The computer screen was blacked out as I heard the gentle sound of waves breaking against the rocky shores of Chernarus, the fictional region Bohemia Interactive’s award winning military simulator, ArmA 2, is set in.
A copse of trees faded into view, a road running between it and me as I came to grips with where I was and planned my first moves. I wasn’t a stranger to ArmA 2 – having clocked up about 350 hours playing its incredibly detailed multiplayer – but I was a stranger to what was to come.
We’re all used to playing our Max Payne-like games, our Call of Duty shooters, and nearly all of them invoke the same feeling: is this level nearly done? The story in Epic Games’ Gears of War series was emotionally moving, but I couldn’t care less about the droves of enemies I plowed through on my way through the story.
When you “spawn” in “DayZ,” a mod that has been talked about all over the internet, you have absolutely nothing. Well, you have some food, water, a handgun (and ammunition for it), but other than that, you’re completely alone.
Chernarus has come under some sort of zombie infestation and it’s now up to you to survive in any way possible. Raid towns, hunt wildlife, do whatever it takes to just keep on living. That’s your primary goal, at the most animalistic level: survive.
I spotted a set of medical tents in the distance and slowly made my way over towards them, fully aware of the large population of zombies randomly pacing around it.
I knew they weren’t my only enemy though. I had a smarter one to deal with, one that was tasked with the same thing as me, one that wanted to survive as much as I did: another human.
There were forty-nine other players on this server, and each of them were doing their own thing. Occasionally I would see them communicating in the chat, but while five or six players might be talking, there was another forty going along silently.
At any moment one of them could kill me. My life in the game boils down to being worth something to them, like food or water, or they feel threatened. I might not even see them, I would only hear the distinctive “pop pop pop” of their low powered handgun and see the “You are dead” message on my screen.
After crawling through the last fifty or so meters to the camp I began looting the tents, grabbing everything I could in a desperate move to provide myself some long term stability. Bandages, cans of food, and a couple of water bottles — the staple of any real existance in the desolate environment.
Four lookout towers stood silently at each corner of the camp, flies buzzing around the unfortunately occupied body bags that littered the grass like discarded rubbish. How did they die? Military uniforms were strewn across the ground, perhaps they were soldiers and died protecting the airfield right beside us.
I would never know, but if I didn’t take the initiative I’d inevitably end up just like them.
As I climbed the wooden ladders that provided access to the eerily stalwart towers, something caught my eye towards the shore. Another player was running along, a pack of “zeds” (DayZ players’ affectionate name for zombies) in pursuit.
“Help me”, he called out in the chat, but I just sat there emotionless as he ran out of ammo and was swarmed. The result of complacency had just been actively pointed out to me. I needed to survive.
I grabbed an automatic rifle from the tower and a few magazines of ammunition to go with it. For a new survivor, I was in a pretty good position. The groans of zombies below my tower ruined my moment of independence and I removed myself from the camp as quickly as I could.
My next goals were simple: head to Chernogorsk, the game’s largest city, get some more supplies, and try not to die. Although you can eventually repair vehicles, your main method of transport is your own two legs. Running tires and wears your body out, so I stopped halfway to drink from my canteen and eat some cold beans.
The sudden bust of movement to my front forced me to go prone, I didn’t want to be spotted with my rifle, and I sure as hell didn’t want to alert any zombies. “Nexus, u friendly?” suddenly appeared in the games chat.
“Yeah, I’m friendly,” I replied, knowing that I was until I felt threatened, “but come out of the trees.”
The previously hidden figure emerged from the dense foilage and lowered his weapon. “Could you trade me some food? I’m all out.” the stranger asked. I stood there a second, evaluating the situation before responding, “Yeah.”
The can of pasta that I would’ve eaten some time later dropped from my pack and onto the ground, the stranger shuffling over to pick it up. “Thanks,” he said as an empty can appeared on the ground, “I needed that.”
We both sat silently for a few seconds before he invited me to expedition with him to Chernogorsk. I agreed, and we started running through the trees. We had both made our first mistakes: don’t trust anyone.
No longer than five minutes after our food exchange, the industrial edge of “Cherno” broke the fog and stood proudly on the horizon. I sat there and plotted my way into the city. “I’m heading off to Elektro,” he said, planning to run onto the next city, “I’ll see you around.”
Just as he started to move I raised my rifle and shot him in the back of the head. His body fell to the ground and blood spurted from his clothes in an almost comical fashion.
He had died, and my rifle rested in my digital hands. What had I done? We had helped each other, and he hadn’t threatened me, I actually felt guilty for my actions. I was lucky in my moment of ignorant selfishness, and I hadn’t alerted Chernogorsk’s oversized population of zeds.
I shamefully looted his body. A GPS, map, compass, food, blood bags, and even a new backpack, I took it all. There were 750 zombies on the server, and fifty humans. I would’ve killed fifty zombies and not cared, but taking the life of one person I would never meet somehow resonated within me and triggered feelings I had not felt in a game before.
What if the roles had of been reversed? He could have shot me, maybe led me into a trap. I knew he hadn’t done that, but those are the thoughts that flooded my real life conscience as I surveyed the now still and quiet scene. No-one would know what I had done, and I could do it again if I had to. I had to survive.
Did he know what was about to happen? Did he realise that while I had fed him, I was also going to kill him? I don’t think either of us did, but I knew that if I could do that so easily, so could someone else, and just like rules exist in the film Zombieland, they exist in DayZ too.
Don’t trust anyone, and survive.