**I’ll try to add some screenshots when I get the chance**
So by now you may be aware of an ArmA 2 mod floating around called “Day Z”. Its a survival horror zombie apocalypse game set in a huge open world with persistent characters and permadeath. Phew, quite a mouthful of a description but yes, its very awesome.
“What makes it awesome?” I hear you cry and that would be a valid question. So I will attempt to break the game mod down into its key components in order to establish just what works, and why.
Brief intro to the game itself
So you may already be aware of the game, you may have even put a few hours into a character or two and likely already have some great stories to tell of your exploits. If not, this section will serve as a an overview to what to expect from DayZ, Feel free to skip to the next section if you are already aware.
Day Z is a mod built on the military simulation game from Bohemia Interactive, Arma2. It puts you in the desperate shoes of a survivor of a zombie apocalypse in the 225 km squared fictional post-soviet region known as Chernarus. Modeled on real world geographic data, Chernarus is a large open landscape with sea bordering the south an eastern sides of the map. Your task as a survivor is, primarily, to survive. The game takes place online with multiple other survivors all of whom have a persistent character that can freely switch between different servers. Along for the ride are hoards of zombies that spawn in and around most areas of civilization which, coincidentally, is primarily where the majority of the resources you require are located. There are no “teams” per se, so any groups or teams of survivors you encounter are either ad-hoc groupings that emerge through gameplay and dialog, or friends who have joined the server to work together. “Friendly fire” is active so at any moment another player is able to end your life, resetting all of your characters acquired “loot” and spawning you back at one of the initial spawn areas, located on the south and eastern shorelines of the map. In order to attempt to separate players who kill others from more friendly survivors, players have a “humanity” meter that drops when a player kills another. If that humanity value drops too low, the players skin changes to that of a Bandit. A visual warning that this survivor may not be trusted. Along with the threat of death from zombies and death from other survivors you also have to ensure your character is well fed and watered as well as monitoring a relatively complex health system that allows for bleeding, shock, broken bones and more.
So that is a basic overview, if you are interested in seeing the game playing, I’d recommend CHKilroy’s youtube channel who has some fantastic DayZ, and other Arma2 gameplay footage. Now to move onto my analysis of the mod itself! starting with…
Hostility Of The Environment
The world of DayZ is an overtly hostile one, In three primary ways. First and maybe the most obviously apparent is the Zombies, these spawn as mentioned before, in most built up areas. Initially the zombies would appear to be the greatest threat to you, although with experience you soon realize that they are the least of your worries. Although dangerous, if careful you can normally avoid alerting them and they primarily serve as a way in which to force players to be slow and methodical when searching for supplies.
The second hostile threat is that of other players, which in my experience, are far more deadly. The way in which the game presents other players with no obvious faction or team serves to make all interactions with others risky and dynamic. There have been many times when I have encountered others and had extreemly tense interactions. Most of which have ended in the death of one of the players involved.
The third threat, although seemingly minor, is the threat of starvation and dehydration. A relatively minor concern on the face of it, but ensuring that you have adequate supplies for your journeys is a key concern. You can survive, in theory, with no ammunition but you won’t last long if you run out of sustenance. Worth noting is that if you acquire a hunting knife and a box of matches, you are able to kill, gut and cook wild animals in the interior of the island instead of relying on searching for tinned food, scavenged from civilization.
Simulation And Emergence
DayZ is built on an engine that’s primary focus is to simulate warfare. It’s built to handle ballistics, line of sight and covers infantry, armour and air warfare. Its actually used by various military establishments in training (always a scary thought) The main point of this is that the game was built from the ground up to handle dynamic and potentially infinite scenarios. Which inherently means that a game built upon emergent gameplay will shine in this setup. As opposed to setting up a game modeled around a single purpose, the inter-linking systems of the game make for a way more dynamic and adaptive experience. As the engine is also set up to handle huge open worlds with extensive LODing the sense of scale and grandeur of the world is both humbling and awe inspiring, all of which can suddenly change when night falls and your awareness of the local surroundings becomes paramount. In terms of emergence, DayZ simply sets the stage and allows the players to act out their parts, a trait which is a common thread across all games that generally have been tagged with the term emergent. So the general rule is, in order to create emergent gameplay, create interlinking systems and let them roam free
Its worth noting at this point that the possibility for emergence has been present in the Bohemia interactive engines for quite some time. While at University I played a fair amount of Operation Flashpoint, one of my fondest memories of that game was while playing with my flatmate Tom. We had set up a mission that involved blowing up a radio tower, moving to a bridge and taking on a chopper. All very simple to set up in the editor but as we moved away from the radio tower we commandeered a car in order to expedite our trip to the bridge. Tom took the wheel and I sat in the passenger seat. As we set off it became apparent that Tom didn’t actually know the way to go. I opened up my map and in a moment of insight we realized that we suddenly had a rally game, me acting as navigator, Tom as the driver. Needless to say we laughed all the way to the bridge, while I shouted directions “Hard left through village”…
DayZ does something very clever, and, as with most clever ideas, its very simple. Where most games have clear distinctions between the two or more teams involved in the gameplay, DayZ simply throws that out of the window and groups players as survivors and no more. They do add the element of bandit skins for players with low humanity, but in my experience dying to the hands of a bandit is just as common as dying to the hands of a survivor, I also hear that they are planning on changing how that system works.
The only other game that comes to mind that plays with how players interact in a new and interesting way like this is Journey. Granted the two games are vastly different, but by tweaking such a simple element as how players are grouped together, player interaction changes dramatically.
Due to these simple rule changes very interesting and fresh new situations occur, funnily enough, these situations are often situations that you would predict to occur in such an environment if it were to exist in reality. Players form groups for protection, hierarchies are formed and reformed, group rules are established for how “loot” is distributed and how encounters with other individuals and groups pan out is handled naturally. Its all very organic and does a great job of using the players internal processors
Interestingly enough the concept of loot is very much current at the moment due to the recent release of Diablo 3. Although loot in DayZ has an entirely different aspect that has a curious effect on player interactions. Most loot in the mod is found in areas of civilization which in turn focuses the action to specific points on the map. The loot serves to sustain your existence in the world for longer, I’ll not go into the details of all of the different items but one key aspect I will note is the balance between the slow increase in the quality of the gear and the more desirable a target you appear to other players. This interplay creates a great conflict between your desire to advance and your desire to appear as a weaker target. There are naturally no character classes but your choice of weapons and items can very much determine the play style you intend to use. You could for example focus on getting hold of a stock of water canteens to refill at various places, and a hunting knife/box of matches in order to be totally self sufficient in the wilderness.. You could alternatively focus purely on killing other survivors and scavenging what you can from their dead bodies or maybe spend your time crawling through cities at night picking up the items that others don’t dare to.
Story And Ownership
I also want to talk a little on this, the very nature of the game enables players to create riveting stories of their own experiences within the game world, which I feel is one if not the key component to the proliferation and viral popularity of the game. Human nature is hardwired to share experiences with others we are rewarded for telling and hearing stories, I believe this was a key element in the growth of minecraft too. As such for this section I’d like to share a story of my own
Starting to the south east corner of Chernarus with basic supplies and a simple pistol for protection I headed inland. I knew that the starting areas were often ripe for bandits and opportunistic headhunters so instead I opted to move north and find supplies at the many small villages and farms along the way.
My overall goal was to reach the large military air base at the top of the map and to find some loot there. But first I had to grab some supplies for the journey. I happened across a small village next to a dense forest and decided to cautiously approach using the trees for cover. As I scanned the various buildings looking for potential buildings to loot I hear gunfire.
The shots are measured and well timed to start with, it sounded like a pistol, but soon the gunfire becomes erratic and careless. After a short time the gunfire completely ceases and I decide to cautiously investigate. As I near the first building by the treeline I spot a dead survivor, face down on the ground with a sizable rucksack on his back.
I surmise that what likely happened was that they were overwhelmed by zombies and this was their last stand. Having a quick look around I decide to dash over and loot what I can, I’d have to move fast as other players were likely thinking the same thing as me. I set my own backpack down by the body and pick theirs up, lots of space still left inside. I quickly grab the rifle the survivor was holding, its a Lee Enfield, an old but reliable rifle.. I throw all the food and two full canteens of water into the backpack, the survivor was also holding a map, a very useful item indeed.
I’m taking too long, I fumble with the last few items and get ready to move quickly back into the treeline to better assess my newly acquired kit. I turn to face the forest and there, in the doorway of a building not 10 feet away, is another survivor. His pistol aimed directly at me. I freeze momentarily and snap back to reality deciding that flight is the best course of action. I dart out past the fence and out of the survivors line of fire, behind the building he occupied and up into the treeline.
Zig zagging in order to avoid his shots if he had decided to pursue, I run and run deeper into the trees until my flight response calms down and I reach the other side of the woodland. I stop, taking a breath to steady my aim and scan behind me. Did he follow? no. I’m safe, for now.
I open up my backpack and check out my haul. I have sufficient food and water for my trek north, not a huge amount of ammo for my rifle but enough for a cautious traveler. I open up the map and scan for the familiar treeline and structures for a route to take north. I fold away the map and look up, the stars are out and dusk is fading. One piece of knowledge I have always had hanging around and never had a use for suddenly becomes incredibly valuable. I look to the sky and find the “big dipper” drawing a line between the two end stars, I follow up to Polaris, the north star. Traveling by night suddenly became the best option for a man with no compass…