DayZ: Worse is Better

25 July 2012

I've recently come across one of the most addicting, interesting experiences I've ever had online: DayZ. I hesitate to call it a 'video game,' because while it is a mod for a first person shooter game, it basically ignores all common wisdom about what makes for a good game. I think that the broader implications are also interesting across other domains: 'common wisdom' isn't always correct. Sometimes communities reach local maximums, and something drastic needs to be done to break out of the rut. So what is DayZ, anyway?

Essentially, DayZ is a simulation of a zombie apocalypse. Here's a screenshot:


As you can see, there's basically no HUD. Just some indicators down at the bottom. This particular shot is in the third person mode, which I prefer, and the player is looking over their left shoulder at a zombie shambling around on the crest of the hill.

You wake up on a beach with essentially nothing in your pockets. This means that you have no way to defend yourself, and no supplies. Check out the bottom right of that screenshot: See that canteen and knife and fork? Those are water and food indicators, and if you don't eat or drink often enough, you'll faint from fatigue, and even lose blood (which is a proxy for health, and is the middle indicator). So you have to sneak around until you can find a hatchet, food, and water. See those two things on the upper right? That's how much audio and visual 'noise' you give off. Right now, this player is basically invisible, so they're safe.

The game takes realism very seriously. There's the food and water bit, but this also isn't some Left 4 Dead run and gun bullshit: if you take damage, you'll start to bleed, and will need to bandage yourself or bleed out. If you get shot, you're basically dead. You might be able to take two bullets from small arms. I already mentioned the food and water. You can break bones, which seriously limits mobility, and will probably cause the shakes. Better take some painkillers! There are a few vehicles, but they're all in disrepair, so find some parts, fix them up, and then stop and put some gas in them! Voice chat only works for a 40 yard radius around where you stand, so you can't talk to people that are far away. You don't have a map at first, so you won't know where the hell you are until you find one. Of course, you can read the street signs, so obviously, you'll know when you're in черногорск. ;). (That's 'Cherno' as it's affectionately called by players, because 'Chernogorsk' is too long to say.) Oh, and when you die, you die. You lose all your stuff. This also adds to the crazy tenseness of the game. There's actually 24 hours on each server, so if you play on one with your GMT offset, it'll be light when it's light and dark when it's dark outside.

The biggest thing, though, is that this is a true sandbox: there are no 'levels' or 'experience points' or 'missions' or 'objectives.' You just play. Average survival time is about 45 minutes, and as you live longer, the tension goes way, way up. Because there are no missions, you develop a real attachment to the 'emergent stories' that come out of the game, which is the big, big draw for me. Here's an example:

I spawned just outside of Электрозаводск ('Electro'), and one of my roommates had been playing for about twenty minutes, and was in Пута ("Puta"), just north. He had found a barn with two hatchets in it, and obviously, as a new player, that's a big deal. Электро and Пута are about two kilometers away from each other, so he decided to wait for me. I ran up over that hill, and as I got closer, I didn't pay close enough attention, and a zombie started chasing me. I decided to sprint to the barn, so I'd at least be able to defend myself, and Kyle decided to brace himself: my running would obviously draw more zombies, and the barn had three doors: we couldn't cover them all. If we weren't careful, this could be the end.

As I sprint through the door, Kyle steps into it, and swings his hatchet. "Holy shit dude, more coming, hurry up!" I quickly located the other one, as Kyle took out the second undead trying to eat us. I stepped up too, and covered the other door. Thirty seconds of frantic hatchet-ing later, we were safe. But Kyle was starting to get thirsty, and Электро is really dangerous. We searched the rest of the settlement, but no luck. No water to be found. We decided that rather than risk the big costal town, it'd be best to make the two klick journey north to Могилевка. While trying to locate the road, Kyle attracted the attention of another zombie, and after dispatching it, found an empty watter bottle! Luckily, Пута has a public well, so he could fill it and drink up. Problem solved.

Now, if this scenario had been a scripted part of some zombie RPG, I wouldn't have cared about it at all. I've now told this story three times in person, and it doesn't get old. This tense five minutes emerged naturally out of putting players in the world and letting them go. As a result, since they're your stories, you care about them a lot more. People end up sharing these stories, too: Check out this Jeep theft on YouTube. He spends the first 3 minutes or so telling the story.

Ignoring video game tropes

So what really makes DayZ special? There are lots of sandbox games, and there are lots of zombie games. Well, for me, it's that DayZ ignores much about what makes for conventional games.

See, I've been playing video games for most of my life. I started with an NES long ago, and spent many, many, many hours with various games across genres. I play fewer games these days, and actually took a pretty big break from them over the last two years or so. I would go to GameStop, look at what was offered, shrug, and walk out. It's not that I'm growing up (the average gamer is 37), it's that I've played all these games before. I spent over a hundred hours with Diablo II, so why bother with Diablo III?

When there's a game that breaks out of these standard genres and franchises, I get excited. I really got into music games until Activision drove Guitar Hero into the ground, Minecraft was incredibly addicting, and now DayZ with its emergent gameplay, focus on realism, and tense atmosphere.

Games need to be accessible

DayZ does not have mass appeal. Its uncompromising approach to realism means that it will alienate many people. You will die often, and it will feel random much of the time. You will get killed by other players. You'll break a bone miles away from the nearest hospital with no morphine, and have to crawl for an hour or die.

Games should be polished

Frankly, DayZ is buggy as shit. And not trivial ones, either:

Dropping Items can cause them to disappear

Honestly, in many ways, it makes the game even more tense. Bad things can happen to you at any time. The world is scary.

The interface sucks. This is more of an ARMAII issue, but one of my roommates was trying to get something out of another roommate's backpack, and since you both click to manipulate the UI and click to shoot, accidentally shot him in the stomach. This totally could happen in a zombie apocalypse: fumble around with the safety off... the interface can be confusing, seemingly arbitrary, and complicated. Still totally worth it.

In many ways, this is the worse is better principle.

More is better

Many games are 'just like this other game, but with more stuff.' DayZ has a really pleasant minimalism in many ways: the HUD is basically nonexistent, the core gameplay is pretty simple, and while there are a lot of details, most of them are not too complicated: break a leg, use some morphine. Hungry? Eat some food.

But these simple components come together in a way that gives the game a large amount of depth. But that depth is not from some big crazy feature that took weeks to build.

In fact, the author of the mod has removed entire features. There was a 'humanity' system at one time, and 'bandits,' which were players that killed other players and had their skin changed. That's been taken out. I didn't play the game with that particular feature in, but the author isn't afraid to cut stuff out if it isn't a good idea, even if he's spent lots of time building the feature.

A good story matters

Most simulation games have some sort of goal. Even many 'sandbox' games, like Grand Theft Auto, have some sort of points, goals, or missions, and you're free to ignore them, but they're there. Minecraft is a great example of a true sandbox game, and I'm not suggesting that DayZ has a monopoly here. But it's a genre that doesn't have that many games in it, so another entry is very welcome; the genre isn't as tired as many others.

Story is often used as a reason for progression; as you go through the story, you get bigger, better, and generally more powerful. DayZ manages to have progression without a story; there's sort of five broad stages to the game: pre-hatchet, hatchet, gun, tent, PvP. This is hard to do! A story provides nice justification. But DayZ doesn't need it.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, you sort of invent stories as you play. They emerge. And therefore, you care about your DayZ story more than the one that would have been concocted if this game was not a sandbox.

A player should be quite powerful

Often, the player is a total badass. Video games are often dripping in machismo, and so they are THE ULTIMATE DESTROYER OF WORLDS. Maybe, after killing hundreds of enemy soldiers, getting worn down over time, one gets a lucky shot and you go down.

DayZ is different. You are weak. The environment is dangerous. Even though you can kill zombies, often, the noise attracts others, and they get dangerous in packs. And you can always run out of ammo...

Also, other players are just as desperate and dangerous as you are. Sometimes, you'll be friendly, but more often, you're gonna end up getting shot. After all, if you're not friendly, I could get shot, so maybe I'd better take you out first...

DayZ is awesome

Seriously, you should give it a try. ARMAII goes on sale on Steam often, I was able to pick it up for $17 the other day. If you're bored with the mainstream of gaming, it just might be enough of a shake-up to be interesting to you.