I have a thing for zombies. When I first started to hear about zombie survival mod DayZ, my ears pricked up, and reading a couple of experiental pieces on PC gaming website Rock, Paper, Shotgun got me even more interested.
I knew the Steam Summer Sale was incoming, so I waited patiently for a discount on the game the mod was based on, ARMA II: Combined Operations. But I ignored my own advice and grabbed it at a 20% discount, despite the fact that it wasn't a daily deal (it was later discounted by 40%).
It took days to work out how to install the mod. A number of issues that can crop up while trying to install it, and I'm fairly sure I encountered nearly all of them. After many attempts, my gaming buddy, James, managed to get it working using an older version of the game, and we set out to play together.
DayZ has no real objective. There are no missions, however small. There's nothing to do except to get by and survive, avoiding the zombies, for as long as possible, while you dehydrate and begin to starve. You have hundreds of square kilometres of ground to explore, and almost no supplies to begin with. To get supplies, you either have to kill others or explore buildings, which are usually surrounded by shambling zombies who break into a sprint when they see you...
The New Zealand servers had the lowest ping by far. However, they were always full - so full that we had to constantly refresh the server page looking for an opening.
I spawned on a beach near a township. During my second and third respawn, I had a map to orient myself, but the first time I was going in blind. I had heard that bandits - other players who would kill you for the couple of bandages in your pack - liked to hang around high points around the beaches, trying to take out the newly-respawned, so I ran for the treeline. Then I saw someone else running, and turned to look.
"Uh, that's a zombie," James said, peering over my shoulder.
"What? Argh!" I said, and then I ran, in amongst the trees, as the zombie dashed after me. And I ran, and ran, and ran.
I don't actually know when I lost the zombie, but several minutes passed before I turned around to see that it was gone. Before another zombie could spot me, I dashed up the nearest slope.
When I came to the top of the hill, I spotted another player. I couldn't tell whether he was a bandit or not: he was facing away from me and prone on the ground, crawling toward the edge of the hilltop. I watched him for a bit, pointed him out to my buddy. He asked me what I was going to do, but I couldn't do much. As far as I could tell, I had no weapons. I didn't even know if I could use melee attacks (I couldn't). There was a settlement on the other side of the hill that I could search for something to use as a weapon, but there was no way to get there without crossing into this man's line of sight.
Quietly, I skulked away. I'd figured out how to go prone and hide, so I crawled under a bush and took stock of my inventory. A couple of bandages, some painkillers, a backpack, and a flashlight.
James was having trouble joining the server, so I waited under that bush for 10 minutes or so. During that time, I watched another player crawl from the bottom of the hill, up toward the spot where I'd seen the other guy hiding. Soon after, I heard pistol shots fired, and then a message flashed on-screen telling me someone had died.
I was suddenly glad that I'd sneaked away while I had the chance.
Eventually, James gave up on joining a game, so I made my way toward the settlement I'd seen. I went the long way around to avoid the shooter on the hill, prone the whole way. I crawled around the town, sneaking past the many zombies that lurked around. Eventually, I came across an empty building that apparently used to be somebody's home. I made my way into what was once a dining room, and found some ammo on the floor, although no guns to use it with.
I crawled out of the doorway and heard my bones snap. Just like that. I never saw my attacker, and still have no idea whether it was human or not.
I survived, barely, although several bones were broken. I had to crawl out of the house and into a nearby cabin, where I found a crowbar. Finally, a weapon! But it was too late: I was bleeding to death.
James finally managed to get into a game on a different server, and after spawning, we decided to figure out where we were and meet up. A map we found online assisted us in finding out the names of the nearby settlements on the coast, but he spawned far, far away from me. Nonetheless, we began to make our way toward each other, hoping we'd have strength in numbers.
It took me an hour to skirt around the edges of several townships, and get close to where James was. He was trying to meet up with another friend, so once we met up we planned to venture off in search of him. Then a zombie started chasing me. It was one of many that had chased me before, but this one was persistent. I ran up hills, zig-zagging so I could go faster. It stayed on my tail. I vaulted over small fences, hoping it'd slow the zombie down. When I turned, it was too close for comfort: I couldn't get out of its sight.
Desperate, I ran toward the township, hoping to find a weapon. Instead, I found a building with a ladder running down the side of it, and climbed up onto its roof. I was happy to discover that zombies can't climb ladders, and I was safe. Or so I thought.
This is where I made my biggest mistake.
I needed to go to the bathroom - in real life, not in the game - but I didn't want to log off and lose my spot. So, since I couldn't see any other players, I went into the prone position on top of the roof and left for a minute.
When I came back I was unharmed, but there was another player standing on the roof with me. He was holding a gun and looking right at me. He hadn't hurt me, though, so I thought - stupidly - that maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he hadn't followed me. Maybe he'd just come up there looking to escape the undead, like I had.
After a few seconds, when he hadn't fired at me, I began to stand. As soon as I moved to get up, he fired. Still, I hoped that maybe it was just a warning shot - yeah right, a warning shot to the stomach? - designed to let me know that I shouldn't attack. I didn't. Once I was up, I stood there, waiting and hoping the other player would realise that I wasn't out to hurt him (nor could I, if I tried; I was unarmed).
He fired again, and I panicked. I tried to escape by jumping off the roof of the building. The fall killed me.
James soldiered on.
My third spawn placed me much closer to my buddy, so I headed toward him. He was already dehydrated, so we planned to head directly to his friend, finding something to drink along the way. Even once I got to his general location, I was still cautious.
"I see somebody," I told him. "Walking around crouched, near the train tracks." I was not going to get caught out again and trust somebody I shouldn't.
"That's me," James said, and we met up. On my way to him, I'd found a small lake. James had several things that we thought could hold water - a whiskey bottle and a couple of empty cans - but when we got to the lake, we discovered that none worked. We couldn't drink straight from the lake, either. (Later, we found out you can only drink water from a canteen, currently.)
We wandered up a dirt road for a long time, not even hiding except when we came across a log cabin with a few zombies lurking around it. James explored the cabin while I hid in the bush, but there was nothing of use, so we kept going.
James was getting desperate for water by the time we found the ruins of what appeared to be a castle. I needed water too, although not as desperately. We ventured inside, avoiding a zombie to the right of the old building, and began gathering supplies. Still there was nothing to drink.
Suddenly, I couldn't run. I toggled running on and off by double-tapping the Shift key, hoping I could fix it, but nothing changed: it must have been a bug. I made my way around much more slowly, as a result, but we kept exploring the ruins and I hoped the bug would fix itself. James climbed some stairs to look for extra stuff, and I ventured out toward another part of the ruins.
Then the zombie we'd avoided so carefully walked around a corner, spotted me, and lurched forward.
"Zombie! Zombie zombie zombie!" I cried. It always seemed surprising and scary when one showed up, but this time especially.
"Run!" James replied.
But I couldn't run. I tried to hide, but the zombie was already on me. It slashed at me and broke my legs. I survived, but I was so badly injured that I knew it would be almost impossible to recover.
When I came to, the zombie was gone. I crawled inside the nearest building to bandage myself up as best I could. James gave me extra bandages and painkillers, and had managed to find a couple of cans of Coke so we could get hydrated. I stopped losing blood but the screen was still blurred and although I could stand, I fell over again as soon as I attempted to walk.
"You have to go on without me," I told James. The only way to 'fix' broken bones was with morphine, which had to be looted from a hospital. We were nowhere near one. "I'll log off and you could go look for blood packs and morphine, and come back."
But he wanted me to come with him. I could only crawl, but he patiently waited for me and lead the way, and I followed for a time. But my vision was blurred and it was beginning to give me a real-life headache, so eventually I gave up and we both logged off. When I go back, I'll probably have to respawn. I had a long way to crawl toward the nearest town, and the chances of not getting killed along the way? Very slim.
Later on, we talked about what we could have done differently. Raiding settlements was risky, as there were zombies around and we were defenseless, but perhaps running off into the wilderness with no weapons had been riskier. Maybe we should've found a canteen, if not a hatchet or a crowbar. At least we wouldn't have gotten so desperate.
But that's what DayZ is about: pure, unadulterated desperation, and what people will do in tough circumstances. That, above all, makes the game world a brutal place.