Life and Undeath in Chernarus: Why Day Z Is the Worst Best Zombie Game

by Karl Parakenings

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

-Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, uncountable numbers of freshman notebook covers

Another recent viral phenomenon is the explosion in popularity of Day Z, a mod for the formerly-niche military simulator Arma II: Combined Ops. Only a few months old, Day Z is now so popular that Amazon recently ran out of keys for Arma II and a recent version of the mod added support for more than a million player characters in the central database. It’s officially A Thing.

Even more striking than the scope of the mod’s sudden success, though, is the way in which every game blog of note seems to be covering it. Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer are publishing post after post after journal entry, describing the poster’s experience within the mod. Even the recent interview with the mod’s creator, Dean “Rocket” Hall, is mostly in the form of the interviewer and interviewee comparing notes about their respective experiences with the game.

So the question remains to be asked: Why is Day Z so popular?

It’s no secret that zombies have become old hat; even when 28 Days Later and Land of the Dead and Planet Terror were fresh in cinema-goer’s minds, the publication and rampant marketing of books like World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies seemed to point out the genre’s impending death. So on the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Day Z, a mod about surviving the aftermath of zombie outbreak, would have the mass appeal that its recent boom would indicate.

One often-cited theory on the mod’s supersaturated forums is simply that it’s the game that True Fans had asked for for years: starting with only a pistol and a backpack full of canned beans, you have to hoard scarce resources and sharpen your wits if you’re to have any hope of lasting longer than a day. Indeed, every time you spawn, a counter in the lower right of the screen lets you know how long this character has lived. The first number is zero. It’s not a game that holds your hand. Rocket has said that he’s designing Day Z to be an “anti-game,” a game which is actively hard to play.

It also doesn’t particularly care if you win. That’s a large part of its following, for sure: there’s been a growing tide of resentment against the polished AAA experiences of modern gaming, beginning with the cutscene-centric Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and continuing today with the bestselling Modern Warfare series. All that backlash has found its validation in Day Z, a hardcore survival mod based on a military simulator and in which a recent major update was the introduction of body temperature and disease. We’re not in Tom Clancy’s America anymore, that much is clear.

Nor are we in the Russia of Call of Duty. Chernarus, the mod’s persistent single map, is filled with a variety of fictional Eastern Bloc cities and towns, each having its own zombified population and discrete equipment spawns. In many ways Chernarus resembles an MMORPG’s main continent, with its hubs of activity and areas of particular interest where certain loot spawns more often. The difference is, here there are no quest givers, no Pavlovian reward structures, no shops; even the crafting is more along the lines of ‘gut and roast an animal’ than grinding boars for magic fangs.

That’s where the backlash against AAA games tends to land; forumers and bloggers the world over are boasting about how the game doesn’t set up invisible walls and doesn’t limit player behaviour. You’re as free to live off the land as you are to kill your fellow players for their beans. The bullets your starting pistol, the Makarov PM, fires are exactly as lethal as a Glock’s. It’s a basically egalitarian game of the sort our computers haven’t loaded since the mid-to-late 90s. In fact, its often-discussed modern analogue hasn’t even hit PCs yet: Dark Souls, a multiplatform console release from late last year, features similarly self-consistent systems and open-ended exploration, albeit with a distinctively Japanese flair.

THAT GENRE YOU LIKE IS BACK IN STYLE

As with most sudden hits, there’s clearly a lot to like about Day Z. But listing aspects that are frequently praised doesn’t get at the main question: where does its sudden success come from? Much of it has to do with a recognition of what makes classic zombie fiction tick; the original zombie films were much less survivalist fantasies than they were cultural commentaries. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a perennial favourite, the zombies spend as much time gazing at TVs or scooping up change as they do gnawing grey matter. 28 Days Later was a messianic appeal to peace in a new world produced by violent protest and “rage.” As with all post-apocalyptic works — Blade Runner, Mad Max, Halo, Gears of War, Fallout 2, the Matrix trilogy — zombie films asked “What would you change if you had to do it all again?”

That’s definitely the impetus for a lot of zombie fandom, even before The Zombie Bubble. I vividly remember high school days spent debating the best routes for safety, the best strategies for survival, and the best equipment for undead domination. We spent so much time fantasizing about a new life precisely because we didn’t like our current one; each of us had our own reasons for it being the case, but we were all misfits. Apocalyptic fantasies let us exercise our nerdy knowledge and creativity without having to be judged by the world around us. We could discuss the merits of different guns and martial arts without needing to justify them. We could be misfits and not need to fit in.

But there, too, the evidence doesn’t fit the theory; although Day Z has enough true-to-life weapons and mechanics to satisfy almost any grognard’s mountain man fantasy, the average player only lasts a few days before heading to her community of choice and asking if anyone wants to play together. Reddit’s community’s initial success was deflated by a sudden and brutal defeat: deep cover players posed as legitimate recruits until they gained a position of trust, when black-clad operatives with silenced weapons killed everyone and stole their hoarded equipment. Even then, the community was undeterred and set about starting over.

A NEW, SLIGHTLY ROTTEN, START

That, I argue, is the real core of the game’s appeal. You’re bound to die in Day Z – there’s no question about it. The group I play with has taken to adapting a phrase from Demon’s Souls and telling dead newbies that “The real Day Z starts here.” It’s perfectly possible and even rewarding to solo Day Z, but it leads to a lonely and grim life, certain to end in failure. It’s just not possible to have eyes on all the potential enemies. You could crawl across the length of Chernarus at night and still be taken out by a sniper from behind a bush 500 metres away.

So you die, even with your friends’ help, and spawn again on the coast of Chernarus, along with all the other fresh characters. It’s reminiscent of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld books, a science fiction series with the same central, almost Buddhist, conceit: no matter how your last life went, your next one will be better. Not because it’s a fresh start, like how we always imagined the zombie plague in high school, but because your actions now are important and have consequences. We need to remember instead of forget, to enact the change we want to see in our environment.

In a very real way, Day Z is the perfect zombie game because it’s not at all about zombies. They don’t matter in the slightest.

It’s about learning from your mistakes, and figuring out how to deal with the people around you. How to make deals and break them. How to tell who you can trust. What to do with people you can’t.

Day Z is about living the best life you can, just like the real world. Except in Chernarus, you know what’s probably going to happen, and what’s going to lead to your eventual downfall. You’re going to lose. What does the game ask you to do then, when you’re broken down and out of options? Why are people flocking to this anti-game in droves?

You get to try again. You’re encouraged to, in fact. There is no “Game Over” screen, no system of limited lives. You’re not punished for not being good enough at the game. Like any good teacher, Day Z doesn’t hold your hand: instead of leading you through what to do, step by step, it asks you to get rid of your preconceptions and attack the problem of Chernarus with an open mind.

Far from being about solitary survival in a nihilistic and grim world, Day Z asks you to actively consider the reasons for your actions, remember past ones, and take responsibility for the future. Each life cut short isn’t a loss, or a punishment. It’s a lesson.

If the thousands of people playing Day Z right now mean anything, it’s that the gaming public — maybe the public at large — is tired of being patronized. Rather than finding new ways to accomplish the same goals, maybe we need to rethink our goals in the first place.

Maybe we can’t do it alone. And maybe we don’t have to.

Further Reading: “Minecraft: Development, Discovery, and the Final Frontier” (Medium Difficulty)

“I’m Just Trying to Take Care of Myself a Little Better Everyday” (Medium Difficulty)

“Simple Machines: Legend of Grimrock and the Joys of Coherent Design” (Medium Difficulty)

Amazon: Arma II: Combined Operations

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  • Kyle Carpenter

    I wish my rig could keep up with this – it looks fantastic. I’ve already mentioned as much, but I can’t help but be reminded of Minecraft – both in terms of the word of mouth buzz as well as the gameplay on hand.

    Maybe the next renaissance of Dwarf Fortress is right around the corner?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=22600732 Arthur Koch

    One of the more subtly compelling aspects of this whole DayZ experience to me is the willingness of the players to engage in nearly arcane mod-running efforts. They evoke a PC tradition of technical struggles to the end of more communally sharing a more specific experience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tankhammer Joseph Ricciardelli

    Unexpectedly running into another survivor in a ramshackle old barn and having to make that ugly decision of “should I shoot him/her right now or do I risk asking them if they want to pool resources and maybe live another day in this bleak hellhole?” is the greatest part of this whole game.

  • James Yee

    I would also like to point out that EVE Online has been a “non-hand-holding” MMO for years and fits nicely into this “Anti-AAA” game style you mention.