A large part of the internet is telling Day Z stories. People feel compelled to communicate what they've experienced in there. There's a good reason for that. This unfinished modification is more interesting than 90% of games that will land in the same year. It is a game that - for many people - represents this kind of experience we were promised. An open-world, persistent, zombie game, where survival is the goal, and where each encounter with another real human being is a moment of terrible tension. What's astonishing about this unassuming zombie mod is that it manages to take what is most interesting about MMOs - persistence, co-operation, risk of genuine loss in PvP - and add them to a multi-server FPS. Not just any FPS, either, but the monstrously deep simulation provided by master soldier sim, Arma 2. It's unflinchingly bleak. It offers freedom, while threatening destruction. The stories that result from it are enthralling.
There's also an uneasy feeling here, because once you start playing, you understand exactly why it has captured our imaginations. It makes you wonder why it took this long to happen. It's almost too obvious. And consequently this is already the most intense, evocative, and interesting game I've played in 2012. If this year can offer up a more potent and affecting game experience before it closes, then I will be amazed, and blessed.
After the events of my first diary, myself and my real world chum, James from Big Robot, began to work with a few other RPS readers. We moved away from the coast, where waves of incoming newbies (and the bandits who prey on them) make life difficult. I began to be amazed at how much the persistence aspect of the game mattered. To die, and potentially lose everything that we had scavenged, seemed like a huge danger. We had to avoid it. We had to survive. And all it took to die was a moment's loss of vigilance. A hungry newbie with his last bullet... For a while we began to try and fix up a car so that we could drive north to safety. After a while I took to simply watching our group from a hilltop tree line, where I could see what was going on in the valley - and see enemies coming - keeping my allies safe. The extent to which working with small bands of people you can trust matters is more powerful in Day Z than in any game that expects grouping mechanics by default.
Anyway, I had - with some annoyance - to leave my PC behind this weekend. I logged my character off in the wilderness. James continued his quest, and that's outlined below. This stream of anecdotes should give you some idea about why we've become so entranced.
Over to James:
Jim killed him. That guy from the last post. I fired first - I think - but Jim must've put the killer round in because he got the murder count. I took comfort from that, only a few days ago. Since then I've killed other men, and not all of them deserved it. I'm still a survivor, I've still got my humanity, but I wonder for how long.
Like nothing else I've ever played, Day Z is a journey. I've seen more actual character progression in the last few days than in weeks spent roaming lonely RPGs. I've banged my head against Eve and bounced off, looking for meaning in a world with persistence and people at it's heart. Day Z has provided all of that - almost by accident, it seems - and I'm totally hooked.
To make sense of our experiences, and my stories, I have to outline the difference between the two types of characters. At the heart of Day Z lies the break between the survivors and the bandits. Everyone starts out as a survivor, alone on a beach. Kill "innocent" survivor characters, and you become a bandit, a murderer. Prey only on those who have already fallen, and you keep your appearance as a survivor. Watching newbies getting dragged into the ruthless bandit mindset is a glimpse into real banditry. Many Day Z players will kill strangers on sight. Lose your humanity to repeated murders, and you get a new skin which to all intents and purposes is a 'shoot me on sight' sign above your head. And I can totally see how this was supposed to go: Bandits would become outcasts, survivors would treat them as worse-than-zombie scum, and you'd get a nice dynamic faction split. Lovely and neat. But in my experience it doesn't play out like that. To new players in this incredibly hostile world, bandits seem capable, hardy, maybe even a little glamorous. You start seeing groups roaming around comprised of maybe one or two bandits, tooled up with assault rifles, NV goggles, maps, GPS, more food than they can eat and so on, and they'll be followed by two or three new survivors, who seem to be learning a dark trade from these grizzled warriors. That's how it was for me anyway...
After Jim and I parted company I've been tagging along with a few of the RPS community who've found their way into DayZ. My first few hours playing with Jim were characterised by furtively scuffling around in outhouses looking for a few cans of beans and ooh-look-a-shotgun while trying not to aggro the zombies. I've since learned this was a pathetically meagre existence. I don't go near towns now if I can help it. I've learned to live off the land, hunting animals, cooking their meat to restore lost blood and fill my regularly nagging belly. I've stopped drinking scavenged cans of pop and started taking water from lakes and the occasional water pump. I've been alive for days now and I think that's the whole point of this mod. You get a 'days-alive' count every time you log in and hey, it's in the name you know...
How I've managed to stay alive is contentious. Some people are playing DayZ like deathmatch. Shooting everyone, dying lots, recouping their lost kit and getting back into action to kill and die again. I've just been trying to stay alive for as long as possible. On Saturday, before I learned to live off the land, I had started to run low on food and water. I had learned to fear going into towns, because alone and low on ammo I expected to die by cold zombie hands as I had done many times before. Then I chanced upon another survivor and unseen I stalked him through the woods. I had several chances to kill him during that incredibly tense pursuit but I always hesitated. Eventually he must've heard me because he turned around suddenly and started shooting. I fled. I was furious with myself. I could've killed him easily but I was weak. If I was going to live I had better learn to kill. It wasn't going to go down like that again.
And so I teamed up with some bandits from the RPS crowd. With their help I managed to secure some better kit, an M4 assault rifle, a map and compass, some grenades. They were about to raid one of the big cities, specifically to hunt other players. They had so much kit, my new bandit friends, so much food, this was clearly how you survived. I was in. Now I had a purpose, tooled up and on patrol with these guys, I was ready. As we ghosted through the edge of a wood we spotted a pair of survivors outlined against the sky. Not bandits. Just guys like Jim and I had been, sticking together to survive. Our group opened fire without hesitation, killing one and wounding the other. I don't think I hit them, but I did fire. Our group moved up and surrounded the wounded one, he was helpless on the floor, still able to look around but unable to move, probably hoping his buddy was still alive and coming to revive him before he bled out. His buddy didn't arrive, but we did. We formed a circle around him, aimed at him, knowing he could see us, and on cue we all fired. I don't think anyone even bothered to check his body for loot...
These low moments with the bandits have been balanced by thrilling highs. After spending hours trying to find all the parts required to fix up a car – only to have a the server die and waste our efforts - we were elated when we stumbled on a fully functional military jeep parked in the woods. Because you spawn back to the same spot where you log out, it's easy to lose the group your moving with. If you log at a different time to them, when you come back online they could be literally miles away. A car means you can be collected. It can also be stuffed full of gear that you can't carry. It's bloody brilliant.
We took the jeep. As we tore away across the fields behind us the previous owners raged in the chat window, howling at their loss. We were best.
Later, with just two of us remaining in the group, we stalked the map at night. Watching an abandoned power station that we'd looted earlier that day, we spotted a bandit group running across an open field in the pitch black. My heart raced. They outnumbered four-to-two my bandit chum. But they were in the open. We had to roll the dice. I opened fire, me with the same M4 I've lovingly carried for days, him with scoped M16. Two assault rifles blazing away in the dark. Our targets scattered, firing wildly, diving for cover. We killed two - according to their hysterical anger in global chat - and retreated, not daring to follow up for the loot when the ambush failed to kill them all. There were two men alive somewhere down there. Hunting them was suicide. The noise from the brief firefight had rung out all over the nearby town, drawing zombies and bandits alike, but the hit felt glorious all the same. We'd engaged a large force and survived. I suddenly saw how simple it would be to start just enjoying the hunt. Despite running with the bandits, somehow I'd managed to keep my humanity high enough to remain a survivor. I wanted to stay that way. It wasn't going to go down this way either...
This morning when I logged in I decided not to rejoin my bandit chums. With my new understanding of the rules of this game, how long could I survive without seeking out conflict? Forget the looted soda, forget picking over the slain. I wanted cool water and peace. This morning instead of raiding the coast for new players and the beverages they carry, I headed inland and sought out a lake to refill my water bottle. Cautiously I left the safety of the treeline, filled the canteen as fast as I could and scurried back to cover. Relax, no one was watching. I saw a rabbit. I risked the noise and shot it. Deeper in woods I lit a fire, cooked and ate it. I could live like this!
By the afternoon I was lonely. A few of the old bandit crowd were raiding in the south. I headed north, listening to their teamwork over the voice comms. Leaving it behind. But then, with the old crew miles behind me, I stumbled across another RPSer, recently respawned and without much kit. He was really thirsty. I needed to refill my canteen, too. Against my better judgement we decided to enter a nearby town and use the waterpump there. This was against my new regime... but he was thirsty. We went in.
In a courtyard outside a church as we picked our way silently through the town, just meters from the pump we heard the sound of a gun being reloaded. We froze. Someone else was here. Ahead, a solitary figure ran to water pump and refilled his canteen. Not a bandit. A survivor like us. But with more kit than my newly spawned friend... We could take him easily. We thought he was alone. He ran back into the church. We followed him, aiming at the door, ready to shoot when he reappeared. How quickly I'd slipped back into murder. He stepped back out and I raised my M4, then an unseen zombie came snarling across the courtyard straight at him. He fired, felled it, and swung round to face me. We stared at each other. He lowered his rifle. I hesitated, then did the same. I almost shot him, almost lost my last few points of humanity (and in the game).
He saluted then, all friends together, and - from inside the church - four of his companions, who we'd never seen, and would certainly have killed us when we went over to loot the body, came out and said hi. That moment of charity had saved us. Humanity and compassion, not murder, had led us to survival. We spent a few minutes covering each other from waves of zombies as each man filled his canteen from the pump, offered the others bandages and morphine when the zombies got through, then said our goodbyes and left the town in different directions, each to survive in his own way.