It didn’t start well.
After hours of downloading, installing, uninstalling, fixing, waiting, and waiting, I finally got into a working server of new PC gaming sensation DayZ. Let’s not go over the hours of madness it took me to get to this point, except to say that it was a problem. But even when I got into the game it didn’t start well.
I spawned in pitch black surroundings. I couldn’t see anything at all for a good few seconds, but then I glanced up and saw the dark dots of stars above. I could hear the sounds of water meeting land. Eventually a ghostly red light emerged far to my left, and I slowly headed towards it. I had been warned that this beach, where the new players spawned, was patrolled by some of the more ruthless players in the game, and that they systematically hunted down newbies, killing them in packs and then taking the meagre supplies from their corpses.
Safe, or rather entirely unsafe, in this knowledge I did my best to creep towards the light. I thought it must have been a flare, and a few seconds later a cracking sound and another burst of light in the distance signalled that I was right – they were flares. Someone else was obviously out there. I knew it was risky, but I didn’t seem to have a source of light of my own, and I wasn’t going to try to outlast the night by hiding here in the darkness.
I had also been warned about exactly what the ‘Z’ in DayZ stood for. Somewhere out there was the walking, or rather running, dead, and as things were I had no way of seeing them, much less defending myself. So I needed some light. I continued sneaking as quietly as I could towards the glowing red dome that surrounded the flare, holding my pistol at the ready.
DayZ is a mod for Arma II, an in-depth military simulator for the PC that takes place in a vast piece of land hundreds of kilometres squared. Some enterprising person decided to take that area and put it to work in a persistent, open-world survival game. Up to fifty players and five hundred zombies, per server, roaming the area at any one time. Every single other player is a danger to you so long as you’re not a hundred percent sure that you can trust them. It also promises many other features – hunting, scavenging for supplies, the need for food and water, and so on, but these won’t really come into play until you get away from the coast where everyone spawns.
The game also features an impressive level of persistence: if you die your character is gone forever, losing everything you’ve collected in the hours of play, and you’ll have to start a new one. This means that DayZ‘s threats aren’t something to shrug off – if you’ve hiked fifty kilometres inland with a group of friends and then get careless for just a second too long you’ll spawn with a new character back at the coast, and you’ll have to make the trek again, without a map or compass, to get back to them.
I didn’t get to any of that, though. I just slunk over to the edge of the light source, and crouched there for a minute or two. Soon I started to wonder how long flares last, and almost immediately the last sputtering embers of chemical light started to go out. Before I could decide what to do, whether to stay where I was or try to find some other light source, I heard a shot ring out, and I was hit by a bullet fired from someone, some real person sitting at a computer somewhere, out there in the darkness. My viewpoint tumbled over and I was left to watch the sky as my vision faded and I quickly and unceremoniously bled to death.
So, it’s a hugely intimidating experience, both in terms of getting it to work in its current state, and in terms of actually playing the damn thing. But there was also something very compelling there. The absolute vulnerability, the inability to travel or navigate at night, and the real, natural fear of the darkness, which is present in videogames. And so I can’t wait to get back to it, though maybe I’ll do so in the light of day.