Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Diaries from Day Z: Day One

My first day in Day Z was painful and unforgiving. Venturing into Chernarus, the post-Soviet countryside where the dead walk freely and bandits prey on every feeble survivor, is a task best done after consulting every handbook and survival guide available. With a rash desire to seek my thrills and treasure in the desolate zombie wasteland, having heard tales of glory from many survivors, I dove headfirst into the conflict and quickly found myself overwhelmed by the harsh brutality of this world. I realized only too late that I was unprepared for this endeavor, and met my gruesome fate huddled in the corner of a small farmhouse as the dead came for my cold, shivering flesh.

These diaries aim to serve as a warning to any fellow survivor who might dare to brave the certain death that awaits them in Chernarus. Let you who reads this text know what to expect from the phenomenon known as Day Z, based on my own experiences within this world.

In case there's anyone reading this who doesn't know already, DayZ is a free zombie-survival mod for ArmA 2: Combined Operations. The goal of Day Z is simply to survive by any means necessary. You spawn on a coast completely unarmed and with only the scarcest of supplies. Your first task is to scavenge nearby buildings and outposts for weapons, ammunition, and other survival gear, before moving to bigger, more dangerous areas for better loot. What makes this such a compelling experience is the anarchy of completely open PVP with permanent loss of all items and stats upon death.

This is survival-horror like I've never experienced before. Every single moment of the game is high tension because you're always vulnerable to danger, always only a second away from losing everything. Death lurks everywhere, not only from the ever-present threat of zombies, but also from simple starvation and dehydration. You can never predict how other players will behave, whether they'll be friendly or shoot you on sight, so you have to be very careful all the time. The more loot you collect, and the longer you stay alive, the more you have to lose.

All of this happens in an open-ended sandbox where players can pretty much do whatever they want. It's a tough dog-eat-dog world where the strongest and most organized basically control access to some of the most important locations, with different players (and even entire clans) competing for "ownership" of cities. The survival mechanics are pretty sophisticated, with you having to monitor (in addition to your health) body temperature, thirst, and hunger, with all kinds of status effects like shock, broken bones, infection, and bleeding impairing your ability to survive.

Even without all of these specific gameplay mechanics, the game's aesthetics do an excellent job of establishing the thick survival-horror atmosphere. The bleak, washed-out saturation should be all too familiar to fans of horror, and the ambient soundtrack ranges from tense, clashing musical sound effects to pounding dramatic beats. The audio-visual experience alone is enough to evoke feelings of dread and uneasiness, even when you seem to be completely safe. But then again, maybe that's because you never really are completely safe.

Anyway, when I launched Day Z, I found myself on a coast completely unarmed and with no idea where to get items or what to do. So I go looking around some nearby buildings and spot a couple zombies lumbering about. I didn't know how easy it was for zombies to detect me in this game (zombies are different in every game), so I ended up attracting the attention of the world's fastest zombies ever. These suckers come sprinting at me full force, and with no weapon with which to defend myself, I'm forced to spend 10 minutes kiting a train of zombies around the map. Desperate for a way to get these things off me, I run into a house and can't figure out how to close the stupid door. They all come streaming in and trapped me in a corner.

Having not played any of the ArmA games, I didn't realize how non-standard the controls were, and so my first experience in Day Z can be described as death by controls. It wasn't until reading some guides that I figured out you're supposed to use the mouse wheel essentially as the primary action key, which then enabled me to close doors and actually pick up items. Progress.

When I respawned, I realized I had to be more stealthy around zombies. I slowly and carefully crept up to a barn by crawling on the ground, avoiding at least six different aimlessly-wandering zombies. In the barn I found a hatchet, but thanks to the non-intuitive inventory screen, I couldn't figure out how to equip it as a weapon. In a nearby pile I also found some road flares -- useful for a light source at night and to distract or lure zombies to a different location. When a crosshair suddenly appeared in the middle of my screen, I clicked the mouse and witnessed as my character lit a flare and threw it into the middle of the barn.

Within moments, every zombie I'd carefully snuck past came stumbling into the barn. I was trapped with no way out. So I crouched down and tried to wait them out, but after a couple of minutes one of them wandered behind my hay stack and started clobbering me. I made a mad dash for it, taking numerous hits in the process of my escape. Once I'd cleared the barn, I realized I was bleeding and steadily losing health, but I couldn't stop to bandage my wounds or else the zombies would get me. After running for another few minutes, they stopped following me. I bandaged my wounds, found a safe place in a storage shed, and logged out.

Flashlights are actually pretty spooky outdoors

When I came back a few hours later, it was dark. Pitch black night. I couldn't see a damn thing. It was time to figure out how to use my flashlight, so I clicked on it in the inventory screen and nothing happened. I consulted the controls menu and saw an option for "head lamp on/off," so I pressed the L key and nothing happened. After some arbitrary fiddling with my inventory, I figured out I had to equip the flashlight in my pistol slot and then press L, and that's when I discovered that the flashlight in Day Z is like the most useless flashlight ever. In the close quarters of the shed, the beam had no room to go anywhere, so all I saw was a tiny spotlight in the middle of my screen. Frustrated, I decided to log out and wait for daylight.

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