I currently live in a house where much of my weekend mornings and all of my evenings are accompanied by the loud and unbridled DayZ enthusiasm next door. I wake up to hectic commands shouted over voice-comm almost every Sunday (because like all sane people I sleep in on weekends) and go to sleep to “It’s me! Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” and “Identify yourself now!”. The better half is having a blast in DayZ and the very playable standalone early access has done much to rekindle that passion. Being a pretty obsessive gamer myself, I observe all of this with equal amounts of understanding and amusement. Far be it from me to begrudge anyone their gaming sessions. Until he forgets to wash and get dressed, anyway.
Naturally, I was gifted my own copy of DayZ recently and having always been fascinated with the harshness and unmoderated authenticity of this title, I’ve given it a couple of nights over the past few weeks running with an international clan. There is a lot of mixed information out there currently about DayZ which, in my humble opinion, fails to paint a fair or complete picture of this complex beast of a game, of the depth and psychological intrigue of this persistent world hiking and murder simulator with rogue-like elements. And that’s the shortest way for me to describe it.
DayZ always has been and in its current state certainly is legitimately a PvPer’s game just like some games are made for PvE or RP. While it’s entirely possible there will be other server modes again where killing other players isn’t possible, DayZ right now is about handling an outrageous mix of feelings – between stark loneliness and desolation, to the desperate search for food while a quick, inconspicuous death is haunting your every step. Like in the real world that DayZ takes such pains to simulate, you cannot tell friend from foe at a first glance. Like in the real world, due caution and clear communication may decide your fate. Like in the real world, there are stakes to what you do and decisions have tangible consequences.
DayZ is the game where absolutely nothing happens for hours and you find yourself desperately lost in the wild world without maps and indicators. Where you can hike forever and a day and never meet a soul. And then you die. And death has so many faces. It’s the game of paranoid retreat and uncanny social contact, of foul betrayal and uncompromising bonds. It’s the game of fear of loss, of terror and so much hope. In summary, it’s a fascinating social environment that teaches us much about the way we will behave under social / peer pressure once all written law and agreed-on convention is lost.
If everything goes and everyone is equally hungry, what means and tactics will you resort to in order to survive?
In 2003 Postal 2 launched with a particular tagline: it’s only as violent as you are! Only DayZ adds the online multiplayer component. The question of how violent you are gets replaced by how the violence of your peers will affect you. And there are many ways in which individual players respond and adapt. Despite inviting more notorious gankers along with everyone else, DayZ isn’t all kill on sight but more frequently about caution and basic unspoken rules of conduct. One of my very first encounters with strangers in the game went like this:
Still fairly fresh, hungry and ill equipped, two zombies attacked me and I started bleeding. Bleeding in DayZ gives you a limited amount of time to patch up before losing consciousness (which equals death pretty much), as the game’s color saturation gradually and unnervingly decreases. The zombies right now in standalone are a shadow of their former self, dumb and slow, yet dangerous in packs when unarmed (and a nub like me).
Frantically getting away, I crossed a small township and as these things always go, another player and his rifle materialized right in front of me. Oh shit! I froze on the spot because approaching strangers is pretty much the most stupid thing anyone will do while intentions are unclear – and intentions are always unclear in DayZ. Like most creatures that inhabit this planet would never dream of just running into each other, you just don’t do that here either. Should you ever form bonds with other players they have been tested beyond all doubt. In DayZ, trust needs to be earned and cooperation justified.
I managed to raise my arms waiting while the stranger started using proximity chat, the single greatest feature ever added to DayZ:
“Hello. Are you there? Are you okay?”
(At this point I haven’t figured out proxi chat just yet. I keep standing still looking dumb and expecting death by rifle.)
“Are you bleeding? I think you’re losing blood. Can you hear me?”
(I finally figured it out.) “I can hear ya! Hi! Yeah the zombies just got me down that road.”
“I assume you’re fresh, ye? Unarmed? I think I have some spare bandages if you like.”
(Overeager) “Yes I am friendly! I have virtually nothing! And I would really appreciate a bandage!!”
“Okay…..umm Bob, you can come out of the bushes now.”
(That’s when Bob, a second perfectly British gentleman who had been hiding in the bushes behind me, in case I turned out to be not so friendly, emerged.)
This was possibly the most hilarious conversation I’ve ever been involved in with random strangers online. It is also DayZ in a nutshell. That day, I lived and was saved by strangers. That day, I met the good people.
Lessons from DayZ
There is an emotional roller-coaster to DayZ, a ‘rawness’ of the simulation and in extension, basic human interaction both good and bad, that makes for some of the most exciting encounters and meaningful decisions in the world of online gaming today. I will never be a shooter fan but I am full of envy for the tension, terror and exhilaration this seemingly simple game is capable of producing. It’s what MMORPG players like myself dream of: the risky tactical play, the screaming and cheering on vent, the epic wins, the real scares and strong sense for friend or foe. The meaningful rewards and choices that can only come from risk and real chance of loss.
None of this would be possible if DayZ changed its present core mechanics or started imposing too many restrictions. I’m all for different server modes, after all that’s what self-hosting is for, but I love PvP DayZ and hope it will always remain this harsh and thrilling setting of basic social mechanisms. Traveling Chernarus, like Minecraft before it, has made me keenly aware of the things I miss in other MMO sessions –
1) Sharing with your next wo/man
There is an overwhelming sense of community in DayZ’s group play, encouraged by both the scarcity of resources and bag space, as well as omnipresent fear of death (which means starting over naked at a random location). Players can’t hoard and won’t hoard because two armed players are better than one and four are better than two. Even as a completely new player, I had people watch my stuff in DayZ, meet me halfway to re-equip me and make sure I was good on food and drink. It’s been a most humbling experience to have others look out for me in such manner.
2) Constant risk, decisions and consequences
Centered around survival with and against other players, DayZ is a game of endless decisions that often need to happen quickly. Dilemmas abound: Do I cross that public square in broad daylight for a chance of food or do I risk my hunger longer? Do I take a chance at the exposed well or try the popular food store? Do I have my weapon at the ready or do I prefer the faster run speed? Do I talk to that person and risk getting shot? Do I shoot first and risk to be heard? If I get heard, what’s my fastest way out? It never ends and paths lead in all directions.
3) Communication, caution and (self-)awareness
We take so many things for granted in other games – zone chats, grouping tools, location indicators, nametags and colors of allegiance that we have stopped communicating our intentions and wishes precisely. There is no need to act considerately or with caution because our actions don’t tend to affect or harm others, so there is very little in terms of self-awareness, of watching our movement and general behavior in MMOs. DayZ brings back the sign language, the reading cues and the very clear communication: Who are you? What do you want and why are you here? What are you up to? Without nametags indicated, identifying yourself to your buddies becomes a test of its own. In my partner’s clan, allies will ‘wiggle’ when approaching the group and state on voice-comm what they are wearing.
4) Running and screaming in terror
What it says. How much I have missed this!
5) A sense of gratitude
Due to high risk and strong sense for friend or foe, DayZ creates moments of gratitude with ease. In contrast, gratitude is something that is mostly gone from the games I am playing; when resources are plentiful, loot is individual and nothing and no one can really harm or save you, there is less need to rely on others and therefore also less opportunity for gratitude. You could say that’s the nature of all PvE-centric games that don’t tend to pressure-test social mechanics outside of maybe high-end raid content but I’m not sure it needs to be. In any case, I’ve really missed gratitude in my social games and DayZ made me realize it. How ironic that an emotion depending so strongly on community and acts of kindness should exist in a PvP rogue-like a lot more than in PvE enviornments.
And a beautiful world it is too.
While this has become quite a love letter for a game I probably won’t make a main, I believe DayZ deserves our attention and curiosity as far as its less popularly promoted aspects go right now. It would be wrong to dismiss this title over its potential for griefing and asshattery or judge it based only on the most visible forum crowd. Paradoxical as it may sound, DayZ offers a wide spectrum of positive social experiences and chances for cooperation (not to forget creativity and hilarious pranks). Such is the nature of freedom – that it can be applied in any which way. And in my limited experience, it’s group play where DayZ really shines.
Like for other games I’ve played in the past and that fall outside my usual high-fantasy MMORPG bracket, I’ve tried to look for inspiring features and opportunities here (while hiking an awful lot). As far as I’m concerned, DayZ is a rich canvas other social games could borrow some intense colors from while still being in this modest stage of early access. The sun hasn’t even begun to rise over Chernarus yet.