It happened unexpectedly.
While searching for items in a small coastal town, another survivor came approaching at my back. He was shouting unintelligibly, like some maniacal vagrant. It made me flinch.
I typically try to avoid confrontations. Heck, my first inclination has always been to run away. Having been hacked and shot dozens of times already, I learned trusting others will more often than not get you killed. Naivety isn’t a desirable trait in a world overrun by zombies.
This time was different. I didn’t run, even though I wanted to. My instinct of flight had suddenly evaded me, instead conquered by an overwhelming impulse to fight. Rather than trying to escape, I reacted violently, regressing to my most primordial survivor self. Try as I might, it was as though I wasn’t in control. I couldn’t stop it.
Friendly, I heard him say.
I didn’t care. My fire axe, found in a barn minutes before, came swinging down into his skull, blood spewing from his head like a broken faucet.
It happened so fast it took me a moment to realize what had happened.
Leaning over his dead body, I felt a slight hint of remorse. I think I even said sorry out loud.
But after a brief moment, however, when it really started sinking in, I didn’t feel much of anything; I actually felt kind of relieved now that I think about it. I finally killed a guy—an unarmed one. But I did it. Even if he did say friendly, it was probably just a trick. That happens a lot in DayZ. He probably just wanted my axe, or simply hope to scare me. I could just as easily have been the one killed—or at least knocked unconscious.
Shocked as I was, my early coping mechanism—classic victim mentality—allowed me to justify what happened. I did it in self-defense. I did it because there was no other option. If I didn’t kill him, he would have killed me, and so on. I might have actually saved someone’s life.
But the situation didn’t need justifying. In a post-apocalyptic world, it’s either you or them. Might as well be them.
“The biggest thing is that DayZ will have you questioning your behavior, and how you handle situations. You begin to analyze your own humanity.”
That’s how it all started. My abrupt but satisfying crime of passion gave me an insatiable taste for virtual blood. From then on, I began hurtling toward a long, dark descent into inescapable madness, unhinged and detached from my pre-DayZ humanity. After hours of looting, surviving, exploring, something within me suddenly snapped. All I wanted to do was kill.
Instead of trying to survive, instead of minding my own business as I usually did, I became blinded by an uncontrollable desire to murder. New spawns, bandits, friendlies, it didn’t matter. If we crossed paths, one of us was going to die. It was as though I transformed from Smeagol to Gollum in the blink of an eye, and it completely changed how I played. If I died, it didn’t matter. If you died? It gave me immense pleasure, and became my sole reason for playing.
Before this incident, I was harmless, and had never even shot at another player, let alone killed someone. I don’t consider myself a natural born killer. When given the choice in games, I always follow the “good” path. In Infamous (1 and 2), for example, not once did I choose the evil option—even on repeat play-throughs—and I always made an effort to avoid hurting innocent bystanders whenever possible. In Red Dead Redemption, I guided John Marsden toward a life of altruism, and only killed when absolutely necessary. In the rare instance when I was unable to help someone (in RDR’s random events), I felt bad. Despite having no personal connection to these nameless NPCs, I felt obligated to treat them like living humans, to protect them from harm.
I don’t get that feeling when playing DayZ—not anymore. Now I just kill. Not in self-defense, but because it’s morbidly and deeply satisfying. Cleansing, even. I hunt, lie, and shoot without provocation. I trick people into thinking I’m friendly, and attack when their guard is down. The more a person resists, the more I indulge. The satisfaction of taking a player’s life makes me cackle and howl like a deranged animal. If I die, which occurs regularly, I simply run for the nearest town and seek death out like a can of pristine tuna.
I didn’t plan on it being this way—I’m not a bad person. But after 30 or so hours of playing by the rules, of trying to survive how I would in real life, DayZ got old, boring. In the game’s current state, there’s only so much you can do, with little incentive to survive long-term. I often found myself with a backpack stuffed with food, traveling from town to town, encountering the occasional zombie. But it got lonely, and mind numbingly repetitive.
DayZ, even in alpha, is an excellent simulator that forces players to find food and seek protection. That’s the main objective, so to speak, and you’re free to abide. But it’s much deeper than that—DayZ is more or less a loose demonstration of how mankind would react when society crumbles. There are no rules, meaning you have zero control of the outcome. And it’s that unpredictability that makes DayZ such a thrilling experience, and the reason why, following that first incident, I lust so wildly for blood.
Beyond that, nothing else matters.
Originally a mod of Arma II, following DayZ’s arrival, the game essentially became an overnight sensation, one of the most talked about multiplayer experiences in recent memory. Bohemia Interactive, publisher of Arma II, actually admitted that DayZ was the sole reason gamers even bought its game once the mod was released; DayZ was even credited for increasing sales by 500 percent. Following that success, Bohemia asked the mod’s creator, Dean Hall, to join up with the studio to work on a standalone version full-time. That was back in 2012. Since releasing in alpha on Dec. 16, DayZ has already sold over two million copies, which even some bigger blockbuster titles sometimes fail to achieve.
Built around the premise of survival—something Hall imbued into the title based on his own experiences in the New Zealand Army—DayZ is designed to challenge players to stay alive in the most dire of circumstances. Food, water and weapons are scarce, and if you’re not careful, you can starve, bleed out, break bones, get infections. When (not if) you die in DayZ, death is permanent, which is big reason why the game is so fascinating to begin with. Loot you worked so hard to find doesn’t magically carry over, you don’t load out with a primary and secondary gun, forcing you to start from nothing every time you die.
You can’t refer to a map unless you find one (or look online), and there’s no omnipresent guide telling you how to play, where to go, what to do. The only prompts that show up are designed to inform you that you’re hungry, or thirsty, or heading toward death. When you’re shot at, nothing shows up onscreen to indicate where the danger is coming from. If you get hurt, the only way to restore your condition is to eat and use medical supplies. You can only take what you can carry, and the only way to open cans of food is to use a tool (knife, axe, can opener, etc.). There’s nothing worse than having a can of food and not being able to open it.
When you first spawn, the game gives you a battery, flashlight, and that’s it. Spawning fresh is a huge challenge, especially in crowded servers, since you have access to very little resources. And searching for supplies is a dangerous game since zombies and other survivors are always a constant threat. Combine this with the daunting size of DayZ’s 225km2 map, and even finding a town can be difficult. A lot of times you’ll find yourself just running around with nothing but trees and the sound of your own character breathing. If you do find food, it’ll probably be rotten. You need to ration, prioritize, and plan—not something you’d do in most AAA titles.
That definitely doesn’t sound like the most appealing game, especially when so many people are focused on instant gratification. But all these factors amount to a truly mesmerizing and unique experience. It’s tough to explain until you actually sit down and play DayZ. In many big titles today, the experience is typically about style over substance, whereas in DayZ, the game manages to conjure up a deeper emotional and psychological tension. Killing someone isn’t like gunning someone down in Call of Duty. When you kill someone, the game has this unique ability to make you reflect on what happened; whether you feel regret, indifference, or any other range of emotions differs from player to player.
I used to feel regret, but now it’s pure enjoyment.
The biggest thing is that DayZ will have you questioning your behavior, and how you handle situations. You begin to analyze your own humanity. Over two million people didn’t purchase DayZ so they can run around for hours collecting food. The best part about the game is interacting with other players; most players are just out there to mess around, with no goal or real purpose. But there are plenty who are doing exactly what you’re doing: trying to survive. And, like you, they’ll do so by any means necessary. That’s why, anyone who has played the game knows, you shouldn’t trust anyone.
I remember one instance in particular early on, I was running through a coastal town up near the northern part of the map, when a group of three or four zombies started chasing me. I couldn’t protect myself because I didn’t have any weapons or supplies, and searching the nearby houses would have likely gotten me injured or killed, so I just ran. And as I came to the edge of town, as if materializing out of thin air, a guy in full getup came charging toward me.
Let me help, he said, before taking out his M4 and dispatching the zombie horde.
The next thing I knew my hands were being cuffed, and rotten food was being stuffed down my throat. It was humiliating, and I was completely helpless to stop it. Just as quickly, the guy disappeared into the nearby forest, like an apparition. Another guy came by a few minutes later, another player came by and, instead of freeing me, hacked me with a machete before running away. I bled out right there in the road, my body lying there for someone else to find.
This sort of Wild West lawlessness, combined with the game’s completely open world, drives the experience. The only rules are set by a player’s moral compass, and the difference between life and death depends on how much trust you put into the people you encounter. There are no sides, just the challenge to survive. People do offer to help, and you will run into “good” guys. But, more often than not, there are more bad players around willing to gun you down for no reasons other than because they can. I’m an example of that.
While I do kill other survivors for fun, I’d consider myself more “tame” than some of the more extreme DayZ players. I don’t try to hold people hostage, or fantasize about torture, or anything you’d see in a Saw movie. I’ve never said anything to anyone in the game I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in real life. But there are players who do abuse the game’s lack of regulation by acting stupid (that’s putting it lightly); I’ve seen and heard it first hand. For the most part, however, most players simply run around interacting with others, because that’s when DayZ is at its most unpredictable best.
Ralph and I were out hunting for other survivors, somewhere around Svtlojarsk, geared up like some macho B movie soldiers of fortune, prowling the coast. The rain was really coming down, engulfing the landscape in a sorrowful cleanse. Everything looked like wet cement. It would take more than biblical rains to wash away our past indiscretions. Buildings all around were crumbling as the Earth imploded in on itself. A few zombies shambled in the distance, patiently waiting until some poor soul got too close. They’ll chase you until you drop to your knees from exhaustion.
We had devised a particularly sinister method of dealing with other survivors. Instead of using military-style tactics to neutralize threats, we used deceit and manipulation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while playing DayZ, it’s that Machiavellian behavior is your best asset. Being nice and playing with a conscience is the fastest way to get yourself killed. I’ve been help up, handcuffed, blindfolded, hacked, slashed, and everything in between. Avoiding death is simple: don’t trust anyone. We take advantage of other people’s trust, and kill for our enjoyment.
So we were out there, in a 40/40 server, looking for someone to prey upon. It didn’t take long for us to encounter our first victim of the day.
The guy was running along the road, freshly spawned, kind of aimless. He looked lonely, probably heading to one of the game’s army bases, which typically offer the best loot. (They’re also the most dangerous places to go.) The rain was still coming down, birds were singing all around us. The sound of thunder exploded above our heads.
It was Ralph’s turn, so he dropped his gear, and went out to engage him.
Friendly! Ralph shouted. Friendly.
The guy hesitated, stopped, faced Ralph. He just stood there, not moving, before finally saying friendly back. He even did the “dance.”
Meanwhile, I sat crouched behind a nearby house, waiting. Ralph and the other person were maybe thirty or so yards away, give or take, easily in range of a rifle, which I had aimed right at the player’s head. But that wasn’t how we were going to do it. That would be too easy.
I could hear the other survivor asking Ralph the typical questions: Have you found any food? Have you seen anyone else? Ralph played along, acted amiably. To everyone else, Ralph’s character looked harmless—like he had just spawned himself, which was the point. We wanted other players to believe Ralph wasn’t a threat.
After awhile, you could tell the player’s guard was slowly being let down. We should work together. Can I go with you?, he said to Ralph. Yeah, Ralph responded. This was exactly what we wanted. This is what Ralph and I planned for.
I was heading this way, Ralph said. He started to walk in my direction, leading the other player right to me, like a lamb to the slaughter. And the player had no idea it was coming.
As they came rounding the corner where I was hiding, Ralph stopped. The other player was facing away from me, oblivious to my presence, unaware that death was coming. Perfect. With my rifle drawn, I announced myself exuberantly. Hello! Out for a stroll? You fellows friendly? I said.
Friendly! Friendly, they both said in unison, like bewildered seagulls. Ralph played along and pretended like he didn’t know me.
Name and rank soldier, I said. The survivor looked confused. Ralph, sitting at the desk behind me, just laughed. Let’s kill this guy, Ralph said to me.
I’m not here to hurt you guys, I told them. I’ve seen some bandits sneaking around this area, and I think we’ll be safer in numbers. Get each other’s backs, you know? Work together. Anyone hungry? I asked, dropping some food. I backed away.
Right on cue, the survivor walked right over and immediately started eating. Using that as a signal, I aimed my rifle at our new friend, told him it was nothing personal, and shot him. He was powerless to stop me, since a) he didn’t have a weapon and b) you’re immobile while eating. It was cruel, and exactly how I hoped it would go.
He was dead seconds later, his green shirt now visibly ruined.
Standing over his body, I felt no remorse, or guilt. Nothing but pure, unadulterated pleasure, excited—and proud even—that our plan was executed so flawlessly.
This wasn’t the first time we’ve lured someone to their death, and it won’t be the last. It’s difficult to put into words, but DayZ provides this thrill unlike any other multiplayer game I’ve played. It’s the reason why I went from model citizen to dangerous renegade. Who needs a backpack full of baked beans anyway? Arm me with a rifle or handgun, or even a machete, and I’m a happy camper.
I’ll do what it takes to hunt you down, or die trying.
My screen is black and white. I keep getting prompts that I’m starving. I have no water, no food, and only a handful of bullets left for my Mosin. But that’s more than enough. I don’t care about surviving. I’ve been there, done that, and the rewards are unfulfilling. The only true enjoyment I get is from hunting, and the tandem executions Ralph and I perform, like it’s some street-side spectacle. Finding people, deceiving them, gaining their trust, and ultimately killing them is the real reward. That’s the rush I’m constantly after. It’s what keeps be going.
And I won’t stop.
Disclaimer: Before anyone makes any assumptions: I’m not an actual mass murderer, nor do I have any psychopathic tendencies. I’m a bit of a clean freak, but beyond that I’m pretty harmless. I’d never condone physical violence (or emotional, for that matter), and me making light of a video game meant for mature audiences doesn’t in anyway, shape, or form mean I encourage people to act out their murderous fantasies. Never, ever, ever do that. Please don’t. There’s a clear distinction between the virtual and real worlds, and I hope you’re cognizant enough to know the difference. I certainly am. We can, however, still enjoy the escape.