3AM. It’s raining outside. I’ve spent the last six hours putting together a budget gaming rig. Despite previous reservations, everything has come together without incident. All the components snapped together with relative ease and to my amazement the machine fired up first time. I’ve sat through installs of Windows 7, Steam, Arma II, Operation Arrowhead and DayZCommander, determined to get everything done in one fell swoop, ready for my first planned foray into DayZ tomorrow. But now I’m tired and ready for bed.
I’m about to power off the machine when I have a momentary lapse of judgement and load up DayZCommander. I see thousands of servers teeming with players all across the globe; all surviving. I click on a random server. Then I’m lost…
I spawn into a pitch black world. It’s raining heavily. I can hear waves lapping against a shore line. From what little I know, I’m somewhere on the coast and - as the servers keep a real-time day/night cycle - it’s 3AM. In the gloaming I can distinguish a tree lined hill stark against an overcast sky. Nothing can you prepare you for this. You don’t see this on YouTube, because there’s no way they can show it. Squinting at a paper printout of the controls in the glow of the screen, I crouch and rummage through my backpack to take stock; a flashlight, a bandage, some painkillers.
After yet more fumbling I manage to equip the flashlight and take small solace in the narrow beam that illuminates my surroundings. Though I can’t see very far through the sheets of rain, I can hear some rather unpleasant sounds just beyond the beach and so decide to start moving. I’ve heard that there are military installations to the north, but with no map and in a completely alien landscape, I just pick a direction and start walking, sticking to the coast as best I can. Despite the game world being over 225km2, it’s not long before I come upon a crop of outbuildings, and my first encounter with the indigenous population.
Three mindless beings are wandering aimlessly, one of them on all-fours. With no previous experience of their sensory perceptions, I don’t know how wide a berth I need to allow and so it’s not long before they spot me. They move with disturbing speed, zigzagging around me in all directions, forcing me to break into a desperate sprint for the buildings. Their screams are getting louder as I round a corner and dart into the first open door I see. Slamming it shut, I realise that I’ve trapped myself in a small garage. I can hear them searching for me just outside. After what seems an eternity, I sneak up to the window and peek out. The rain is beginning to let up as I watch them chase another player across a field and disappear from view.
I rummage around and, finding nothing of interest, decide it’s quiet enough to move on. By the time I’ve mustered up the courage to leave the garage, the rain has stopped and the clouds have cleared to reveal a moonlit sky, peppered with stars. And then I see it. Ursa Major. The Big Dipper. I’d heard that Arma II’s night sky was accurately rendered, but seeing the constellation first hand proves just how detailed this game world is.
Using the position of the Big Dipper and drawing on knowledge garnered twenty years ago on a camping trip with the boy scouts, I am able to find the North Star with relative ease. I now have a heading and clear sense of direction.
As I make my way north, my thoughts turn to the other survivors on this particular map and where they may be, relative to my location. I have yet to come into contact with another survivor, but I’ve heard plenty of campfire tales about the kinds of people you come across in this post-apocalyptic wilderness…
The emergent gameplay of DayZ is Darwinian in its elegant simplicity. Survival of the fittest; kill or be killed. Sure, there are people willing to bandage you up or give you their last tin of beans, but all too often the most you can hope for is to cross paths with someone and live to talk about it.
I’ve heard stories of bandits hunting in packs, maiming survivors then dragging their bodies into prominent positions in the centre of town to use as bait for yet more unsuspecting scavengers. I’ve heard tales of players being robbed at gunpoint or forced into looting dangerous locales under duress; people sacrificing their friends to the horde so that they can escape. Even genuine cases of friendly fire are rife amongst the paranoid and distrustful populous of Chernarus.
And what of the bandits themselves? Surely they didn’t all start out that way? Most have no doubt been moulded by the game itself, a product of the fragile alliances and betrayals so common in this lawless society. There must come a point when they have been fucked over so many times that they harden to the world and treat everyone around them as either enemies or victims. Will I end up that way? Will I sacrifice my humanity to survive?…
My musings have taken my mind off the task at hand; you can’t switch off for a second in this environment. It is not long before a shrieking zombie pounces out of the darkness and strikes. I panic, losing my bearings and sprinting across a field towards a barn. Looking back I can see it’s gaining on me, its stride unrelenting. I’m losing a lot of blood and my pace is starting to wane, but I manage to break its line of sight by darting into the tree line of the nearby woods.
When I’m sure I’ve lost it, I double back to the barn and bandage myself up. My HUD tells me I’m thirsty. I find some soda cans (a rare treat) and a hatchet. Now that dawn is approaching I can at see least what I’m swinging at. I’m just about to equip it when I hear a shriek behind me. There’s one standing in the doorway. I turn to run but three more block my path, clawing and gnawing relentlessly until I finally go into shock and pass out.
I come round to see them feasting on me. My vision is narrowing. I crawl slowly out of the barn into the light. The sky is a striking shade of amber but I won’t live to see the dawn. They attack repeatedly, slicing and biting until my vision finally fades and the last thing I see is the tortured faces of the zombies standing over me. Then Darkness…
I stand up from the PC and stretch. I’m thirsty, hungry, tired and aching all over. And I’ve just had one of the most immersive experiences of my life. I check the time: 5:50AM. The sun will be rising in 15 minutes. I decide to stay up and watch it. Outside, the sky is a striking shade of amber and it’s going to be a great day.