Survival of the Toughest

Hi.  Oh wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here!  In case any of my many, many loyal fans and visitors to this site (hi mum, hi spambots) really miss me and want to know where I’ve been writing about games all this time I have actually been posting some stuff for (a proper, like, gaming site, I know!  My stuff can be found here) and I’ve started up my EVE Online blog again over here.

In the meantime I wrote a little article about the wonderful and brilliant Day Z that I and half the internet have completely fallen in love with, and survival games in general.  It didn’t really fit on either of my other thought outlets so here it is.  Feedback and comments are, as always, very welcome.

Welcome to the apocalypseSurvival Days

I have had a recurring dream since childhood.  The setting can change, but the overall dream is always the same: I get chased by an angry mob of everybody I have ever met and I have no option but to run.  The dream’s always the same, there will be a point when I keep slipping or feel like I’m running through treacle, and then it ends with me diving into some makeshift hiding place only to be found by the horde and at that instant wake up in a cold sweat.

My reason for sharing this deeply personal anecdote with you, dear readers, is because yesterday I accidentally recreated this dream in the ARMA2 mod Day Z, and in doing so realised why the survival genre is such a brilliantly absorbing one.

Zombies are bad, but other players are worseDazed

We humans are designed for survival.  Living comes easy to many of us in the 21st Century, but survival is still with us, knitted into the fabric of our DNA, our subconscious dreams and our conscious worries.  For all the millennia of changes humans have lived through we haven’t had time to evolve to our new lives, so the same instincts that drove our ancestors to hunt, forage, kill and seek shelter drive us still.  It’s the reason we form strong social bonds with family and friends.  It’s the reason why we love fatty, calorific foods much to the detriment of our waistlines.  It’s the reason we have nightmares as our brains force us to practice fight or flight situations.  It’s why we still get angry and violent when there might be little to get angry or violent about.

It is survival, and it’s why yesterday for a few glorious but terrifying moments in Day Z I forgot I was playing a game at all, pursued by a town’s worth of zombies up a barren hill into an abandoned shack that’s door, I realised too late, could not be shut.  Instinct had kicked in, adrenaline had taken over, I thought I was really there, and was frankly relieved when the zombies burst in to my useless shelter and sent me back to the server lobby.  It was just a game! Thank god.  And then I remembered all the kit I’d lost.  ARRRRGGGGHH!

Day Z, for those that haven’t heard, is a new mod for PC soldier-sim Arma2 that starts you on a beach on an island infested with zombies and 50 other players with no objective other than if you don’t move you will die of thirst and starvation.  So you better get moving!  It’s been so popular it’s been responsible for Arma2‘s rise to the top of the Steam charts for a spell last week, and for Amazon selling out of Arma2 CD keys.  So why has it been so popular, and how can yet another zombie based action game be so ground breaking?

Nightfall provides cover, but you can't see a thing without throwing attention grabbing flaresDon’t Die!

For a start it is so refreshing to be given such a clear and naturally compelling goal: Don’t die!  For years games have spun ever entangling narratives to give us reason to move from A to B and traverse the obstacles and enemies that lie between.  “Your princess is in another castle”.  “Look out! Hitler’s opened the gates of hell!”.  “There’s even more terrorists in that next building!”.  “Oh no! Zombies!/Dragons!/Aliens!/Dr.Robotnik!”.  Etc, etc.

Last night, though, respawning after my terrifying defeat I spent 3 hours looking for a fresh water source in Day Z’s apocalyptic wasteland.  That’s it!  No back story to uncover, no NPCs to save, and no achievements to unlock.  I just needed water or else I would die.  Despite that, it was easily the most engrossing few hours of gaming I’ve enjoyed this year.  I spent 3 hours sprinting from shadow to shadow, looting fallen players, scavenging zombie infested farms, taking a massive detour around another player who didn’t respond to my “friend or foe?” call, and making an audible whelping noise when I crested a grassy hill in the dark to find the silhouettes of 6 shuffling zombies 5 feet in front of me.

Day Z isn’t the first survival game. Even in the last couple of years titles such as Minecraft, Fallout: New Vegas, I Am Alive, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Dead Island and Project Zomboid have all contained some or all of the same survival mechanics: an open world, scarce resources, living off the land, punishing toughness and the tough punishment of permadeath.  Oh, and a constant, crippling atmosphere and tension.  Oh god, the tension!

What makes Day Z stand out from those games is that it strips away any of the peripheral distractions like Fallout‘s storyline, Minecraft‘s collecting and architecting or Project Zomboid‘s skills and perks.  Day Z focuses purely on survival.  It takes ARMA2‘s existing open world, combat mechanics and inventory system and replaces all story and objectives with 4 HUD markers indicating thirst, hunger, temperature and blood.  The objectives don’t need to be spelled out: You need to keep those indicators green.  The storyline doesn’t need an intro cutscene or reams of text: It’s written by your actions as you go.

Not goodNumbers games

I think the appeal of something so simple comes as a subconscious backlash to the RPG-ification of all genres over the last decade or so of gaming.  Sure, in any game we are playing a role but the stats based RPG gameplay that originated in Dungeons and Dragons board games and has worked it’s way from traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate into other genres via groundbreaking titles such as System Shock has now proliferated into all games and genres.  I challenge anyone to find a modern game that doesn’t involve some form of levelling up, earning skills and improvements or acquiring unlocks and bonuses through meeting set achievements.

It all comes back to instincts.  The reason we enjoy ‘playing’ as a species is to practice our survival skills: fighting, puzzle solving, reactions.  Equally the compulsion to horde loot in Diablo or to find a bow with a better damage rating in Skyrim comes from the same package of instincts that have helped the human race survive so well over the last million years.  You want more and better stuff than your rivals.  You want to level up to the maximum possible because bigger numbers are better.  It is in our genes.

Yet there is only so many times levelling up yet another character (or vehicle, or football team, or whatever) can provide satisfaction.  You start to forget why you even care that your Old Republic bounty hunter is level 36 rather than level 35.  Survival games remind you by taking away all the distractions and placing you in seriously dangerous surroundings: You care because it’s life or death.

Sanctuary!Playing roles

Day Z also takes role playing back to what it should be about: Playing a role defined by the way you play not the stats you apply to your character.  Its stats and skills are broken down to the simplest calculations: machineguns are better than pistols.  Darkness is stealthier than light.  It’s character progression is equally natural: Do you use that last inventory slot for more bandages or more ammo?

Despite this simplicity clear roles are appearing in the 50-person servers of Day Z games.  The hunter-gatherers live off the land, catching, cooking and eating wild animals, avoiding zombie infested towns and replenishing water bottles at lakes.  The looters forage the towns and cities for new gear, food and water, every incursion a balance between risk and reward.  Meanwhile the bandits form ragtag, distrustful groups of player hunters, earning their survival through the murder and looting of other under-equipped players.

The only goal is survival, the only highscore is the number of days you lasted.  That’s why Day Z is the embodiment of the budding genre of survival games, and why survival games are in many ways the embodiment of gaming in general.

And perhaps a therapeutic cure to life-long recurring dreams?  Here’s hoping.