Premature Evaluation: H1Z1 – Just Survive

There’s an archetypical plot running through a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and particularly zombie fiction, where the survivors realize that they never before felt as alive as they do in the midst of their fight for survival. World War Z has no shortage of characters who found meaning and purpose in the zombie apocalypse, a disaster that liberated them from postmodern malaise. A similar sentiment ran through a couple early issues of The Walking Dead. Several times during its run, Battlestar Galactica paused to show you just how lost and hopeless the main characters were before their world was destroyed. If only, such fiction says, something awful would come along and imbue our lives with meaning as we fight to preserve them.

In H1Z1: Just Survive [official site], I think I’ve found the cure for apocalyptic romanticism. Because its name proves to be a pretty accurate summary of what’s on offer in this Early Access build, and a reminder that sometimes survival isn’t enough. Even in a survival game.

I found myself thinking about meaning a lot during my time with H1Z1, which is a game that certainly gives plenty of space for introspection. As I crept around the small town of Pleasant Valley, looting one cookie-cutter office building and tract home after another while avoiding the surprisingly sparse population of zombies, I started to wonder why I should be so invested in acquiring old cans of food and bottles of fresh water. An entire hour could pass with little to show for it except a handful of pistol ammunition and a few wooden planks for construction. Then I’d have to stand by a bed for 20 seconds and rest, and perhaps eat some food in order to recharge my energy and hydration bars. I was certainly surviving… but it didn’t feel like living.

Which is perhaps a fine feeling for a zombie-apocalypse game to evoke, but it’s not a particularly exciting one. H1Z1 constantly made me feel the heaviness of survival: being unable to carry good loot because I’m already overburdened, and being forced to dump precious foot and weapons on the ground to make room for scrap materials for a shelter. Avoiding a wild animal or a zombie because it’s just not worth the two or three shots it would take to kill, when I’ve only got an empty rifle and a pistol with half a magazine.

Yet survival itself isn’t that hard in H1Z1. It’s quite easy, in fact, to just keep on going. There’s no shortage of food in the world, especially around towns and in deserted highway gas stations. What’s difficult is making progress beyond bare survival. H1Z1 is a stingy game that only grudgingly awards effort, because its chief concession toward realism is that building anything in a world stripped-bare by disaster is incredibly difficult.

Where H1Z1 started to really lose me was with resource harvesting. In order to get the raw material you need to build (fairly boring and unappealing) shelters that let you store gear and hoard resources, you have to find lots of crates and scrapped cars and hack the hell out them with crowbars and sledgehammers. Then you take scrap wood and metal and use it to craft things like walls and foundations for a base. Often, I found I wasn’t able to carry many of the items I needed to construct a fort, because all the material is fairly bulky. So I would have to make lots of small trips back to abandoned warehouses and garages in order to find more things to hack into pieces.

I’m still trying to put my finger on why these aspects of H1Z1 turned me off so badly, while Rust ended up exerting a weird fascination. I think part of that is related to the fact that Rust is having more fun with survival. It’s about the cycle of life in a multiplayer survival sim: you start with nothing, you quickly gather resources and start building advanced tools and weapons, you have fun feeling powerful and clever, and then you get killed and start the process over again. That cycle is compressed in Rust. In H1Z1, it’s dragged-out across many more hours of things that feel like work, not play or exploration.

Admittedly, H1Z1 is trying to be realistic while Rust is fundamentally absurdist and inexplicable. But the ways in which H1Z1 is realistic, and the ways that it is not, got me thinking about those issues of meaning in apocalyptic fiction.

H1Z1 always feels like a world that was abandoned before it was completed. Its repeated building layouts and monotonous textures make it feel like a cheap movie set. That also means that its harshness is never juxtaposed against a convincing backdrop of loss or disaster. There are few places in the world that raise questions about what went wrong, nor even hint at what came before. Pleasant Valley is empty and desolate because it was built to be a resource-rich warren of buildings in a survival game. H1Z1 is realistic about things like resource scarcity and carrying capacity, yet totally devoid of a sense of connection to reality.

Humanity and realism come, imperfectly and inconsistently, from the people who play H1Z1. While reading up on the game’s community had me prepared for the worst, from abusive hackers to kill-on-sight mass murderers, the H1Z1 players I met were almost universally helpful and decent. There was the guy who stole my car full of gear, only to come back when I shouted at him, apologize, and give it back.

Another player kept trying to run me down with his car until I somewhat pathetically said, “Hey c’mon man, it took me forever to get here.” Then he hopped out and started giving me pointers.

Those moments are what H1Z1 is built to facilitate. You glimpse a silhouette through a stand of trees, and wonder if it’s a zombie, a killer, or maybe even a potential ally. It’s always nerve-wracking, especially when you realize you’ve been spotted and you’re ill-equipped for a battle.

But outside of those moments, the apocalyptic fiction that H1Z1 really left me thinking about was The Road, and in particular the woman. There’s a point, midway through the story, when it’s revealed why she left the main characters, the man and the boy: she couldn’t go on surviving. It was, she explained, just prolonging what was almost sure to be an agonizing journey ending in death or torture. She didn’t see the point in going on. People need more than to just survive.

H1Z1 is available on Steam for £14.99 / $19.99. My impressions are based on build 1021140 on 28 March 2016.

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16 Comments

  1. wz says:

    Premature evaluation piece? Shouldn’t these articles have some information on what stage the game is in compared to where it’s going? Maybe an email to devs if that information isn’t available..

    • vahnn says:

      It’s always stated at the bottom of PremEval articles which build/version of the game they’re on and the date(s) they played. Maybe they tacked it on after your comment, but I can’t remember a time I’ve seen a PremEval without this info.

      • wz says:

        I didn’t mean the internal build version which is just a number – more what the devs hoped to achieve by release in each applicable department, considering the type of game, compared to what was available now (at the very least devs can give some indication of the depth in each area they’ll be satisfied with by release compared to now).

        • behrooz says:

          In a universe that contains Space Base DF-9, what the devs say they want to do should be accorded the grave consideration of a gnat’s fart in a windstorm.

  2. buenaventura says:

    I’ve read RPS for a while now, but this article has made me register and disable my ad-blocker (I hope to afford becoming premium member soon).
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the book that has moved me the most, and it is truly the most considered and heart-wrenching account of a post-apocalypse future I have ever encountered, the crack antidote to the rampant romanticism. Every other apocalypse fiction is Sesame Street compared to The Road, the language is the best I’ve read, the authenticity of the child and the world is harrowing. I have two children of my own, and I felt so hopeless and terrified reading that book, but it was so good still. The movie sucks in comparison.
    Who cares about H1Z1 development, these articles is what makes RPS the only worthwhile games site I know of.
    You people are like the London Review of Books for games, great work!

  3. Wednesday says:

    People love to rag on the newer Fallout games but if you take a moment and look both 3 and 4 are littered with sadness, and most of it is implicit rather than in your face.

    When people say Bethesda can’t write I always think of a log by a nurse resolutely and pointlessly trying to save lives and hold on shortly after the bombs.

    • buenaventura says:

      I did play Fallout 3, and I do remember that log too. I also remember the child orphaned that you bring to a foster family in the boat, it was all touching, I wish there was more of it. I just hated the voice acting 80% of the time, and the Brotherhood is just to damp camp to endure, and most of it is just slaughtering raiders mercilessly. I have not played Fallout 4, I was shaken by the trailer with the baby and all though, I’m too soft to play such things since having (real!) children. I liked New Vegas alot, the setting was so much more vivid and open I felt, just walking around. It dried up after a while though, and the main story was uninteresting.
      I am pretty sure that no game come close to the hopelessness, meaninglessness, gruesome violence and it’s effects, love and despair, as mercilessly portrayed in The Road though, no game can do I guess.
      You should read it!

    • Bodylotion says:

      Fallout 3 & 4 are enjoyable games but I wouldn’t play those games for the great writing. Personally, as a non-native English speaker, I believe Bethesda’s writing is simplistic to the point it looks like their target age is 12-16.
      When it comes to good writing just take a look at Obsidian or Bioware. The original Fallout games, Pillars Of Eternity, Fallout New Vegas (especially Old World Blues dlc), Mass Effect, Knights Of The Old Republic are just a few examples of how writing in a game should be.

      A lot of people praise Fallout 3 for it’s story (it even got an award for it I believe) but Bethesda just combined Fallout 1 & 2’s story together, at least Obsidian came up with something new in New Vegas.
      Fallout 4, although it has lots of content, doesn’t feel like a RPG anymore but more like a sandbox action game.

      • buenaventura says:

        I remember being positively surprised at New Vegas’s writing, it felt like Fallout 3 was for the 12yr olds, and then they made the real Fallout in New Vegas. Pillars of Eternity was even better, its sad that other games do not make use of the text medium to describe events and moods as well as dialogue, like Pillars does – it works better than animating stuff I feel.

        • Bodylotion says:

          Yes that’s exactly what I mean. Like I said English is not my native language but even I could see the huge difference between the writing so I wonder what native English speakers think about the writing in Fallout 3.
          There are other games that do the writing just as well as Pillars; Baldurs Gate (2) and Planescape Torment to name a few.

  4. buenaventura says:

    There you go! I am now reading the Border Trilogy by McCarthy, have you read that? Alot more cheery (which is to say it’s not cheery but not so very bleak), but still virtuoso in language and engaging, I especially like the second book, McCarthy often writes on religion in a captivating and believable way. The attention to detail and environment is simply stunning. I read about half Blood Meridian but it was a lot of violence without much to keep me in it, very anonymous protagonist. It’s like you took The Road and took out the protagonists and upped the carnage 10 notches.
    Another post apocalypse I enjoyed as being more thoughtful and refreshing than most such was Hugh Howey’s Silo trilogy, have you read those?

  5. MykulJaxin says:

    How do you pronounce the title? I say “Hizzy.”

  6. RegisteredUser says:

    Isn’t this the scammy 8000 times renamed zombie game that should have just that pointed out or is this actually a different one?