DayZ is a multiplayer video game, created by Dean Hall. As a standalone product, 2 million units have been purchased in the six months since its release. It’s also critically acclaimed and award-winning. But what is so interesting about this particular zombie-horror game?
After 30 minutes of anxious, tedious running into the interior of Chernarus, DayZ’s fictional post-Soviet state, I was lost, hungry and thirsty. I had little choice but to explore a small town and scavenge for food and drink. As night fell I was startled in a looted supermarket by a silent zombie, who bit me once before I could head for the door. My screen told me: “My arm is in extreme pain. I think my arm is broken. I think my arm is broken. I feel warm blood on my clothes.”
So I scoured the town, searching for a rag to stem my blood loss. But after 25 minutes of frantic searching, and increasingly blurred vision, I couldn’t find a bandage, and lapsed into unconsciousness before dying.
When you die in DayZ it’s permadeath and you respawn by the beach, alone and exposed, all progress lost. Permadeath adds weight and tension to every in-game interaction.
On another occasion I fell from a barn ladder, breaking a leg. I had to crawl, for perhaps 20 minutes, until some zombies ended my miserable existence.
Other nights I’d find a police station and hide in the turret until daybreak.
In the 36 hours I spent experiencing DayZ, I rarely encountered another human player. I avoided the more heavily populated cities as any meeting with another human usually means death. There’s too much at stake. Though, when exploring the top floor of a hospital, I think I caught a glimpse of the player who killed me with one shot from an automatic rifle.
However, the details are blurred. It’s been a month since I shook myself free and un-installed this remarkable game from my PC. My memories of Chernarus are beginning to resemble some kind of fevered dream.
DayZ and The New Games Journalism
It was Christopher Livingston’s blog hey are you cool that sparked my interest in DayZ. His posts read like dispatches from a foreign correspondent, rather than typical video game writing.
DayZ is a rare thing, a game complex enough to warrant The New Games Journalism, and its “attention to the human condition” and that “it’s not enough just to say what happened — you have to make people understand what it felt like to be there when it happened”.
A walk in the Chernarus countryside
For my final visit to DayZ I walked and ran for around 30 minutes into the heart of Chernarus.
I explored a deserted army base. I hid in a police station when night fell, then ran into a farm.
Another human player, in a white shirt, stopped nearby. We waved at each other, he looked unarmed. Then a zombie came up behind him and I just kept running.
I started following the electricity pylons, they led me to a military base – the radio tower at Green Mountain. It’s the highest location in the game.
It was dark as I reached the base. I turned the torch on, opened the gates and two zombies came out and bit me. I was swinging the pick axe wildly, and managed to get away. I climbed the tower and found a safe place to bandage my wounds.
Later, when trying to exit the tower a zombie was blocking the doorway. I had to stab at him with a rusty knife. Then I looted a gun from the barracks, and kept running, following the pylons until they reached their substation.
Navigating by compass took me to a deserted airfield – probably the “North West Airfield”.
At the airfield I watched the sunset.
Afterwards, I directed my DayZ character to a dark corner in a building made of corrugated iron, and laid him down. He appeared to sleep.
DayZ as mirror
Sure, DayZ is acclaimed because it’s designed to be complex enough to prompt emotional responses among its players. It’s an “open world” – there’s no script and death is permanent. The choices are yours. Do nothing, and you will waste away and die. It is possible to create your own stories and scenarios within the game.
Players may be stronger if they band together, but as Dean Hall, the game’s creator, points out in the first video trailer, teamwork leads to alliances and relationships, but in extreme scenarios there’s also the risk of a descent into tragedy, fear, paranoia and betrayal.
Or as Matt Lightfoot from Bohemia Interactive, says: “Trying to outwit and surmount our peers is part of our basic human instinct of survival, which is why winning is deemed to be virtuous.”
Read enough descriptions of the game, and they can seem to echo some Thatcher-ite, Reagan-ite paean to the so-called free-market.
As Margaret Thatcher said: “you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”
If it’s the game’s ability to manipulate its players’ emotions that leads to a immersive experience, it’s an experience given extra resonance by our recognition of what-could-be.
DayZ is a simulator of the worst aspects of human nature, aspects that are kept in check by healthy societies. Although players may not articulate it, the game’s brutal vision of survival is all too familiar to many.