little “pop-pop” of the wee gun you found in some farmhouse? Other people can hear it from pretty far away. And if they only hear one set of gunshots (because every caliber sounds unique) then they’ll probably come after you. Bandits are everywhere, and they want your beans.
So you’re watching out, like a hawk, constantly on edge. This coalesces into an utterly involving, absorbing videogame experience where the mechanics conspire to produce an enveloping psychological fugue that you can’t help but perpetuate vis-à-vis your interactions within the game’s possibility space. It sucks you in, and you become it.
Movement feels good in DayZ. Shooting feels right. Desperation is real. One time, I crawled seven kilometers through the mud and the rain with a broken leg, circumnavigating two towns en route to a military base in the vain hope that I could slam some morphine and once again hobble my way through doorways in search of canned goods.
If DayZ hooks you, if you start to think and feel in terms of the circumstances of the game, if you become a survivor, or a bandit, or a hero — then in that moment the game simultaneously succeeds and fails. Two sides of the same experiential coin, the success of the moment determines the overall failure. This immediate sensation is great, but beyond the capacity of the game to sustain. Eventually, you get kicked on out, forced to notice it’s a game, that it isn’t real. The illusion shatters.
And yet, this ought not diminish the value of the current iteration of DayZ, nor does it speak to the promise offered by the standalone. A fleeting experience is still worthwhile. In fact, just as many facets of the game emerge organically from play, so too is the sine wave of experience that oscillates from total absorption to utter frustration a rhythmic, natural process. Like breathing. You fall in love with a character, you get neck-deep in surviving, and the dumbest little thing kills you. Yet another stupid death. And you want to punch a hole in the wall. But you keep on coming back. Good games just do that. They reel you in with feelings then abuse you. So take a deep breath, step away for a bit, and come back when you’re ready.
Don’t worry, the zombies aren’t going anywhere.