This is an experience I had while playing DayZ. The point of this story is to help demonstrate the mechanics and details in the simulation along with the dramatic way players can discuss their stories. I recommend reading it.
The roaring waves wake me up. Fighting the fierce wind I open my eyes and survey the area. I recognize this place. With mathematical precision I observe the area. Numbers are good to have. I am on the opposite side of some 30 meter tall wooded hills away from a farm called “Three Valleys”, on the coast of a fictional Prague called “Chernarus”. I slowly walk over the train tracks lining the coast trying to keep my footsteps silent. I go between two buildings in front of the hills. I crouch and listen for noises over the howling wind. I hear nothing. I sprint for the hills looking over my shoulders to be safe. I climb the hills slowly and walk along the top, following the direction of the ground level road running alongside it. I feel safe for now. I weave between the trees keeping note of where the road was facing. I finally reach a clearing and the hot sun lays on my face. I see the farm. I crouch and make my way over to the two story barn. It’s my favorite barn.
I glance to my left and see a large low angle hill with a dark figure some 70 meters away. Definitely not a goat. Definitely not good. It sprints at me. How did it see me?! I was so sure I was quiet… I stand up and run as fast as I can for the barn. It screams and snarls at me, and more dark figures emerge from the buildings nearby. No! I reach the building with a small horde of figures right behind. I run up the stairs and dive into the hay, looking for anything I can use to defend myself. I find a Winchester rifle and some ammo. Everything is slow, my vision is blurry, and I’m running out of time. I fumble to load the rifle. The figures slowly climb the stairs towards me.
I finish loading the rifle, take breaths, slowly aim at each head and fire the gun, one by one. More hear the gunshots and run for the barn. They feed in water. I keep taking slow focused shots until they’re all dead. I loot the bodies of the zombies for food and water. Now I’m in business. Now to find my friend; we agreed to meet here. I go prone on the wooden loft and watch the doors. I wait. 30 minutes later a person enters, and I address him down the barrel of my gun: “Keegan?”
“Yeah?” he responds.
We made it.
“So where to?” I ask with a grin.
So begins our journey to the West. We walk from Three Valleys to Staroye, Mogilevka, Vyshnoye, to Pulkovo, to Rogovo, to Sosnovka, looting supermarkets, houses, and any other buildings we come across for food and ammo. When it rains we go inside and build a fire to stay warm. When we get hungry and had no food we hunt boars in the forests. We are surviving, and looking for our other friend Elliot.
At Sosnovka things take a turn for the worse. We look for supplies and see we are getting low, and the town has a grocery store. We go in and scrounge for food. Keegan barricades the front door so nothing will disturb us. I venture into the back. It’s got a loading bay, and the doors were left open. In the opening, I see something and my body goes cold. Zombies. Everywhere. One turns to face me and screams. The others turn and screech. I scream “KEEGAN THEY’RE COMING” and run back and face the door leading to the back. With him at my side we shoot into the opening at the mass rush of zombies.1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. I reload the revolver I am using. I wish it wasn’t so loud… Zombies begin to swarm the building; I can see them through the windows walking over to the loading bay side. This is where we are going to die. I run out of ammo. Keegan resorts to using a hatchet to hack at the bottlenecked zombies one at a time. We need a solution! In a panic I throw a can at a large window, shattering the glass and yell “RUN” to him and we vault through the window and I look back to see zombies turning to chase us. This is not good.
Then out of nowhere, HONK.
That. Is. A. Car. It drives up beside us and the person inside says “HEY GUYS ITS ME ELLIOT! I STOLE A CAR FROM SOME GUYS, GET IN!” Overcome with joy Keegan and I hop in. We drive away at what seems like lightspeed after walking 10s of kilometers for so long. The supermarket and the death surrounding it shrink into the distance.
I look over at Elliot. I sigh, laugh, grin, and feel like I’m going to cry with joy. That really just happened. It’s like something from a movie but it just now happened, and now here we are – three people who were lucky to just find a can of beans on the coast and not get eaten for a day – in a f******* car driving at 60 kilometers an hour down a straight road, woods and hills and zombies and barns and towns whizzing by. Just six hours ago Keegan and I were worried about finding food.
My oh my oh my. I get goose-bumps and the sun warms my skin as I sit back in my leather seat and watch the countryside blur past. Just wow. I cannot believe it.
We drive down south to Kamarovo and Kamenka to look for another friend named Andrew. We find him, and he’s as shocked as we were about the car. With four people and a car, we are Gods of this hell. What to do next with our ultimate power?
“Northwest Airfield” someone injects into conversation, followed by silence. “Yes.” We unanimously agree. It’s time. The Northwest airfield is the farthest possible point from the coast that lines the southern and western border of the world. We head north. “Will we have enough gas for this?” someone asks.
The drive over is tense. Nobody knows what to expect. Death is a given, but what other mysteries lie there? What stories will we find? We’re all nervous, silent, excited.
The airfield comes into view. The road passes through a rusty chain fence that once protected the area. We drive onto the main airstrip. There are two hangers to the left and a firestation with a garage and a very tall lookout tower. There’s a control tower in the center and more assorted buildings and barracks and hangers on the right. We drive the car outside the garage doors of the firestation and get out. We stow the car in the garage and shut the doors. We drink it in. This is the place.
We search for powerful weapons and rare supplies. Andrew and I climb the lookout tower and look down at the airfield. “GUYS….” I yell to my friends.
“We are screwed”.
The noise of the car woke up 100s of zombies in all the hangers and buildings lining the airfield. The lumbered out onto the grass in the center, covering the ground with their dense population.
I make a mistake: I fire my trusty Winchester at one. They all start sprinting towards the sound and within seconds the firestation is surrounded. They get in somehow and Andrew begins shooting down the spiral staircase leading to the top of the lookout tower at the zombies flooding up. One of them crawls over and breaks his legs. Bleeding he screams for help as he falls in pain. Zombies surround him and rip at his body. The screams for help silence. They turn to me and I fire frantically at the crowd as I back up the staircase. One of them gets past and breaks my leg. I fall bleeding and screaming to the ground, but I refuse to die like that. I try to keep from panicking and continue dragging myself backwards and shooting the horde. Finally it stops. I pull out my pistol and look outside. Elliot had taken the car out of the garage and had been driving up and down the strip running over lines of zombies like a lawn mower. I yell “ GO ELLIOT HAHAHA!” to him. Maybe there’s hope after all.
Then I remember the gas. In the distance the car slows and sputters to a stop. I crawl down the stairs and out of the garage. I shuffle over to the car, and it’s surrounded by the zombies banging on the windows on all sides, as Elliot screams for help. I fire my pistol haphazardly at a few of the zombies, and they turn to look at me. They begin slowly walking over, taking their time. I know what’s about to happen.
Elliot jumps out of the car, pushing off zombies and holds up a grenade he found earlier. “Oh damn.” I think as he, the car, the zombies and I all become engulfed in a flash.
Keegan had snuck out as soon as he heard the gunshots. He climbed a hill nearby to see the carnage unfold. In the pale silence and adrenaline of the aftermath, he turned away and began walking up the hill, planning out his next course of action.
Then he heard the crack of a rifle being fired, and a bullet pierced his skull. Kilometers away, a man on a hill with a large rifle congratulated himself on his shot.
That was my first eventful life in DayZ. A mod of a military simulator called Arma II. It takes place in a fictional Prague called “Chernarus”. The world is 225 sqkm long, and it takes over 8 hours to sprint from one end to the other. Players begin on a beach with no supplies or weapons. They must eat, drink, and stay healthy (not sick) to survive. There is no goal, no points, only survival and what you must do to stay alive. There are zombies everywhere that have good eyesight and hearing. If they see or hear you, you will need to be quick and smart because all it takes to kill you is a mistake. A zombie can scratch you and create open wounds. If you’re lucky a wound will clot. If you’re not it won’t, and the zombie will chase you until you die so he will open more wounds. If you’re not lucky your cut will get an infection and you’ll get sick and die eventually. If left unbandaged a wound will bleed. As you lose blood in your system your vision loses color. Then you will shake. Then you will stop seeing straight. Then you will begin to collapse for minutes at a time. Then you will die. You can get more blood by eating or by having another player give you a blood transfusion using a blood bag found in a few cities scattered across the game’s world. You can break bones, get shock, and all sorts of horrible dieases/conditions, all of which need some form of treatment.
If you die you die. You lose everything and start again on the beach anew.
So while trying to find food by scavenging or hunting animals in the forests and surviving the occasional zombie you must worry about other players. The game is multiplayer, and allows for up to 100 people to join and try survive on the world. A gun can also kill a person, so people can kill others for supplies or weapons. Hence, cities are deadly because they are usually full of supplies and therefore people. People are scarier than zombies because they can kill you easier, so you can never trust anyone.
All these systems interact to create a procedural story for the player. This story is more powerful than any pre-conceived story there might be in a game because everything that happens in DayZ happens. Instead of a linear narrative that tells a pre-made story to the player drip by drip, the game simulates a world with enough detail to allow incredibly complex stories to emerge just from the interaction of the systems.
It gives the player a seamless virtual world to explore where consequences and logic are consistent and realistic. It simulates rather than relates a world to the player. This strategy is a framework that is the future of storytelling in games. You can see it present in games like Minecraft, Spelunky, and more. As Erik Wolpaw said poignantly, “It seems like it's the promise of games. It's like, 'I have full agency. Total, total agency.’” Erik Wolpaw is the writer of Half Life 2: Episode One, Half Life 2: Episode Two, Portal, Portal 2, and Psychonauts. The power of him acknowledging this can’t be overstated. He adds: “I look at stories coming out of Minecraft or something like DayZ, and honestly… it makes me just despair. If I had any guts or honor, I'd leave the industry." Even Tim Schaefer of Double Fine fame acknowledged that this model will take over, but added that narrative driven games like Erik’s and his will still have a small place in the world (Hamilton).
What makes this dynamic world simulating concept a better framework for games than the current framework? There are too many reasons to count. To start: in many games a common problem is “Ludonarrative Dissonance”. Take this hypothetical scenario: you’re playing a JRPG. Combat with enemies is turn based, and your party members have health meters and such. If a party member runs out of health and dies, you can use an item called the “firebird up” to revive them. All of a sudden in a traditional videogame cutscene (this is a traditional game we are assuming) one of your party members dies. The other characters mourn and sad music plays. Meanwhile as the player you are confused: “Why can’t I use a ‘firebird up’ and revive that person like I’ve done the other 313 times they’ve died?” You are the only one in the game world to question this. This is actually exactly what happened in Final Fantasy 7, a game lauded for its story. Ludonarrative Dissonance is when the minute to minute gameplay’s universe does not match the narrative’s universe. Another example is any James Bond game. At some point you will be held up with a gun by an evil man who explains his plans to you. In the gameplay, you could take the shots from his gun and easily dispose of him, because you are a walking piece of steak surrounded by body armor. This time things are suddenly different, and it’s bad storytelling and bad design (Doucet).
Even Bioshock does this. Clint Hocking of Splinter Cell and Far Cry fame tore Bioshock apart for this. It’s a game that’s supposed to bring thought into video games, taking a city straight out of Atlas Shrugged and exposing the player to objectivism. This is great because it’s an interesting topic. What isn’t great is that the game settles for using it as window curtains for its overall goal: create a fun violent bloody shooting game with flickering lights and screams.
The game shows the player objectivism: you are the only thing that matters, selfishness is survival, etc. It then asks the player to deal with their opinion on this through the Little Sisters, children whose bodies carry something that will give the player more power. By killing them, you get more of the substance. By purifying them and saving their minds from it you get less. The game asks you to choose to follow your traditional morals or to be objectivist and selfish and survive. This reflects the themes well.
On the other hand the narrative has you take orders from a lowly man who represents your traditional sense of morality named Atlas who is opposed to the man who represents objectivist ideology named Andrew Ryan. So as in gameplay you follow the themes of choice and you can choose to either go along with Atlas, or stop playing because Andrew Ryan is the antagonist. The choice is present in game but not in story, causing a dissonance that only widens.
Later on in the game Atlas takes off a metaphorical mask and reveals himself to be a selfish evil man, and the game goes “I TRICKED YOU HAHA”, and you’re supposed to feel betrayed and tricked by the character, but in reality it was the only option. At this point Clint says “The game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended or disbelief in order to enjoy it.” It mocks us for accepting the limits of these games’ narrative framework in order to enjoy the stories they tell.
In an average game you suspend logic and take everything you see as it is. You do what you are told to do because it is the only thing. If you wanted to align with the antagonist you simply can’t do anything outside of stopping the game, so when a game claims your very obedience was a part of the narrative you should be angry because there was no other option. It wasn’t mind control, the world simply only allowed one outcome even though you were in full control. You couldn’t turn and smack the protagonist because the areas you go into have one entrance and one exit. You couldn’t go find him even if you wanted to because his physical location and a path to it didn’t exist (Hocking).
Not all traditional games have this problem of dissonance though. Assassin’s Creed as a series claimed the parts where you play are actually a simulation themselves, so when you pause the game, the simulation in which character is in is paused by the character, and etc. Bioshock Infinite is currently the traditional game’s beacon of quality. The game managed to excuse dissonant things like respawning on death by claiming that the current universe you are in is part of a series of universes where you get a little farther in your journey each time. Think of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day except each day played at the same time until only the final day remains.
There is another game called Defender’s Quest that uses the ridiculous to explain its mechanics logically (Doucet). Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock Infinite, and Defender’s Quest all have good ideas and allowed these games to dodge these problems but their solutions are not portable. Using these complex explanations as frameworks for narrative design would lead to every game being the exact same or absolutely bonkers.
In DayZ you are you and you do what you do. There is no room for ludonarrative dissonance because the game itself is detailed and simulated enough that the events that happen to you in a life are a dramatic story on their own. The gameplay is story. You look around and see the open world before you. You go where you feel like. The game allows infinite choice on behalf of the player.
Furthermore it solves the problem of agency. Many games have you play a character in the game’s world. You are the Master Chief, you are Mario, you are J.C. Denton, you are a person with a history and a personality and hopes and dreams. When you take that controller and assume control he is no longer himself. He becomes some hodgepodge of what you the player would have him do and what his preconceived personality would do. If you want to see the story as it was meant to be you become less of a player interacting with a world and more of an actor. You filter your actions through “What would this character do?” At that point the story would be better off as a movie – something passive and free of a player mucking up the character’s characterization.
A game is interactive (which is the point of it) so the player should be able to be himself in a game that has a narrative element to it. Some games have tried to relieve this pressure for agency by allowing limited choices. “Spare or Kill?”, “This or That?”, “Mean or Nice?” are all common ones, with at most cosmetic effects on the narrative. Since we are dealing with a premade narrative these choices must have some effect on it, which can be costly and very hard to implement. The common solution is more of a compromise: limited choices with limited effects. Take Mass Effect 3: the game that is currently the most famous example of player agency and choice-making in AAA games. The game follows a diamond pattern of branching narratives, with all possible narratives starting at the same point and all spreading apart to suddenly snap together at the top. In the end your choices have cosmetic effects (Schwarz).
My character I made had the ability to teleport to people, slow down time, and shoot them at point blank with a shotgun until they died. In cutscenes my character would run after an antagonist and they’d get away. “Why didn’t you teleport?! You’ve even got a four second cooldown on it!” I’d mentally shout.
Funnily enough the game has an interesting dissonance to it: there’s no sense of time, even though the plot is screaming that the end is nigh so hurry up. It even shows Earth being decimated and children dying, telling you to go and complete your journey and save the universe. The majority of the game is completing side quests by walking slowly around and talking to people, and then flying your ship around collecting things for people. You could sit there forever and do side quests and the aliens that are destroying all life in the universe would sit back with a cup of tea and wait patiently for you to be ready (Schwarz).
The game also doesn’t have a scenario where players can ever make the wrong choice and have the journey end. Every choice is a preference and not a decision. This leads to a loss of impact from the choices, and a feeling of going with the flow because there is little consequence of anything.
DayZ on the other hand is all cause and effect and being part of a breathing world. Sitting around in DayZ would cause you starve, maybe someone would walk up and shoot you, or even a zombie could mill over and nom on you. It doesn’t have the time problem many games have. This type of living experience has been revolutionary for gamers, causing emotions and responses that match what they would feel had the events in the game happened in real life. One player took to the forums because he couldn’t stop shaking whenever the game got tense. People responded saying that they too are having stress/adrenaline issues with the game too. All of a sudden a person who claims to have been an armed bodyguard before compares the intensity of the game to his old job and his current job of being a paramedic. Because the game let’s people get so close it most players experience intense adrenaline, fear, sadness, hatred, and joy when playing because it’s so immersive (Kn0x187YT).
On page 13 of Grau immersion is discussed. Immersion is “characterized by diminishing critical distance to what is shown and increasing emotional involvement in what is happening.” In DayZ there are no barriers except the keyboard and computer screen from the experience. The game requires a lot of time investment in order to get going in a life of it, so every second the player stays alive the more protective they will become of their life, and the more intense their emotions become (Grau).
Traces of DayZ’s emergent-story-simulated-world framework can actually be found across many simulation games. A notable one that recently got a reboot was X-COM (now X-COM: Enemy Unknown). The game has you leading the fight against aliens invading Earth. You are technologically outmatched, so you need to research tech off the bodies of the aliens you kill. Since it is a global invasion, all parts of the world will be attacked and there are only so few places you can save. Countries give specific benefits so you must choose your allies wisely. That said it is very possible and very easy to lose to the aliens. Letting the larger continents fall in favor of Australia only would not be a wise choice for example. Your soldiers in your elite squad are all named and gain experience/level up. If one of them dies they die forever and you get a level 1 recruit to train and grow to love again. The game’s structure allows for all sorts of emergent stories to be created, since each playthrough is a story of its own (Alexander).
This game will let you see how well you and your friends truly act under intense pressure and fear. I’ve seen many moments where my friends are screaming and panicking and they become silent and embarrassed over how intensely they acted. After acquiring many epic, sad, angry, and intensely human stories I decided to see how I could affect other’s stories. I soon found many others who thought similarly.
There is Dr. Wasteland, a man who travels the lands and saves dying people. He’s become a famous humanitarian in DayZ and started his own organization of trustfulness passed around as the “White List”. He was interviewed by Charlie Hall for Ars Technica. Even Charlie couldn’t help but tell his experience leading up to meeting Dr. Wasteland with intense prose:
"I've stocked my ALICE pack with everything needed to survive the game's harsh environment for days without having to take the time to hunt and cook: two cans of beans, a hunk of wild boar meat, and three full canteens of water. If I run into trouble, either human or Zed, two morphine injectors can get me back on my feet while the painkillers keep shock at bay. Hopefully I would burn through the six 30-round magazines of 5.45mm ammunition for my AK-74 before it comes to that. If all else fails, I have a single M67 defensive grenade.
Death at this point would force me back to one of the spawn points on the beach, supplied with nothing more than a single bandage and a flashlight. Death means no pistol, no hatchet, no food. Death means a high chance of more death.
In such a state, it could take me a few days of play just to collect enough equipment to survive once more on my own; I don't have that kind of time. I'm also haunted by the memories of my second life’s final moments, trapped alone in a barn by a pack of zombies—legs broken, unable to move, quickly devoured.
The last item in my inventory is a single blood bag, which I have to chuckle at. It might save my life, but only if I can use it—and you cannot give yourself a transfusion in DayZ. For that, you need another player that you trust, and those are in short supply this far north. That’s why people call Dr. Wasteland, M.D.—the man I'm headed to meet."
His actions have inspired many people to play as self-sufficient medics across the game’s servers, traveling and saving lives. There are ~15 doctors on the white list at any given moment and at the time of this interview they had saved around 400 lives. As a testament to how emotionally invested players are, Dr. Wasteland is surprised by the amount of gratitude he receives:
“I've never gotten so much thanks or so much gratitude in my life... people get so attached to their characters. They are overflowing.
‘I was gone, there was nothing I could do, and you CAME!’
‘You came, you healed me up, you gave me food, you gave me water, and then you left.’
In a lot of ways, it's powerful.”
He sees how powerful the stories are:
“One of the things I love about DayZ, maybe because I'm an actor, it's the story that comes out of the game," he says. "I have a story that I tell new players. I shot at someone from a farmhouse, and they shot back and they killed me, but they came over and looked me right in the eyes until I died. They shared that moment with me. If I'm role playing my character, I'm glad someone was with them in their last moment. Someone was right there with them.”
“I think one of the things we can do better, we can role play more. Can each of us [on the White List] have more personality? Can we give them not just medical help, [but] give them an experience? They get to tell their friends, not only did they come and help me out, but they gave me a real thing, a story to bring back to my friends. I think we can do better. That's my goal... generating a story and not just a service.” (Hall)
Reddit has started their own medical service: Reddit Rescue Force. Players submit their location and what they need, and sit and wait. Hopefully someone will save them (“Reddit Rescue Force”). Players have begun experimenting with forming peaceful settlements by getting as many friendly people as possible together. The most famous is Fort Friendly. For one day friendly players all gathered at the most deadly and dangerous city in order to barricade a building and welcome new players and fight off bandit players. The Fort was a success (Steins).
Then there were the Green Mountain Survivors. In the game there is a large abandoned radio tower at a place called Green Mountain. Someone set up a twitch.tv stream called Green Mountain Radio that streamed music that fit DayZ. It was something special to be walking around listening to a radio that thousands of others were also listening to while trying to survive. It brought us together. Then there was a clan formed called Green Mountain Survivors. I was actually lightly involved in it in the beginning. Now it is absolutely massive, and it’s all people working together to survive (Dr. Lyme).
Even I was inspired to create some interesting stories for other players. I can play the guitar, so I dropped all my belongings and journeyed to the center of the most dangerous city. I sat inside a building near an open window. I played my guitar for hours, allowing the music to flow outside into the world, knowing that hundreds of players I’d never see were passing by the city looking for loot and supplies hearing a faint guitar in the distance. People died while my music was playing. I can imagine the way I affected their stories. They will remember the moment - bleeding out on the ground, color draining from their vision, a guitar playing in the wind, getting more and more distant…
People would seek out the guitar and find me near the window. Some gave me gifts and some gave me death. Sometimes someone would make a fire to stay warm in the cold and we’d sit around it as I played my guitar over the crackles of the burning wood, the smell of smoke filling the air. Other times people would just find me and sit to listen. More would follow and we’d all sit there. Nobody knew each other’s names, but we were all a part of this fearful world taking a break to be together. It was powerful and beautiful, and the stories I’ve come away with are more personal and emotional than any sort of story told to me through any other media, because their stories didn’t happen to me (Moak).
DayZ delivers on the promise of video games. It’s a world where you can do anything you want and it stays true to its rules of cause and effect. The best part is that this framework of a detailed simulated world is completely portable. Imagine if the latest Bioshock game let you simply explore the city without scripted events pushing you along. This framework is the future, and it starts with DayZ. It isn’t susceptible to pitfalls like dissonance or lack of agency. You can die or you can thrive. You can even make a friend along the way. The only thing imperfect about the experience is that it’s not real life.
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