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.