The first man I murdered probably deserved it. But not this guy. The only thing this guy had done wrong was wander into Berezino with some water, a compass and a rifle (without ammo). It was just his luck that we were there too, looking for baked beans amid the inexplicable piles of shoes which amass inside every townhouse of DayZ. We saw him go into one of the two apartment blocks that loom like huge, Gray tombstones over the city. I followed him inside, calling out: “Hello, anyone here? Friendly!”
By the time I got to the roof, we had exchanged a few words, calling out to each other with reassurances. I looked down and saw him back out on the street in front of the building.
“Hey buddy, look up, up here.”
I waved and he asked me how I did that. I told him the button to press to wave (F1) but I had to wonder. Was he new to the game? Or was he just pretending to be new to the game? On the roof of the other apartment building I saw another man. A dark figure against the overcast sky. He had a gas mask, a helmet and a rifle (with ammo). It was my friend Alex.
I went down to the street and said hello to my new buddy. He said, yes, he was new to this. Did he need anything? He didn’t think so. Did he have any water? Yes, he said. He had water.
“Bring him out into the open,” said Alex, over Skype – our own little earpiece radio.
I walked a little further up the road. My new friend followed me and asked if I needed the water. I said yes, and he held the bottle up to my lips, feeding me like a child.
“Thank you,” I said to my new friend – and to Alex: “Take the shot.”
He went down in a glitchy fountain of blood. For a second I checked myself, worried I’d been hit as well by accident. But no, I was okay. I crouched down and ransacked his body for anything that hadn’t been ruined by the bullet or the bleeding. He didn’t have much. I took his gun, his backpack. He had been carrying around a book – the Picture of Dorian Gray. Every veteran of DayZ knows books are functionally pointless. All they do is take up space in your inventory. So that’s how I knew for certain. This guy was new to the game.
Well, at least I taught him how to wave.
“Friendly” is a word you hear a lot in Chernarus (the 85 square miles of DayZ’s map). It’s the kind of word that makes your gut reel up, like the retractable cord of a vacuum cleaner, because it means that another human is nearby and who knows what the hell they want. Nobody understood the paradox of this word better than Richie. Richie was a cohort of Alex and mine, who had once been moved to call out the magic word to a fellow survivor, all the while spraying him full of bullets. “Friendly!” he cried, emptying his clip into the man. “Friendly!” I don’t know if Richie had shouted it out of panic or malice. I didn’t ask.
Death costs you everything in DayZ, and this approach works to heighten the tension of even the most minor encounters. (Spotting an armed character running down the road, leaping into the bushes to hide, and sweating as they stroll past). There is a punishingly high state of perpetual risk here and it only increases the longer you live, giving that little bit more meaning – for want of a better word – to every death.
Take Richie. Richie was always getting into trouble. A few days after we’d killed the bookworm with Dorian Gray, we ran into another survivor – a bambi who put his fists up.
We found him running up the beach outside Nizhnoye – a squalid gathering of shacks filled with nothing but rotting fruit and soiled t-shirts. He had nothing. Only the trademark flashlight and alkaline battery that every new player looked at with baby-faced confusion. We didn’t want the flashlight, or the battery. By this time in our DayZ careers (about 40 hours for me) we had bags full of stuff. Beans, bullets and bandages. The only thing we were looking for was trouble. A ‘bambi’ to torture.
We found our quarry, outside Nizhnoye, and when Richie told him to put his hands up, he put his fists up instead and started swinging digs, lurching for Richie’s head. I didn’t like this bambi‘s manners. So I put a bullet in his kidney. Richie was sad. We didn’t wave to kill him. A day later Richie would slip from the upper deck of a wrecked cargo ship and die from the fall. Me and my trigger finger – we lived on. This is when I realised what DayZ is. DayZ is an injustice engine.
It isn’t that DayZ is a catalyst for cruelty any more than it’s a catalyst for kindness. It’s just that, when you’re playing a cruel game set in a cruel world and that game is ostensibly a role-playing game, you begin to think: should I be cruel too? I’ve already shot a guy. How much crueller can I get? And then, when you start to explore all the possibilities, it turns out the answer to that question is: A LOT.
We became expert torturers. We reasoned that to kill was a mercy. Real torturers keep their prey alive, full of fear and uncertainty. We prowled the coast – where the bambis graze – and discussed with hyena laughter what we would do to our next victim. We invented villainous characters for ourselves. I donned a Kevlar ‘Press’ vest and a white helmet and became ‘Esteemed Official of the Free Press’. Alex and Richie became my military escort. They held the next fresh spawn at gunpoint while I ‘interviewed’ him.
“We’ve all lost someone,” I would say. “It has been a hard apocalypse. But that’s a lovely bag you have, very well embroidered. Let me look at the lining of that fashionable bag of yours.”
And when we let him go and he ran off, freed of his food and possessions, Alex would shout after him: “THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS.”
Alex would make himself useful in other ways. He spoke fluent Russian, and up until now the application of this skill had been limited to the obvious – reading the Cyrillic road signs of Chernarus for us. But we soon devised another use. The next bambi got an earful of Angry Russian, with me acting as ‘interpreter’ and falsifying as good a Russian accent as I could. We lay our new victim on the ground, stripped him of his clothes and asked him to produce his immigration papers. When he said he didn’t have any papers and was from the UK, Alex exploded with incomprehensible Russian rage.
“Oh no,” I told the immigrant, laying on the accent thick. “He say he does not like UK. You should tell him something else.”
Thinking on his feet (lying on his face) the fresh spawn quickly changed tack – he was from Scotland, he said. Alex lapsed into cheerful cries, the only discernible words being “Scotland” and “Haggis”.
“Oh yes,” I said. “He say he like the Haggis. A very dangerous creature, yes? The Haggis? Do you have any of the Haggis?”
When the immigrant announced that he had no Haggis, Alex seemed upset. But he said he thought there was some in Elektro – a city nearby. Alex was satisfied. He spoke in Russian for a long time.
“He say he is in good mood today,” I ‘translated’. “Okay. You go now. That’s all he say.”
The man stood up and ran off along the coast line, wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and vest, and it seemed he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with relief. It didn’t matter to us. He was certain to die at the hands of some less liberal immigration patrol. We laughed our hyena laugh and moved on. Pack mentality certainly has something to do with the way you act in DayZ. I was never half as callous when I played the game alone. But as soon as you add two other people, things go a little Lord of the Flies very quickly.
We went to plenty of airfields, houses, hospitals and diners, picking anything useful out of the piles of discarded crap. Beans, bullets and bandages. But the bambis were still our favourite loot. We robbed, we punched, we shouted, we laughed. We asked them if they were hungry, and when they answered ‘yes’, we force-fed them rotten fruit. When we didn’t know what else to do, we left them handcuffed in the middle of the road, exposed to any hungry player that cared to roam by. Every encounter would end the same. We would jog off into the sunset, telling each other how bad we felt, how guilty. But we were always laughing when we said it.
But this adoption of DayZ as a procedural injustice generator isn’t what makes DayZ great (even despite the game-breaking bugs, the choppy servers and everything else associated with the hell of an alpha ‘product’). What makes DayZ great is its use of basic human trust as a game mechanic. It shares this design tenet with EVE Online and it's an essential story-making ingredient of both games. Freed from the interminable boredom of MMO stats, this trust paves the way for a whole range of human experience. But mainly, more brutality. Early versions of the original mod changed your appearance when you killed another human (dressing you up as a ‘bandit’ in a balaclava). But the standalone version of DayZ dropped this, and is all the more suspenseful because of it. Now, you have to be wary of everyone.
We were poking about a broad, red brick house in the small coastal town of Solnichniy, when a fresh spawn came into the room. He looked at the three of us. We looked at him. There were only two doors out of the room.
“Are you okay?” said Alex.
I closed the first door.
“Do you need anything?”
I closed the second door.
“That’s a nice hat,” said Alex. “I’ll swap you my cap for that hat.”
The player looked a little spooked but he agreed and the trade went off easily. To swap, you have to drop the item you want to give away on the ground. He dropped his hat and Alex dropped his.
“Yeah, and those are nice shoes! Want to swap shoes?” I said to the player, and to Alex: “I’m keeping my shoes.”
When he put his stuff down, I lifted them, put them on my feet in front of him and said: “Actually, I quite like my own shoes too. I think I’ll keep them too.”
And now that we thought about it, all his clothes were nicer than ours.
The mugging went on for fifteen minutes. We sent him off in the direction of Berezino, barefoot and wearing our worn and ragged hand-me-downs. In DayZ, if you travel without shoes for too long your feet start to bleed. Eventually, you’ll succumb to a foot injury and running will become a problem. But this only happens if you travel on rough terrain.
“Stick to the forest,” said Alex, “along the railway line.”
We were bad people that day.
There is an obvious evolution to the long-term DayZ player. From the outside, and even sometimes from within, it seems like tormenting fresh spawns and holding people up for their shoes is a kind of ‘endgame’. The accumulating of weapons, food, knowledge and trustworthy friends (or, in my case, co-raiders) in order to survive certainly suggests that the game is slanted toward greed and death. The scarcity of resources appears to encourage violence. An ever increasing scale of player-on-player cruelty, from the simple ‘execution on sight’ to the more expert ‘holding somebody down to force feed them a bottle of disinfectant’. But the truth is more chaotic than that. You react to what you’ve done. You can always change your ways, if you want. It is because things are so scarce, and people so merciless, that your own survival seems significant. The truth is that DayZ is just a generator of feelings. Malice, pity, guilt, empathy, fear, reprieve – they come at you in waves. Sometimes they come when you don’t expect them.
We were in a warehouse, trying to break our latest victim’s leg with a baseball bat, when we heard some shots ring out. They were easily audible shots, coming from the forested mountain nearby, but distant enough that we knew they were meant for someone else. Some time later, I would die at the hands of this sniper. After the tensest stand-off of my gaming life, I would sit up in a bushel of ferns, try to look around and everything would go black. I would never even see him. (Her?) But right now we had the doors of the warehouse covered and all I was interested in was breaking this man’s leg. We put some rags in his backpack next to a bunch of sticks – items that, when combined in your inventory screen, create a splint. I knew that little bit of survivalist wisdom all too well.
“We are just going to teach you how to fix a broken leg, that’s all,” I said, getting out my baseball bat. “Don’t worry.”
The sniper fire continued. Alex was concerned. We talked about the situation over our Skype earpieces. I put the baseball bat away.
“Okay, get up,” I said.
“We’re letting you go,” said Alex.
The bambi stood up and opened the doors wide. He went out into the open and sprinted away. It wasn’t mercy, I told myself. We just needed to see if the sniper was watching for us. Alex watched to see if our newly freed victim fell. But he just ran and ran and ran, his little bambi legs, totally unbroken. I smiled. I hope that player never stops running.
If I wanted to justify what we were doing, I would say: ‘Well, if DayZ is going to be the game everybody wants it to be, then there has to be people like us. Marauders, bandits, torturers. The game NEEDS us.’ And the design of DayZ itself is truly aware of this philosophy. Without the threat of ‘bad’ players, the kindness of ‘good’ players has absolutely no value. Without horror there can be no respite, no relief. Of course, there are no good or bad players in DayZ – just survivors.
I remember a man in a white t-shirt. It was maybe the day after we killed Dorian Gray. I held him up on some railway lines and told him to get on his knees. I looked in his empty backpack and then I looked in mine, brimming with food. And maybe it was my conscience telling me to do something nice for a change, or maybe it was just because it would be unexpected, but I just filled this guy’s schoolchild’s bag up with food. Finally, I told him to run down the road before I changed my mind.
He only got about 100 metres before Alex and Richie popped out of the grass and held him up again, of course. We were like a pack of feral cats, playing with mice. The really torturous thing would be to take all the food that he had just received back. But no, something in Alex and Richie was on the same level. I watched as they put even more sardines into the man’s little red schoolbag and let him go, with food that would do him for days. If we had less food, or if he had something we wanted, would we have acted differently? Probably. But this guy didn’t know that.
He shouted “thank you” when he ran away from us.
The first man I murdered probably deserved it. He was wearing a clown mask, and I was young enough in DayZ to figure that a clown mask meant only one thing: a psychopath. I watched from the top floor of a half-finished construction yard as he followed an unsuspecting survivor into a house. I felt bad. I had been watching the other guy, wondering if I should call out. Now there was no warning him. Mr Clown Mask had crept out of some bushes with an axe in his hand and followed his victim into the house. A few minutes passed. The other man was dead by now, I was sure of it – hacked to pieces by this slasher movie madman. I tried to get a better view of the house when I heard a noise nearby.
Mr Clown Mask had somehow slipped out and started exploring the floors of the construction yard below me. I crept over to the crumbling edge of the top floor, looked down and saw my own shadow cast at his feet on the floor below. I was terrified he would see that shadow. He was lying prone, peering through a rifle scope at some distant trees. He can’t have been more than two metres below me. I held my breath, pointed my magnum directly at his head and took a shot.
It missed. The second shot too.
I panicked and jumped down, on top of him. It wouldn’t be until after I’d emptied the other four rounds into his belly and crawled to the nearest wall, with a mouse hand like a talon and a heartbeat like dubstep, that I’d realise I had broken my own leg in the ambush. I lay there, breathing fast, full of IRL adrenaline. Only the fatal encounter with the forest sniper, much later in DayZ life, would outdo the ‘combat high’ I was feeling at this, my first kill. Right now, I was elated with relief.
“Friendly,” said a quiet voice.
I could see nobody. But I replied with the same. “Friendly,” I said.
“Did you shoot that guy?”
It must have been the other man. Mr Clown Mask’s would-be victim. So, he was alive.
“Uh... yeah,” I said. “But he was a...” I thought for a moment. “He was a bad man.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m pretty sure he was.”
For a minute there was nothing. I asked him if he needed anything and he said no. He asked me the same and I stuttered as I thought about it. I looked at my screen, faded almost to black and white with the effects of blood loss from an earlier scrape with some zombies. To cure this, you need to eat and drink well, until the game deems you healthy enough to produce more blood. I didn’t know this at the time. I thought only a blood transfusion could fix my colourless screen.
“What do you need?” asked the hidden stranger again.
“Blood,” I said.
A minute passed.
“Hello? Are you still here?”
No answer. He was gone.
I made a splint out of a stick and some bandages and fixed up my broken leg. I thought briefly about how lucky I was to have the right items to make that splint. A valuable lesson, breaking your leg. I gave the body beside me one last look over. It had been a messy kill. All the same, I never felt bad about Mr Clown Mask. And I didn’t take the mask itself.
“Why would I?” I would say to Alex when I met up with him later. “I’m not going to become a psychopath.”
For more DayZ stories, read Emily Richardson's four-part diary of kindness, The Saline Bandit.