My previous posts on Day Z have largely been about driving home the kind of situations it generates, but I want to step away from that to look a bit more close at the systems it uses, and why it creates such powerful responses in the people who play it.
A few years ago I read a guide to writing screenplays. I don't remember much about it, other than the observation that the way to make any story compelling is to pile more and more problems on to the protagonist. If he was in jeopardy, add some extra peril. The way the hero deals with that situation then becomes the satisfying (or otherwise) resolution of the story. Something similar seems true of the stories being generated by Day Z: it piles on the danger, the peril, the horror, and then expects you to deal with it. How that is dealt with by you will be unlike how it was dealt with by me, and that's why the stories are different and interesting, or thrilling, or exasperating.
Of course the game has to be able to create these situations, and it does this in a few ways that are unavailable to most other things we call videogames. Firstly, it has a huge canvas: the Chernarus map from Arma 2. This is a 200km2 slice of central Europe, carefully reimagined as a coastal ex-Soviet republic. It is wide open, and the direction you take might be random at first, or later because you have a goal in mind. A goal that you set. There's no “high level” area you can't go into. There's no story to structure your progress through the map. There isn't even any waypoint you should be heading to. There's just you waking up on the beach: now survive. The entire map, the full breadth of the environment, is relevant to this mission. It's a vast, under-exploited creation that sits deep within the poorly traveled margins of PC gaming. Many of you will know it well, but remember that armies of people who are now playing Day Z - drawn to it by the hype over a zombie survival game like no other - will not. Whether you are familiar with Chernarus, or a first-time visitor, there's no denying that it is one of the great environments of gaming.
So Day Z is standing on the shoulders of a giant. Arma 2 isn't exactly a go-to game when you think of discussions of modding, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Perhaps it's because in spite of its technical achievements – vast landscapes, meticulous modelling of ballistics, weather, and other things relevant to military operations – the experience is not always a smooth one. The UI is poor. Even aiming your weapon is a little tricky compared to other games, and in trying to adhere to realism the game lacks the bombast and fireworks that we've come to expect from our first-person games. The upshot of this is that Arma 2 has been quietly successful, appealing to people who wanted more from their military shooters. It is supporting a community that simply got on with building elaborate scenarios for multiplayer missions (both co-op and PvP) using the substantial toolset that the developers have been iterating since 2001's Operation Flashpoint, but has largely ignored by the larger spotlights of gaming fame.
It's certainly true that Arma 2's innards are full of mod-friendly stuff: vehicles, a huge range of equipment, and a wealth of auxiliary tools. Bohemia might not polish things to a dazzle, but they never stop producing features and content. The latest beta-patch of the game finally nails direct communication, a feature the game has been trying to include for years. This means that (on beta patch servers) speaking with microphone in the proximity of another player will relay your words to them. Meet a stranger in the wilderness and you can actually speak to them. And quite often they will be speaking Russian. Or even American.
(I realise I've so often argued against realism as a design goal, and here I am holding forth on its most avid exponent's success...)
Day Z, then, is able to do what it does because it sits atop a pile of content, and is interwoven within a mature and complex set of multiplayer systems. Sure, the sum of these parts is a buggy, often wobbly one, but the net outcome is a set of experiences that are both demanding and rewarding. The mod itself actually does very little. It provides minimalistic context for our peril, and as such feeds our imagination. It populates the world with aggressive zombies, and gives us a few human frailties to worry about: hunger, thirst, blood loss, and temperature. Run out of food and you can starve to death. You can die of dehydration if you have nothing to drink. You can bleed to death if you have no bandages. And even once bandaged you'll need to eat or get a blood transfusion to deal with the effects of blood loss. Sit in the rain in the dark, and your temperature will drop – with potentially lethal consequences. It's all just numbers, with a few screen effects, noises. A shudder and moan of serious injury lifted from the original game. Simple, and nonetheless evocative. We all understand these ideas intuitively. No need to check the manual to figure out what they mean: they're the same things you face every day, but are never forced to think about, thanks to the lack of a zombie apocalypse. In Day Z you begin to face horrible fates, and stave them off.
This small set of rules, added to Arma 2's gun-filled, highly-lethal world, are the parameters for the jeopardy we all face when playing the game. They give us motive. Motive enough to kill another person? Possibly. Motive enough to risk death at the claws of zombies, as we poke about in the abandoned towns for scavengeable materials? Certainly. And it is precociously difficult. Enemies are likely to be invisible in woodland, two-hundred metres away, when they strike. Alone, you will simply be dead, and that will be that. In a group, you might not be the first to die. Perhaps you'll even get a chance to shoot back. Zombies are all too easily missed, and they're quickly on top of you. Worse, they never stop. You can run, but eventually you will have to deal with them, die. Yes, it's uphill all the way, even for Arma 2 veterans. It's unfair. Often down to pure luck. That's definitely not good game design. Yet few people have complained about that. Instead, they've marvelled that a game could be so unforgiving. And that its developer could be intent on making it even more difficult. (He just introduced infections, and the need for antibiotics.) The reason for this is simple, and seen time and again with games like Dark Souls: the experiences that ask little of us often give little back, and come with little sense of achievement when beaten. The ones that challenge us, and defeat us, are the ones which make us revel in their mastery. In the case of Day Z the uphill struggle is one that regularly pays off with an amazing view from the highest peak – literally, given Arma 2's amazing draw-distance and vast vistas.
(The difficulty, some have said, is only possible because this isn't a commercial project. It's a mod. An experiment. And that's true. But it's selling copies of Arma 2. It's top of the Steam charts. Amazon has run out of serial keys.)
And Day Z's feature list gets worse/better, depending on your perspective, because once you are dead, you are reset to the beach. Anything you collected is gone. You start over.
I've noticed a few people – those who have not yet played the game, mostly – question why this should matter any more than it does in a game of deathmatch. If you are just starting again, why do you care? Well, the answer is the persistence of characters across the game. Day Z's bright idea was to say that your character – which basically means your inventory and stats – is saved when you log off. Join any other Day Z server and you find yourself in the same place, and with the same stuff, even if the other players on the server, and the server settings, may differ. This creates a peculiar psychological effect: Keeping that character alive, keeping your persistence continuous – in other words staying alive – becomes everything.
Because of the time and effort you went to get a map, a knife, a gun, and the other things you need to survive, you begin to become extremely precious about not dying. While in almost any other game with a first-person perspective I would be diving into combat, trying to score kills any way possible, here I have backed out of such situations because I wasn't sure I wanted to lose all that meat and all those drugs I'd gathered. Conflict is inevitable, of course, but the incredible tension created by this character, whom I'd spent hours building, possibly having is corpse looted by some bastard in camo gear, well, that's often a risk too far. Terror - of the kind that a game with a save button cannot deliver - is never too far away.
It's taking extreme discipline not to resort to anecdotes to explain why this is so compelling. Or why I was so furious the last time myself and James – my sidekick for the majority of my Day Z adventures – were murdered by bandits. (He had just been trying to help them.)
Arma 2 has, in some ways, always been an antidote to the way that the mainstream approaches game development. Bohemia have to tried to simulate everything, to actually create a functioning world, rather than the illusion of one. The result is relatively dry – a military simulator that is closer to soldier training tools than the games we are most familiar with – and for many people it has taken the superficial fiction of a zombie apocalypse to see why it has so much potential as a game, as a platform for modification, and as a vehicle for fascination game experiences.
But I'm not surprised this has happened. I am little surprised that it has gone into media supernova, but it's clear that gamers love freedom. And they love risk. Frankly, I am more surprised that it has taken quite so long for all these things – an open world, realistic survival, persistence, multiplayer – to come together in one place.
I've written many times on the power of open worlds being systems that take place independent of the player's actions. Worlds that don't care whether we live or die are so much more intense in gaming than those which are ultimately intended to tell us stories and to let us win. Indifference can be a powerful thing. The stories generated by Day Z are, of course, all about our personal experiences – of our character's blood and hunger and empty ammunition slots – but the reason surviving against the conditions we're faced with is so potent, is precisely that Day Z's world carries on without us. Zombies are not paused because you are making a cup of tea, and those bandits will move on from your corpse without a second thought.
And it's only just getting going. This is the start of an experiment that will, like the other great mods, probably last for years. No, I don't expect this experiment in multiplayer gaming to have even the slightest impact on what's happening in mainstream gaming, at least not for many years. It's no revolution. No, it doesn't provide a new model, or a new benchmark, or anything else that will really change the way games are made, or the way we play them. It's probably not even the game that will get this type of survival play exactly right, not least because its strength- that it is an Arma 2 modification - could also end up being the thing that holds it back. Yes, this is very much something happening on the margins of gaming. But, like so much else in culture, it's often what's happening in the margins that resonates hardest when we decide what is interesting or important. And this definitely is both of those things.