DayZ : The apocalypse, but not as we know it…

We approached at night, the darkness cloaking our movements from any observer as we broke out of the tree line. The zombies wandered aimlessly, growling through bloodstained mouths as they stumbled across the fields in front of us. Further down the hill the city beckons, a mass of zombie lined streets and houses hopefully filled with loot for the taking…

There’s been no shortage of media attention on DayZ and it’s creator Dean ‘rocket’ Hall, since the alpha release broke cover some months ago. In this case it feels like the amount of coverage is justified. If you haven’t heard of DayZ, its a game mod which is best summed up as a persistent zombie apocalyptic shooter. No teams, no rules, just 50 human survivors thrown into a vast game world filled with zombies to co-operate or kill each other, survive or perish. It is brutally difficult, incredibly immersive and at times truly nerve-wracking in a way that no other game I’ve played has ever been. It’s been a long time since something this exciting and innovative happened in gaming.

But nothing comes from a vacuum. Bohemia Interactive Studios have been stubbornly making their hugely mod-able eclectic military sandbox/simulator for over a decade. First as Operation Flashpoint then reincarnated as the ARMA series. While other companies dived into the console pot of gold, abandoning the PC for the ease of producing for a homogeneous platform with millions of locked in consumers, BIS kept plugging on. The reward has been to be the almost accidental parents of something emphatically unique and certainly the most interesting thing to happen in gaming for a long time.

DayZ runs counter to everything marketing orthodoxy says about gamer preferences. From the punishing difficulty and perma-death mechanic, the massive scale and lack of direction to the complete absence of a tutorial (but then it is alpha) this screams commercial failure. Convention would dictate nobody would be able to sell this vision to a commercial studio let alone the gaming public. But game mods operate from a different rulebook based solely on enthusiasm and talent, without judgement from a fiscal bottom line. This doesn’t mean that a mod can’t have a financial impact though, and mods like Counter Strike and Red Orchestra successfully evolved into commercial games in their own right. But what DayZ did was more significant.

On release DayZ propelled sales of the 2 year old Arma2 Combined Ops (the game on which it’s based) to the top 10 on Steam for several weeks. This has reminded many in the gaming industry of the financial value inherent in a good game modification. This measurable financial success of a mod which is so unapologetically difficult also calls into question many of the presumptions the game industry has made about gamers for decades.

Because if this is such theoretical gaming kryptonite then why the hell are so many people playing?

Everyone has their own answers for this one, my own answer was complex but boils down to one key aspect of the game. It forces you to care about dying. After my first few nights playing the game resulted in many quick deaths my friends and I realised you had to pay attention. There’s no 5 second squad respawn to get you back in the action, no revive with defibrillators. If you’re killed you lose everything you have and respawn several hours trek from your friends. The wounding system is brutal to solo players, being knocked out and watching yourself bleed to death while unconscious without anyone to help is a harrowing experience. This is probably the only shooter where you hear gunfire and the first impulse is to run away.

About a week into my experience with DayZ I spent an evening playing with two friends where we spent several hours prone-crawling. Any other game this would be mindless and incredibly frustrating. Instead the 3 of us experienced one of the most intense nights of gaming in our lives.

We’d been alive for days, trekked through much of the hinterlands covering kilometres of forest and fields. We’d scavenged guns and ammo, food and water. Found backpacks and camouflage and snuck in and out of close encounters with zombies and other players alike. We had survived and thrived, but only ever by the skin of our teeth. That didn’t stop us from aspiring to greater things.

A city called Berezino was our destination, home to zombies, bandits and broken dreams. We approached at night, the darkness cloaking our movements from any observer as we broke out of the treeline. The zombies wandered aimlessly, growling through bloodstained mouths as they stumbled across the fields in front of us. Further down the hill the city beckons, a mass of zombie lined streets and houses with loot for the taking. As we approached the first set of zombies we went prone, crawling among them while trying to avoid their movements.

Hearts in our mouths we slithered by as zombies wandered around us mere metres away. Being seen would be certain death with no way to shake off the zombies short of shooting them. One shot would bring every walker for hundreds of metres around and attract any bandits there were. I’d say we made it out of skill but we got lucky. After an hour of this, we were making our way down a hill toward another section of the town when someone yelled into their mic “Flare! There’s a flare up there!”, turning back we saw a bright red glow and smoke lighting up the streets to the howl of alerted zombies. Someone was behind us!

We froze for a second, then scrambled for cover to try and spot whoever had thrown the flare. Cringing awaiting gunfire and the crack of bullets around us, we anticipated sudden death. Nothing. Eventually several shots rang out but not aimed at us, safe for now. Pulses pounding we slunk further down the hill in cover and crept away into the night to continue our raid. After logging out, when the adrenaline had slowed all of us confessed we’d never had such an intense night of gaming in our lives.

Since then I’ve gotten less scared, wiser and more used to the game. But that intensity remains. The fear of not knowing who your enemies are (almost everyone, it seems) and striving to avoid zombies, starvation and dehydration. Hunting animals in the woods for food, hoping your gunshot won’t tip off a nearby survivor or bandit to your location. Desperately scrambling to get indoors and patch your bleeding wounds before a zombie mauls you again and you bleed to death. Bumping into another player and frantically taking cover while yelling at them in the hope they won’t open fire. All of it evokes a kind of intensity which no other game has replicated.

It would be easy to write another thousand words about DayZ and I’ve barely touched on the gameplay mechanics or the environment it creates. But so far my conclusion is this. Every survival horror game ever just had a massive gauntlet thrown down at their feet. There are bugs and glitches in DayZ, but this is alpha build on a game 3 years old at its core. DayZ has taken the gameplay mechanics of the survival horror genre and done them right. No saves, no regenerating health, no hints. Fear zombies, fear players more. Survive or die.

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