In an interview with PCGamer magazine, DayZ creator Dean Hall recounted a scarring training experience from his early days as a soldier. A native New Zealander and member of the Air Force, he was part of an exchange program with the Singapore military when he participated in a 30-day survival simulation in the jungle. Admittedly pampered from New Zealand’s comparatively large military meals, he had eaten through his rationed food in two weeks. From there, it only got worse: his fingernails turned yellow from lack of nutrition, he nearly poisoned himself on inedible local fauna, bouts of dysentery from the unclean jungle water left him perpetually dehydrated, his hair fell out from stress and lack of sleep. The platoon of eight Singaporean soldiers he was supposed to be commanding considered leaving him; he considered calling out. At the end—twenty-five kilos lighter and permanently shaken—he was lifted out of the jungle by a helicopter. Finally out of the nightmare, a soldier onboard gave him a biscuit. This small act of human kindness left him weeping for hours. Add a hoard of ravenous zombies and replace the jungle with a semi-industrial Russian wasteland, and you’ve got the essence of DayZ.
The game started as an independent project that Hall worked on in his free time, a ‘mod’ of the open-word tactical shooter ARMA II after the New Zealand military turned down the idea of using it as a training exercise. This initial game features a massive, 225 KM, fully-explorable map set in the fictional post-Soviet state of Chenarus, and a ballistics simulation engine advanced enough to make even the most trigger-happy gun fetishist drool. But when Hall approached it, he didn’t see these elements as a completed product—he saw the groundwork for a survival-horror experience.
During nights and weekends, he programmed a rudimentary AI for the zombies that would populate his post-catastrophe Chenarus. He added rough mechanics for making blood pressure, temperature, food and water integral to performance, and he designed infectious diseases capable of killing the player-characters. The project was expedited when he got a job with ARMA II’s developer, Bohemia Interactive, primarily on the grounds of some eager Skype conversations discussing his project with their creative director. Finally, with Bohemia’s support, he released an Alpha version of the game this past May. None of his features worked properly, up to the point that zombies occasionally ran through walls. It had no user manual, no plot, and was designed to brutally kill the player over and over with no remorse.
In the four months since, DayZ has gained over a million players and has announced a follow-up, standalone title. The game is making Bohemia more money than the base ARMA game, and multiple critics have lauded it as the greatest zombie game of all time. Seemingly inexplicably, one man’s free-time designs have become an industry juggernaut—even in spite of the glaring errors. How?
The player wakes up on a beach. Earlier versions of the mod came with the comforts of a can of beans and a pistol; now all you get is a torch. Even from this first moment, the game is savvy enough with inventory limitations and human necessities to make every decision feel like a life-or-death one. You find some supplies at a deer camp off the road: Do I take the can of food or the spare bullets? You’re hungry and have no food, but night is approaching: Do I scavenge the infested city, or do I flee into the wilderness?
Regardless of what you decide, the first time you play, you’ll be dead within thirty minutes. Only conditioned playing and repeated mistakes can teach certain lessons. Don’t run in the streets, find shelter at night, refill the canteen at every opportunity. More importantly, Hall’s zombies aren’t lumbering Romero undead. His fast-and-loose programming created monsters with completely incomprehensible behavior — they’re aggressive, agile, and frighteningly twitchy. He designed them to possess enhanced smell and hearing, but with the present state of the coding, this means anything and everything can alert one to your position regardless of how careful you might be. Stopping to eat attracts zombies; asking aloud if anyone is in town attracts zombies; running and walking attracts zombies; being stupid attracts zombies; hanging out by a tree attracts zombies. Even after getting eaten alive for the first few times, the learning curve is steep—the average player life span is four hours.
Many of the game’s flaws stem from this overzealously pernicious attitude towards its players. The program wants to break your legs when you fall off a ladder, because crawling and bleeding and praying you can get out of the city before the sun sets is the type of back-against-the-wall terror that Hall envisioned when he designed the game. But after you’ve been devoured— perhaps you nosily crawled over a tin can, or the smell of your wounds was the dinner bell the creatures wanted—you wake up on the beach and decide to try the woods instead this time around. One too many bad experiences taught you to avoid the metropolitan areas, but the uneven terrain out in wilderness presents a different kind of threat; walking over rocks at the wrong angle gets the physics engine a little excited, and every now and again it’ll snap both your legs. There’s no threat around but boredom and you eventually die of starvation, bitterly wondering when Hall might get around to polishing his rough, though admittedly interesting features.
Even this occasional unplayability is forgivable in exchange for what the game can offer. Maybe around your dozenth time waking up on the beach, you’ll encounter another player. The presence of another living soul heightens the intensity more than you would expect. It might be a bandit robbing you of the few supplies you have, or, if you’re lucky, another new player who is trusting enough to start a partnership. Working with someone else means you’ll last longer, but it comes with the added gravity of emotional and psychological investment. At some point, food is going to get scarce in the dark of the woods and some tough conversations will have to be had, hands tightening around weapons. The seemingly impossible positions aren’t just frustrating, lonesome challenges anymore – shared between two people, the game carries more hope for survival and greater finality when the ever-looming death arrives. At these teeth-clenching points, the game is at its best: you can test out all those “What if, like, zombies were, like, actually real?” scenarios bandied around endlessly with your friends. With the screaming hoard bearing down, now you really find out if you’re the kind of guy who will stick out his neck to help out a practical stranger. How quickly is loyalty forged and how firm does it hold? Other players will invest just as much as you, so when you’re hiding around the corner in fear, they’ll play the part of the betrayed partner quite convincingly—gut-wrenching screams and all.
Combine Hall’s sadistic, gestalt-therapy coding with other real players—other survivors trying to find their way through the same nightmare that you are—and the effect is bound to be consuming. On player forums there have been enough reports of gamers suffering from severe bouts of the shakes after long enough in-game sessions that Hall might want to seriously consider hiring a lawyer.
At its most brilliant (read: most functional), DayZ is capable of providing a long-awaited blank slate on which gamers can project their zombie survival fantasies. That’s all it ever took—a place for enthusiasts to play through their apocalypse-readiness strategies and see if all the ‘What would you do?’ posturing holds up. It’s not much of a surprise that entire websites have come about for the sole purpose of giving fans a place to tell their “DayZ Story.” Of course, some of them might be the kind of crock usually manufactured in bars, but by completely abandoning concepts of character and plot (there is, as of yet, no in-game explanation for the zombies), the players have the capacity to create, develop, and fully live the stories themselves. The possibilities are infinite—every time you wake up on that beach, there is another zombie-survival movie waiting to be simultaneously played and imagined. Every other gamer is another character, another scene to be explored. It’s accepted—here and there even embraced—that the coding is bad. But the mechanics only needed to give the players a rough stage to work on, and they have happily jumped on as actors.
Anyone interested in the possibilities this presents should get involved now. At first, Hall publicly stated that he was thinking up new ways to kill pesky groups of survivors that managed to eke out sustainable in-game living. More recently, though, he has reversed this stance. Regardless of how difficult he made his game, the players overcame it and evolved past the initial survival stage of zombie-apocalypse scenarios. Moving forward with development, he’s sticking with what made the game initially great: giving the players a base platform to work with and seeing what they make of it. Instead of killing off these groups and forcing them to play through from the beach all over again, he’s designing mechanics for fortified bases, farms, and even underground cities—new tools to continue their narrative.
Of course, these are changes drastic enough to alter the world’s fundamental nature. By the time the standalone version is released, it will be a different type of zombie game, one populated by warlords and factions, political intrigue and gamesmanship. Instead of day-to-day survival horror, the principal fears will focus on more human dangers and the borderline-tribalism that comes with social instability. This will be an experiment that explores what happens when panic and fear become institutionalized, nullifying the instinct toward greater inter-community and justice. Fascinating—and perhaps as innovate as the current incarnation of the mod—but leaps and bounds away from what Hall is offering now.
It’s possible that DayZ will never be better, even with the present flaws, than it is now. The community and the stories are still in their earliest, most thrilling and primal stage. Jumping in this early means you get to be a part of this world’s development, right at the birth of a disaster, a time when everyone—including the developers—are scrambling to figure out the next move. Just try not to get too eaten up.
By Andrew Thurman