I have been playing the ARMAII mod DayZ for the last few days. Lots of people have already written why this is a game to care about, and I have my own thoughts that I hope to flesh out on it in the near future, too. But for now, I need to write about a character of mine. About ten minutes ago, he (well, I) was crawling out of a grocery store in the northern town of Stary Sobor when a sniper put a bullet through his head, killing him instantly.
No character death has ever affected me the way his (well, mine) has just now. My hands are shaking as I type this. No, really, they are shaking.
So before I lose this sensation, before I get my breath back and my nerves calm, I want to write this all down and figure out just why it has affected me so, and I think the best way to do that would be to start from the beginning.
I started on the beach near Elektro, around M18 of this map (which I'll refer to a few times below). Elektro is very popular for new spawners, being one of the biggest costal cities. As such, most of the loot has already been stripped away, and bandits are always hiding out for the greedy. Instead, I skirted around the west of the town and headed up a road north and inland.
Just north, on the borders of L17 and M17, I found my first lake. I drank my water and refilled the bottle. This was undoubtedly the most fulfilling, uplifting experience I've had with the game so far. Taking a drink and refilling the waterbottle was the most I had ever done towards my own survival. It felt good.
I went off-road here, scared of meeting bandits, and about two hours later found myself outside Mogilevka, looking down at the town. Of course, I didn't know it was Mogilevka at the time. i didn't know the place I started was Elektro, either. I had no map. I had no idea where I was at all. But it was a town.
There was a long farm building (a cow shed) to the north. I skimmed around town, avoided some zombies and made my way to it. On the way, I filled my waterbottle at another small resevoir and, miraculously, had a glitch work in my favour, dumping eight full waterbottles in my inventory. I was stoked.
In the cow shed, I found a stack of bandages and ammunition. I couldn't carry it all (actually, I could, but at this stage I didn't know you actually had to open your backpack to put things in it). I dropped two of my eight full waterbottles, and took some bandages instead. On the global chat channel, I told people there was supplies there, if they wanted them. People wanted a town name. I risked my life crawling closer into the town, past zombies, to find a streetsign and describe the name to people. They said thank you.
I kept heading north and west until I was in Vyshnoe (H13). There I found zombies, a well, and a map. A map! I drank, filled my bottles at the well, crawled out of town, and tried to find out where I was.
This is making it all sound so... calm. So nothing. This will not do. Each moment of this game is terrifying. Each moment can bring death and each moment is spent trying to push that inevitable death just a little bit further into the distance. Each measly supply is priceless. Give me a can of beans over a vein of diamond or an orange-rare weapon any day.
Further north was a castle on a mountain. I crawled right up to the entrance, certain there would be loot inside, but I could hear a zombie within. I left without firing a shot. To fire a shot would be to die.
I left the castle on the north-west side and walked down the forested slopes. The world of DayZ is beautiful. A 225km-square (apparently) map of accurately cartographed (apparently) eastern Europe. Most games in their miniature way go from plains to forest to hill to town in a hastened, unnatural way. With all this space, the map of DayZ has time to naturally blend, like the world it is based on. I walked down that forested slope, the wind rustling the trees, for quite some time. I could've just stayed there, if I had more food than a single can of beans.
I had been playing maybe three and a half hours at this stage. From here, where I actually went is a bit unclear. I played for a while at night and got incredibly lost. The roads I was on weren't the roads I thought I was on. But anyway, let's say two hours later and several play sessions I was further northwest, around Lopatino (C7). Here I started heading south again, hoping to meet some friends I knew were at the coast. I ate my last can of beans as I went.
|It's pretty easy to get lost at night. Guess why.|
My only weapon was still my pistol. The only shot I had fired all game was to kill a goat, which I then found out I couldn't take meat from without a hunting knife. Really, I had done nothing but walk through meadows and forests and crawl through towns for hours.
This wasn't my first attempt at DayZ. I had lost maybe six or seven lives before hand, but this was the first time where I had made progress for my own survival, where death by starvation, thirst, lack of ammo was not imminent. I was well-stocked and well-fed. I had survived for about eight or nine hours of game time. I had survived for longer than all my other lives put together.
My friends were heading towards Mogilevka, where I had been the day before. I started heading east back that way, hoping to meet up with them, maybe trade some of my watterbottles for food. I hadn't found any for the entire game.
Heading east, I found myself on the outskirts of Pustoshka (C10) when I thought I was in Rogovo (E12). I had no idea how I go so far west. In the middle of town was a church. My hunger symbol was flashing red at this stage. All the water and bandages were useless if I starved. I headed into town.
Towns are the crux of DayZ. They are exactly where you are always heading and exactly where you never want to be. They are where you will find supplies and where you will find zombies. At first, they seem basic enough. You crawl in on your stomach, easy. But then you can hear them all around you. No matter which way you look are more buildings. There is no way out. Without exception, you will think "Fuck, why did I come into this town?" The answer, of course, is because you would die if you didn't.
In the church I found a shotgun, shells, a flashlight, and bandages. But no food. I considered going through the rest of the town but I'd lost my nerves. I crawled back out on my belly.
I thought I was clear of the town when I realised I was just crawling towards a zombie-infested farmhouse. I didn't move for minutes as they all walked past me in the grass. My hunger symbol was flashing furiously.
But I knew where I was now. When I could, I found the road east and I ran. I was going to die. I needed to get to my friends and eat some food. I would give them anything for it. Anything.
On my way there, my friends got lost on some hill. Then they died.
So I stopped in Rogovo (E12). Desperate for anything. In my third house, I lay on the floor eating pasta from a can. Digital food had never tasted so good. It was mana! Zombies were growling in the house's yard. I didn't care when I entered the house, but I cared now. Death wasn't imminent. I had something to live for, even if that 'something' was simply 'not starving'. I crawled back out and continued east. First cross country and then down the road back towards Vyshnoe.
One of my friends had figured out where he respawned. He was on the coast, directly south of my position. We decided on a new rendezvous, the town of Nadezhdino (G15). I was nervous of heading so close to Cherno (the other costal town where many people spawn and start their voyage inland), but decided for it. My friend had promised me a can of beans in exchange for a waterbottle. It was worth the risk.
|On the outskirts of Nadezhdino|
A short time later we were both heading back north, each with a rifle. We traded food for water, and drank at a small damn beside the road.
Our time together was short, though. The server crashed.
Later, I continued on the road north alone, somewhat directionless. I felt foolish for heading this far south. Instead of taking the road back to Rogovo, I decided to cross country back north, hit another road, and continue back north to Stary Sobo (G11). It looked like a big town. Surely something would be there.
I'm not sure how many hours all this really took. I do know the trip from Pustoshka to Nadezhdino took over two and a half hours alone. So Maybe I had been playing for seven hours at this stage? Eight by the time the houses of Stary Sobo appeared on the northern horizon among the mist and rain? It doesn't really matter. What matters is it was long enough for me to become invested in this man and his survival. It had been on a knife's edge more than once (sometimes a zombie getting too close, usually hunger). I wanted him to live. I'd committed too much for him not to die.
|Coming into Stary Sobo.|
Stary Sobo was infested, as is to be expected. In the first house I looked I found a crossbow bolt (but no crossbow) some soda and some more sniper ammo. In the next building, only tin cans. My nerves were done by this stage, and I was ready to leave town, when I saw the grocery store. A grocery store!
I crawled in the front door and could not believe what I saw. A sniper rifle. A crossbow. Ammo for each. Bandages. Flares. Water. And, most importantly, four cans of food. Four! My god!
I couldn't pick any of it up. The server was bugging out. I wanted to cry.
Reluctantly, I disconnected and connected to another server. The grocery store was utterly bare of loot.
I crawled out a door closest to the edge of town, planning to head over the hill and away. But then I realised: this was a new server: the buildings I had previously explored would have new loot in them. I still needed more food. It was worth checking again.
I went back in the grocery store and crawled out the door on the other side, onto the road.
The sniper bullet went through my head and killed me instantly.
That was it. It was over. The point of this long story about, technically, nothing? To hopefully hit home how effective my death was in its insignificance. The game didn't care about my journeys. The bandit didn't care. No one cared.
I cared more than I've ever cared about a character in my life. I cared so much I am writing this blog post right now when I could have loaded up a new character. I didn't want a new character. I wanted him. I wanted my bandages and food and water and rifle and the hours of work I had put into surviving, into not being dead. But it was gone. Stolen by some other character with their own rifle, with their own stories and their own journeys.
Fuck that person.
See, the beauty of DayZ is not anything that has been programmed into it; it's what has been left out that players can't help but fill in. In any good zombie story, the real monsters are the humans. DayZ is perhaps the first videogame to realise this.
But more than that is the grimness, the stubbornness of surviving. There is no 'goal' or 'point' to surviving other than refusing to die. The best post-apocalyptic stories are about this, not about something restoring the world to the pre-apocalypse. DayZ is perhaps the first videogame to realise this.
You are going to die. I knew I was going to die when I washed up on the beach at Elektro. But not like this. Well then how? Well... I don't know. It had to be like this, didn't it? One crack shot in the head, over before I had a chance to wonder what that loud 'crack' was. Watching the screen go black as I think about how I was so close to leaving the store on the other side. What if I had? What if the other server didn't glitch?
There was nothing romantic or expressive or anything about my death, and it was all the more potent, all the more meaningful, all the more gut-wrenching because of it.