I had died again. For the eighth time I had been murdered by a greedy neighbour. I sighed. It was time to switch servers and try it all again. Usually when you spawn on a Rust server, there are a few quiet minutes to get used to your surroundings and look around. Not on my ninth reincarnation. The very instant I popped into the world I heard a voice behind me, yelling.
“Who are you!”
It was more of a statement of rage than a question. Shocked, I turned and saw him. Silhouetted against the sky, a man stood atop a wrecked building, stretching a bow and pointing an arrow at me. His name was Blazing Bazing. He was completely naked.
In Rust you start each life with nothing. Well, not much. A rock, a couple of medkits and a firelight torch. If you are lucky, the server will grant you a starter kit with some basic tools, like a stone hatchet. But mostly you will be born into the world like everyone else – a nude caveman with a heavy rock. Through this rock all else will follow, as you work like a serf at the trees or, more likely, at the woodpiles and boulders that spawn in certain places throughout the wide island map. For anyone with fond memories of Minecraft, the first night in Rust will be familiar. Except sometimes, at night, as you sit huddled by your primitive campfire in the rocky hills, you will hear a gunshot or two. Perhaps distant. Perhaps coming closer. And then you will understand the difference between the child-friendly blockbuilder and this prototype sandpit of anarchy.
Jean Paul Satre said, ‘Hell is other people’. And I should know because I have been that other person. Although Rust shares in the bleakness and permadeath of DayZ, it is a different kind of animal. Both games have in common the lawlessness and fear of multiplayer progenitors like Wurm Online and Mortal Online. Those old worlds offered a universe where the players were their own law. But while they could not let go of their rigid MMO structures, these new survivalist beasts have thrown those constraints off entirely (at least, so far – both games are still in Alpha). It’s an apt comparison, perhaps more for Rust than DayZ. The fact this is a free-for-all is the first thing people will tell you about the game – it’s not the wolves you’ve got to be afraid of. Or the bears, or the cold, or the dark, or the hunger. It’s other people.
“Uh, hello,” I said to the naked man pointing his bow at me. “I’m just a guy.”
He lowered his bow. He dropped down to the grass, approached me and read my screen name out.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr... Blazing.”
Then, with a great amount of authority and a slight Northern English accent, Blazing Bazing straightened up and said: “Okay. You are going to help me kill some people.”
I didn’t know it at the time but it was typical of Blazing’s spirited attitude that he wasted no time in making an acquaintance. Politeness (and no small amount of fear) dictated that I agree to his request. However, I did have to think about it some more. I have never killed another player in Rust, even after 20 hours of fearful hunting and gathering. I had not reached that point of play – the murder threshold – beyond which all players are just another quarry. I reasoned that I should probably find out if these people deserved it.
“What happened?” I asked.
Blazing said that he had been ambushed and shot in the head (“one-shotted,” he said) by a dangerous man wearing Kevlar body armour. And the man’s posse had probably been with him. These were bad people and his vengeance was just.
“He’s a douchebag,” Blazing explained. “You ready?”
“Okay,” he started to lead the way. First, we were going to the scene of the crime, to inspect the body. “Let’s go. What have you got?”
“I have a rock.”
Blazing stopped and turned to me. This was it. I had freshly spawned and I had nothing. I was certain he was going to put an arrow in me right then for being so ill-equipped. I was dead weight. I was for it.
“All right,” he said, turning back to the countryside. “We will stop at mine and pick up gear.” He took off again and I ran behind, following the hypnotic swivel of his buttocks as we made our way around the island via the main road.
I realised that, being a fresh spawn, I too was nude. And there was something freeing and invigorating about that realisation. The fact that we were plotting a murder did not enter my mind as I imagined the breeze washing over us. To me, we were free from worry. I saw us both as other people would have seen us. Just two guys, running down the road in the sunshine, as naked as the day they were born.
I would like to tell you that your first life in Rust will be full of danger, despair, hunger and fear. But the truth is it will only be half full of these things. The other half of your life will be occupied by that perfect surrealism of online videogames. The mechanical oddities, the quirks of language, the customs of the horrible naked denizens of this bizarre New Eden, which is already so full of firearms. You will batter a pig to death with your trusty rock and, upon harvesting his remains, you will find not pork but raw chicken breast. In fact, all animals produce chicken upon death.
Although this is obviously a placeholder meat for the sake of the alpha, it is equally inviting to assume that all the animals are carrying chicken fillets around with them to bring home to their families, or that some apocalyptic mutation has transformed all animal flesh into poultry. Your first life is likely to end, as mine did, by attempting to cook a piece of this chicken over a fire using the game’s opaque cooking mechanisms, before eating a raw piece of the meat by mistake.
Generally speaking, food poisoning is not a bad way to go.
“So, these guys,” I said to Blazing Bazing as we journeyed along the road. “Is there no way you could talk to them? Get your stuff back without a fight?”
“Nah, man.” He ran on, his proud bottom stiffening with the sprint. Taut in the fresh daylight.
“Maybe without violence?” I asked.
“Nah, man. I’m not...” He paused. “I’m not a hippy or owt.”
We stopped in some grassland by the side of the road.
“This is where it happened.”
Blazing’s body was gone but the bag dropped upon death was still there. I was impressed he could find it. He must know the map inside-out, I thought. He stood over the bag and looked through it like a forensic detective investigating a crime.
“They took it all,” he said. “Just a torch left.”
“Well, that’s good at least.”
“Considerate of them to leave the torch though.”
“Not really,” he said.
He spoke matter-of-factly, like there was no time for thoughts like that. He had a whole box full of torches at his hideaway, he said. Leaving a torch meant nothing. Of course I knew that. I just wanted to make idle chatter. He finished up with the bag and stood to face me. Both of our scrotums hung in the air, like little pouches of coin.
“Okay, this is how it’s going to go down. We’re going to go to my place, get geared up, Kevlar, guns. Then we’re going to go get these c**ts.”
“Okay!” I said.
I followed him up a nearby ridge and we traversed the rocks, all bathed in golden sunshine.
“How long have you been playing Rust?” I asked.
“Pretty much since it came out.”
So, he was truly lost, I thought.
“So, you are truly a pro,” I said.
Food poisoning and the cold, as I say, are the least of your worries. Certainly, your second death at the jaws of a ferocious black wolf, or your third death, slowly starving to death on top of a rocky outcrop, will suggest that there are greater problems. The game does well, even without the threat of others, to enforce on you the immediate desire for shelter, weapons, tools, food and safety. It does not take long to internalise your own hierarchy of needs, especially when you see the buildings of other players dotted around. Some of these are small shacks hidden in the forests.
Others are stately palaces rising proudly out of resource-spoiled valleys, close to the spawning wood and rocks.
Buildings like this require tens of thousands of wood logs to create – much more than the immediate surrounding area will spawn in a night. Others still are citadels surrounded by a forest of pillars rising like wide brown needles into the sky.
Or towering wooden skyscrapers that are only made more eerily sturdy by the fact that there is, as yet, no ‘creaking’ sound effect.
The only thing more imposing than marvelling at these plank fortresses is stumbling across one of the architects. These are players who may have been building these structures on the server for weeks, possibly months. They are, like all Rust players, acerbically defensive of their homes. The paranoia runs deep in a world without laws. I was once trapped at sundown in a derelict concrete hovel near a frighteningly tall tower, after the man who lived in the tower came out and heard me rustling around.
Within earshot of him, I tried to talk. I was friendly, I said. I was just a new player trying to make his way in the game.
“Well, go make it somewhere else, buddy,” he said. “I shoot on sight.”
Night fell and, under the cover of darkness, I left the concrete shelter.
We reached Blazing Bazing’s mountaintop headquarters shortly afterward – a wide wooden hut built for functionality and not especially picturesque. We were stopping off to look for the war supplies he had secreted away. We would need them for the assault. But what we found was not what he or I expected. A gaping hole had been torn open in the side of his house where someone had dismantled an entire wall. Piles of storage crates lay exposed and Blazing walked in through the gap. He stood there, silent and solemn, and looked into the boxes.
“I’ve been raided,” he said.
He trotted back out into the open air and I followed him round the side of his house, where he entered a small storage shed. He told me to come in and closed the door. Part of me (the DayZ part) froze up in expectation of a trap. But Blazing simply turned his back on me, rummaged through his crates, muttered something about metal fragments, and told me that this was his back up stuff.
I was amazed that someone as long in the tooth as Blazing would be so trusting of someone they didn’t know. Every encounter I had had so far taught me that wariness was the most respectable emotion in Rust. Yet here I was, standing in a stranger’s home – or part of it. Maybe he was just a really trusting guy. Or maybe he was just so unthreatened by me that it never crossed his mind that I might try and double-cross him. In any case, he would have been right. Blazing Bazing sort of frightened me.
“Do you have much saved in here?”
“Not much,” he said, “but it gets me through the day.”
That’s it, I thought. The plan will have to change now. We can’t take on a posse of body-armoured men with guns using just our wits, one bow and a rock. We’ll have to hunker down. Maybe take a few days breather. Build up some supplies. Strategise.
“Change of plan,” said Blazing. “I’m going to make a gun.”
“Then you can take this bow.”
“Then we’re going to get them.”
Blazing Bazing constructed his P250 pistol in seconds and dropped the bow on the floor for me to scoop up. A thirst for vengeance does wild things to a man. The plan was not changing.
“You ready for this!?” he said loudly.
I picked up the bow and equipped it.
He loaded his new gun, ran out into the daylight and I followed suit. And I really must emphasise that we were still both naked during this entire debacle.
Perhaps before your fourth death you will see an airdrop. Hacking away at a pile of logs, you might hear a strange droning noise. It is the sound of a plane engine. You will come to both love and fear this sound. Look up and you might see the plane passing overhead, or it might fly over a distant valley. Wherever it goes, it is going to make an airdrop. One or two boxes will fall from the plane on parachutes and drift slowly to earth. You’ve got lucky, you can see where the goods are falling. The problem is: so has everybody else.
Multiplayer survival games like Rust work by forcing the players into a limited space, with limited resources. If you make the map too big, or the resources too easily gathered, lone players will rarely interact. They’ll just hide away and work on their homes. Rust’s map is not as big as it first appears and most players will stick close to the road which circles the land in a warped loop. I know this road because I once did an entire circuit of it in a mad dash. It is lonely, animal infested, often irradiated, and peppered with abandoned creations of players who are either logged off or have long quit playing. It takes less than a day in-game to sprint around the entire circuit. On a sever with 30 players, I was shot at once by an unknown gunman, once by a pair of men with arrows, and encountered one other player who may or may not have been trying to get close enough to stab me with a pickaxe. I can only imagine what running the road would be like on a full server roster of 100.
Even with this kind of enforced crowding, there are plenty of places to hide away, especially in the rocky heights. So, there needs to be something that brings the more reclusive players out into the places they would not normally go. Thus, airdrops. When an airdrop arrives, there is a sudden and sustained explosion of deaths on the server’s chat feed, as players scramble out of their holes and make for the materials. I was only once successful at this frantic Hunger Games, after my only visible competitor was mauled to death by a bear just as he reached the crates. Inside, there was a good amount of house-building materials and two rare explosive charges. I emptied the supply crate as fast as possible and sprinted back to my hideaway, where I used the building materials to create some false entrances. I stuffed the explosives in a leather sock at the foot of my bed.
I would never get to use the explosives, sadly. That home was lost to a server wipe – the most ignoble and unpreventable of Rust deaths.
Blazing Bazing and I made our way back down the ridge from his headquarters, through the labyrinth of hoodoos and boulders. We were on the hunt now. Blazing knew where our targets lived and he was in a rush to get his revenge. But I still felt the need to know more.
“So, you’ve killed these guys before?”
“Yeah,” he said, “killed him loads. Killed his whole group all at once before.”
“So, it’s an ongoing feud?”
I did not know who the ‘him’ was. I guessed it was the man who shot him most recently. The man who ‘one-shotted’ him. We kept jogging. A few minutes passed in silence.
“So, why are you fighting with him in the first place?” I asked.
“Just because. Because he’s a faggot.”
The people of Rust are an odd bunch. As with any online game, there are griefers. Of course, Rust is, to a large extent, a grief simulator. The harshness and freedom go hand in hand, the fear and insecurity would not be there if some people were not prepared to be the jerk who ‘one-shots’ you. Complaining about said jerks is therefore quite complicated.
I have made this point before about DayZ. The difference I think, however, is that DayZ players (whether nasty or nice) seem more ready to roleplay and create scenarios that are interesting all round. This is perhaps because they have more power to interfere with others – force feeding, handcuffing, bagging, transfusing blood. There are more ‘props’ and therefore more possibilities. Whereas the only interference encouraged by gameplay mechanics in Rust (at least that I could see) is to kill. You could still hold somebody up, or capture two people and make them fight, for example. But the role play is more limited than in Bohemia’s zombie apocalypse. This, along with the crafting system, makes it much more recognisably ‘gamey’ and less of a simulation or a roleplay.
Or maybe I have just been unlucky in my choice of servers. For instance, I have heard tales of two sheriffs called ‘War’ and ‘Famine’ patrolling the RPS’ Rust server before it went down, confiscating weapons from players to enforce an anti gun law. In some of these tales the sheriffs are headless wraiths. I am not joking. Here is what one of the RPS players said to me about it:
“...two killable but mighty agents of death. They sometimes roam the server, looking for weapons of mass destruction, headless as they are, and use force to its fullest extent. If they suspect you have weapons, they will hunt you down and take them but more importantly: players can snitch on other players by sending the admins a ticket.”
Frightening stuff, to be sure. And it proves that there are those out there willing to make the most of it, so long as you can find them. All the same, you might spend a long time looking for that sweet spot. By the time you die for the fifth time (throwing yourself off a mountaintop because you have become so badly lost) you will have changed servers many times. Because it was too laggy, or because all the best building spots were overpopulated, or because the server did not allow for sleeping bags (an item that allows you to respawn wherever you have placed it). Or maybe just because the other people were spamming the chat feed.
Like I said, Hell is other people.
Blazing and I made our way speechlessly toward the road and began the journey to wherever it was this group was set up. What little conversation there was between us seemed to have dried up. The sun was on the narrow side of the day but there was still plenty of time to get where we were going, I thought. At least, there would have been, had Blazing not stopped on the road and called to me:
“There’s a player!”
There were two of them, both as naked as we were, standing just off the road ahead of us. One of them was priming a bow at a red bear. The other I couldn’t see well. But I knew he was there. They had not spotted us yet.
“Are you ready!?” said Blazing.
He sprinted down the road like a naked marine, shouting at the pair, while I loosed an arrow in their general direction. It fell far from the mark. I’m not sure my heart was in the fight. Even if it had been I would have missed – there are no crosshairs in Rust, so accurate arrow shots from this distance take a little practice. I gave up firing and ran after Blazing, who was yelling at the players to stand still and let him see their names.
“Stop!” he said. “We will let you go if you aren’t the person who killed me!”
Then, a gunshot. The second man had drawn a pistol and started blasting away at Blazing. Arrows whizzed past my head from the other. Complete panic took over when a mutant bear joined the melee. Bullets rained down on me.
I took cover behind a random wooden barricade, some other player’s shield in a distant past. After a few seconds, the shooting stopped. There was a moment of silence. Then I heard Blazing’s voice, as dry and matter-of-fact as it had ever been.
“One of them got away.”
I stepped out and saw him standing over a body. He had killed the one with the pistol. The bowman was nowhere to be seen. He had done what any smart Rust player will do when faced with 2 on 1 odds. He had fled.
Co-operation is a great thing. It has even more value in a world like Rust, where most of the time people would rather kill you simply for being there. Those huge monolithic wooden homes were not built by single people but by groups of people working together. It’s the only way to make something so big last so long. But just like DayZ, co-operation is often limited to groups of Real Life Friends. Co-operation between strangers is rare.
In my early days, I both sought and offered help to others. I would approach people and offer them chicken, it being the only thing I could reliably produce. The best response was someone running away from me, screaming that they didn’t want my help, to leave them alone and, please, not to kill them. The worst response was for them to shout, “Yes! You give chicken!” before pointing their gun at me, calling over their armed cohorts and adding the word “now” like they were desperate addicts. In the latter case, it was perhaps unwise of me to insist they had to buy the chicken.
“WHAT YOU SAY?” they said, before a wave of bullets and shotgun pellets blasted through me, like a hailstorm. Your sixth death might be something similar. Co-operation is so hard to come by that even the suggestion of it from a stranger will lift your spirits.
An aeroplane crossed the sky one morning. As every player within eyesight of it dropped what they were doing and watched for it to drop its load, I was already running to meet its path. It cast out the supplies above a maze of rocks on a high ridge. Searching my way through the maze another player, holding a gun, appeared from around the bend.
“Friendly!” I shouted. “I’m just looking for the airdrop!” Maybe we could share it, I thought.
He stopped and asked: “Have you got any wood?”
He pointed above me with his gun. “It’s up there. If you have some wood we can build stairs to reach it.”
I looked directly up. Sure enough, the storage box of dreams dangled from the edge of a pillar of rock right above me. This was excellent. This needed teamwork, thought, planning. We were going to work together.
“I don’t have any wood,” I said. “But I can –
The gunshot came quickly. He had marched up to me as I looked up, pointed his pistol directly at my head and pulled the trigger. We were not going to share. We were not going to work together. Something like this may happen to you. Your seventh death may be a tough thing to bear.
Eventually, you will harden into a life of hermitage. Dashing out of your hut to gather as many nearby resources as you can before scurrying back, like a beetle, to shove ore after ore into your furnace and sand your wood into firm planks. You will be so focused on building a more secure home that you will hide from any sound, scampering over to your fire to put it out, lest the crackling noise give your home’s secret position away. You will not notice the leather pouches in your house filling up with detritus.
And when a man murders you as you step out your front door, he will be confused that your tragic house contains nothing of great worth. Your eighth death was all for naught. Just five or six small leather pouches, every one filled with nothing but charcoal.
“We have a gun for you now,” said Blazing. He threw the pistol and some ammo on the ground for me and went back to rustling through the deceased’s bag of belongings. I never stopped to think about where this bag comes from when someone dies. Nobody actually wears any visible backpack in the game, so you just accept that your body has some magical form of storage, a la mid-90s FPS action heroes. Blazing stood over the body, inspecting the loot he obviously did not want to share. I looked at the corpse. The sun was going down.
“Do you ever feel bad about killing people?” I asked.
He waited a moment before he spoke. Then he said, simply: “I told them.”
Then Blazing just stood there. A minute passed. Two minutes. Three minutes.
He stood motionless at the body. Looking straight at it. It is easy for me to look at this scene now and know that Blazing had simply been disconnected, or there was a serious gust of server lag that had frozen him in place in my game. But in the orange glow of sunset it seemed for a second that he might still be at the keyboard, catatonic with trauma over the killing. ‘Another murder,’ he might be thinking. ‘Another dead by my hands. When will it end? When will this terrible feud die, as so many of us have died?’
I contemplated this sad man in the last glowing embers of the day, and then I was savaged to death by a wolf.
“Fuck! Blazing, help!” I shouted, the flash of my muzzle lighting up the wolf’s slavering jaws as I fired all four or five of my bullets in the dark. I missed too many times. The wolf kept coming. I was caught on a piece of rock when the animal tore into me and I started bleeding heavily. “Blazing!” I shouted. But he just stood there in the darkness, looking at the naked cadaver in front of him, saying nothing as I died for the ninth time.
The reason I chose Blazing Bazing to write about (apart from the fact it was the most interesting prolonged encounter I had with a stranger in Rust) is because his tale embodies everything about the game and its populace – or almost everything. He was aggressive, yet trusting. He was selfish first, but sharing second. He was resourceful, yet unlucky. He was reckless (or brave). He was surreal in the first degree. Yet unquestionably offensive, in that typical adolescent way of humans on the internet. In the end, I don’t even know whether I liked him or not. He was chaotic as hell. And that’s really what Rust seemed like to me, even at the best of times. Like a weird, frustrating, funny, chaotic, utterly compelling vision of hell. Full of other people.