Guest Contributor Allison Bray
It is a silent and unremarkable landscape devoid of people. A subdued version of the apocalypse. Depending on which direction you walk, and for how long, you may find hills, streams, farmhouses, or industrial areas. An approaching figure could be a zombie or a human being, but the latter does not guarantee survival. Humans are just as likely to kill you in order to loot your corpse. You’re equipped with little more than a flashlight—useless in a fight. If you run, and many do, the environment poses its own threats. You could die from hypothermia, starvation, dehydration, shock, blood loss, or infection. If you die, and everyone does, you lose everything. Start over.
That is the bleak and uncompromising experience of DayZ, a new online video game that’s been met with widespread acclaim despite—or perhaps because of—its gritty and utterly unsexy minimalism. DayZ could be described as a simplified zombie survival game with an emphasis on realism, or a realistic survival game that happens to include zombies. In either case, the simple premise doesn’t sound that different from many other games on the market. DayZ has set itself apart, however, by throwing out the prevailing formula and its familiar balance of narrative, character, and gameplay. As the gaming industry moves ever closer to cinematic standards in producing that balance, the small team responsible for DayZ stripped away the elements of narrative and character altogether, leaving little more than a player, their on-screen counterpart, and the very real question of what they are willing to do to keep that lone figure alive.
The first people who played it must have been baffled not so much by what they found, but what they didn’t find: DayZ drops you into a world without context or guidelines. Joining a server loads you onto the map, a fictional chunk of Eastern Europe roughly 225 square kilometers in size, but there is no introductory cut-scene establishing the details of your environment or anything else. Besides the lack of items, there is no map or compass automatically available for navigation. There are no tutorials for new players, no pop-up screens with tips or hints, and no witty sidekicks appear to ease the tension and help. Since this is a game downloaded online and not purchased at a store for sixty dollars, there isn’t a glossy booklet with explanations of the world and its items. The only information available is a small inventory screen, nearly empty at the start, and a small stats display that is a window into the heart of the game.
Like other games, some of the statistics relate to your success within this world, but success means something different in this world. No real plots or large objectives mean no progress meters, experience points or levels, and even though a counter keeps track of the number and type of kills (zombie or human), you don’t win by obtaining the highest tally of kills. You avoid losing by staying alive.
Users too focused on putting down the walking dead are going to miss the fact that their blood volume is less than half of what it should be, their body temperature is slipping to dangerous levels, and that they are dying for lack of food and water.
An on-going loss of blood gradually decreases player speed and agility, vision gets fuzzy, and players might slip unconscious once or twice before they finally expire. Along with hunger and thirst, a low body temperature brought on by exposure makes players vulnerable to infection and shock. A broken leg doesn’t just make you easy prey for zombies, it means you need to find some morphine and a hiding place.
The need to monitor and maintain a fragile body within the game does not extend to full realism—injuries take minutes to recover instead of hours or days, and the grand question of eliminating waste is not one that the designers chose to answer. [*] Nevertheless, the sense of embodiment and vulnerability is a far more in depth here than in other games, where the reaction to getting hit might be a red wash over the screen and your controller rumbling in your hand.
Previously, connecting the player to the figure on-screen meant developing their character into a character—either give them a memorable story and persona, or let players choose an appearance, select dialogue, make choices and customize as the game progresses. In DayZ, you have no name within the game’s world, no back story, and no real reason for being where you are—in this sense, it’s difficult to even call the figure onscreen a “character.” Players select from three male skins (two white, one black) or the one female available, but there are no differences beyond appearance. Some players develop identities for themselves as they play, even maintaining those identities during interactions with other players within their particular server, but the game bears no responsibility for their choices. The game just gives you a body—a body that can die, but also a body that can kill.
The presence of bodies and dying in video games is nothing revolutionary. Players have always had health meters, hearts, or lives. Even when the goal is the flag at the end of the level or the princess trapped in the castle, the player is responsible for guiding their 8-bit hero over fiery pits, bottomless abysses, spikes, and enemies. We know, smashing our buttons and pressing our joysticks ever onward, that the body of our character can’t survive these things and that we must avoid them or risk starting over at the beginning. Avoiding death has nearly always been an obstacle on the path to victory.
The other side of bodies and dying in video games is the death that players often see all around them, often as a result of their own actions as their characters pursues the objective. So much of the controversy that video games court arises not with the death of the player, which may be brutal or graphic, but the death that player can inflict on others. Players have always encountered plenty of enemies—one had to jump on a lot of mushrooms and turtles in Super Mario—but the excesses of violence have moved beyond a simple numbers game. One setting or perk in the Fallout franchise is “Bloody Mess,” promising improbable explosions of bone, blood, and viscera with every kill as opposed to just some of them.
Closer to the zombie realm of DayZ, publicity for the 2011 game Dead Island promised ultra-realistic rendering of muscle and skin layers that would appear as you beat, slashed, or shot a zombie.
Notably, many of the zombies you kill in Dead Island are already half-naked, making them objects of sex as well as violence. The DayZ apocalypse keeps it clean: bodies aren’t sexy, they are just vulnerable to the unrelenting but nevertheless understated reality of death.
Killing in this game is not valorized or glamorized. It is not sexualized. There are no close-ups to artfully or fetishistically account for the last breath, the bloody lips, or the glazed eyes. Bodies, including your own, bleed out without much fanfare.
Some might find the deaths of DayZ more disturbing for the way it encourages players to see bodies in the game—especially their own but also others—as real and fragile. In this sense, to know the weakness of a body and shoot or stab anyway makes the choice to kill another player an even more egregious slip in humanity. The shallow thrill of invincibility in other games pales in comparison to the fact that a player knows what it is like to die but continues to kill nevertheless. Within this world, though, empathy and trust are luxuries. Though some players have developed a reputation for their willingness to help, there is always the fear that the stranger who needs your help or offers you food is the one who will end this run and force you to restart on the beach with nothing.
Killing is a matter of survival for most players. You don’t kill a person because you’re frustrated or bored: if you’re lucky enough to find a pistol and ammunition, the meager supply of bullets doesn’t allow for careless shots or the flourish of a final hole in the skull. You shoot because someone—human or zombie—is coming after you, or because you’re dying and you need supplies. Most importantly, shooting someone else can be a death sentence. If you miss or if the corpse is bare of possessions, you’ve wasted a bullet. Sound carries in this game, so a gunshot might bring others to the scene. Even if you’ve joined with a friend or a new ally, situations can devolve with a stunning rapidity, and the loss of all supplies with each death means the loss of hours of time invested in exploring and scavenging.
These qualities make DayZ unique and even brilliant, but this is not a formula that larger game studios are eager to replicate too faithfully, since its design rejects almost every strategy that they have relied upon to attract new players and thus new profit. The game works not because of what is has, or could have with more money, but rather what it has stripped away. There’s no personal quest, no sexual intrigue, no tautly scripted dialogue, no dramatic soundtrack. It is unassuming to the point of being ugly and clunky, and buggy to the point of being infuriating. But it is also ruthless and original to the point of being inspiring. When game studios are financing multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, celebrity-filled commercials, and trailers in the form of actual short films to corner their edge of the massive market, how do they make a commercial for DayZ? How do you sell a game that prides itself on being unpolished and difficult when the industry has convinced itself and its consumers that games should be palatable and pretty, even when someone—or something—is trying to kill you?
This brings us back to why DayZ is a successful and even important game, regardless of its impact on a larger scale within the industry or popular culture. The genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have always been speculative genres that ask questions of the people who consume them. Gaming has provided new and even more immersive ways of considering those questions, even more so now that the player of a video game has a part in answering them with their in-game choices. DayZ, as a profound departure within this new medium, is speculative in its own right, wondering what is left for a gamer when the story and the pretense—except for a few zombies—are pared away. It is a sobering and understated exploration of our place in the apocalypse, evoking more of the grim and anonymous mortality of The Road than the gleeful death-spree abandon of Mad Max. It’s a worthwhile place to explore, even if we don’t always feel like staying for too long.
[*] On a similar bent, at least one male player told me he refuses to play a female character based on the assumption that the scent of her menstrual blood might attract zombies. This might be the only serious conversation about gender that I have ever had about DayZ.
Allison Bray is working through her PhD coursework at University of Oregon. She is supposedly a Victorianist, but she spends a far greater portion of her time thinking about video games, television, and horror films.