You're new around here. Let me tell you who I am. My name is Quinns. I am a scavenger, and I am a survivor, and I have had a shit day. I spent ten hours searching for salvage out in the desert, and when I finally came back to this town dragging this here piece of scrap iron, I discovered that some desperate soul had raided my tent and stolen the only belonging I left at home. They took my doggy bag of food. Do you know what a gallows is? Well, I'll tell you. A gallows is what we build when souls take my food.
I suspect that real-time multiplayer browser games - the kind where players log in throughout the day to check their status and perform actions - have incredible potential that we only rarely see realised. Earlier this year eight of us experienced the slow-motion horror of Neptune's Pride, and now I've gotten involved in the English-language beta of free to play zombie apocalypse survival game Die2Night.
Die2Night does a lot that's different, and a lot that's interesting (not to mention a lot that's been praised by the French gaming press). Your character gets dropped into a village with a randomised name (I'm currently living in the quaint Horrifying Harbour of Crime) with perhaps 40 other players from your time zone, and your group objective is to survive. Every real-world night the village gets assaulted by zombies, and every day the lot of you head out into the desert to scavenge for items and use them to build anything from walls to guard towers to workshops.
A couple of twists on this are that first of all, there's lots of potential for passive aggression. Your village has a wall around it and can only be entered through a main gate, which in turn can only be opened or closed from the inside. If somebody closes the gate too early, the stragglers have no choice but to leave a frenzied posts on your town's forum to try and save themselves from becoming a late-night snack. If nobody remembers to close the gate, your town is transformed into an all they can eat buffet.
Which is the immediately gripping thing about Die2Nite. You can die. The whole town can die. The whole town will die. Not unlike Dwarf Fortress, your situation in Die2Night could be compared to a cardboard box with increasingly fat men coming along and sitting on it. Your world will crumple, and the game's in preventing that for as long as possible. Except in Die2Night you're not controlling Dwarf Fortress's omniscient overseer, you're controlling a dwarf, so to speak.
This is why the size of the playerbase is so perfect. When there's only 40 of you, you're all important. For one thing, new players aren't added after your village is created, and for another thing any dead players become more zombies. Also, in a group that small it's easy for anybody to rise up and become leaders by giving advice and issuing orders on your town's messageboard, and anyone trying to be a lone wolf and look after themselves (taking items from the town's supply dump, say, or stealing) will not only make a noticeable impact, but it's a relatively easy process to turn enough of the town against them to get them banished, or even hung. Alex Dodds, developer of Motion Twin, couldn't resist sharing this story with me:
During the French beta, a group of 6 friends acted up in a town, stealing and generally being unproductive in order to get banished. They then staged a revolt (this is a game mod which will soon be activated in Die2Nite), which means that all the citizens of a town are banished and the formerly banished are reinstated as citizens, thus only giving those 6 players access to the well and the water supply. They proceeded to tell the banished citizens that they would only get water in return for work carried out on construction sites, and for objects found in the World Beyond. They managed to instil a system of slavery, which worked very well, and the town lasted some time! Sometimes the devious thrive in Die2Nite!
Even in my unorganised town's forum there's a subtext of a power struggle, although here it's more of a non-contact sport. One guy in my town, Daniel, discovered the mood of the town had turned against him when he logged in to find a load of "selfish play" reports had been filed against him. Turns out this was because he'd upgraded his tent to a hovel, thereby using up wood which should have been saved for the town workshop. The lure to build additions to your house is a very real threat, because each time you upgrade it more exciting new options reveal themselves, and if the nightly zombies break through the town's defenses then the citizens sleeping in tents or holes get eaten first.
Maybe I'm giving the impression that Die2Nite is all paranoia and tatty survivors arguing over packs of crackers. It can be that, certainly, but there's a depth of heroism here too. Players on expeditions into the desert frequently get pinned down by zombies, and it's a full time job to go out and rescue them. Heroism is where the game makes its money, in fact. While anyone can sign up for Die2Nite and play as a Resident, you can also purchase months of "Hero Time" that allow you to play as one of the three hero classses- Scavenger, Scout, and Guardian, who find things, spot things and protect things, respectively. Playing as a Hero also means you rack up experience, and progress through a whole collection of abilities.
Come to think of it, I haven't logged in today. Let's see how last night's attack went.
Oh, no. We left the gate open. Never underestimate the incompetence of humans. 11 dead, 3 injured. That brings Horrifying Harbour of Crime down to 29 citizens.
Well, no sense standing around feeling sorry for ourselves. We need to drag those bodies out of here, or tomorrow night they'll come back as zombies inside the damn town. But that's grunt work. I'm a scavenger. I've got better things to be doing.
Heading off into the desert, it's not long before I find something. There's a doggy bag of food on the ground.
I wonder if it's mine? Did my attacker take it, and... oh my. We may have lost 11 men, but it seems justice is still alive and with us. I pocket the lunch and slink on. I endure. We all do. What else is there?