Postcards from Chernarus: Life in DayZ for ARMA2, Part 3
Welcome to my much-belated final post on my travels in ARMA2′s zombie-apocalypse mod DayZ. If you haven’t read the past two parts, you can find them here and here. There are a few things I want to talk about today, namely server persistence and player interactions. Both of those game concepts ultimately go hand-in-hand with what I’m trying to get at, what I’m ultimately reaching for when I wander through the foggy, rain-and-zombie-filled nights of DayZ.
You see, server persistence in DayZ is a fantastic thing. There’s a master server for DayZ that tracks your character, where he is, and what items he has on him. That means you can casually switch from server to server and have your character exactly as you left him, regardless of what server you left him in. It’s useful for a mod that blew up and rarely has enough servers to satisfy its playerbase on weekends, especially when half those servers experience severe bugs. There’s a point where that persistence, that freedom to switch to-and-from as you please, becomes a bit of a problem though.
The issue? There’s less of a sense of community. Less of a sense of organization. Less incentive to put down roots. Of course, all of that is still possible. It requires a significant amount of outside effort, though, and server persistence doesn’t actively encourage you to bother. What we’ve seen so far are small groups of bandits and survivors wandering, looting, and shooting people they come across. Rarely, you’ll come across outfits setting up heavily-guarded trade depots, or small clans eloquently declaring war on one another, but the community just hasn’t settled enough to expect or embrace situations like those. Evidence? The first response to a trader saying “I’ve set up shop.” in chat is very typically “Lol, prepare to die noob. Who trades?” A declaration of war? “Lol, you losers are taking this way too seriously.”
Yes, it can be argued that those responses are just characteristic of a poor, vocal-but-minor aspect of the community. But take the idea further. I’m some random guy wandering around in the forest, when a complete stranger announces that he’s setting up shop. Short of everyone agreeing that the shop will only be set up on a server like Chicago 1, there’s little familiarity. I’ve never heard of this guy before, I’ve no reason to believe he’s an honest merchant. There’s no repertoire that he’s built unless he has explicitly chosen to stay on a select amount of servers long enough that returning players just might recognize him.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? It’s hard to rebuild civilization when everyone comes and goes as he or she pleases, when everyone’s a new face with a gun. Of course, one could say that the game’s meant to focus more on the struggle to survive in an apocalypse. But it’s an open-world, sandbox environment, where we the players shape the world around us. In a land of no rules, it’s natural to be drawn towards the creation of rules, of standards, of society.
Now, I’m not arguing for the elimination of server persistence. It’s too critical of a feature as it is now; it’s one of this game’s selling points. But I think that as we move forwards, as we see things (hopefully) evolve in the community to more than just lone-wolf stragglers and roving bands of murderers, players are going to have to start choosing their main servers. Otherwise, we’re going to see ourselves running into a limit on just how much there is to do.
There’s more to the argument when it comes to players themselves. You see, when you play DayZ, you generally expect to be killed more often by other players than by the environment and zombies. Forget the cold and the flesh-eating, it’s a bullet in your brain that’s going to put an end to your baked-bean-eating ways. There are a few reasons for that. On the one hand, you have people who kill because they need to. They see someone with better equipment, food, antibiotics, and they decide to end that person’s life in order to continue their own. On the other hand, you have people who just like to kill. They’re the ones driving around in cars with trains of zombies behind them, the ones sitting in a tower and sniping anyone they see without ever bothering to loot them.
I’m going to violate nature and declare a third hand, just because I can: People who kill because they’re afraid they’ll be killed first. Those three categories sum up player killing pretty accurately. It works well, to an extent. Anyone you encounter is a potential risk. You’re always standing there with a gun at the ready, waiting to shoot, ready to kill the person in front of you. All too often, that readiness becomes a reality. Worse yet, it becomes a reflex. After dealing with strangers for so long and finding yourself with a bullet in your head, your logic starts to turn to “Shoot first, don’t ask questions later.”
This embittered playstyle at least partially relied on a system of player-killer identification. People who killed other people lost humanity points, eventually picking up a different player skin. The system didn’t work very often, though, at least in my experience. Players would get the bandit skin just for defending themselves from poor shots, or they’d explicitly seek to get the skin just because they liked the example. In my own experience, the few times I’ve partnered up with strangers, I’ve usually found myself working with bandits. My deaths, meanwhile? Generally at the hands of people wearing the survivor skin.
That system, acknowledged as less-than-functional, is being phased out completely. In its place, there are few things that we can do. It’s hard to trust your fellow man when he’s a complete stranger every time you meet him. Sometimes, he doesn’t even speak your language. All you know is he’s got a gun, needs to fulfill, and just as much reason to shoot you first. Short of a willingness to trust, the only viable alternative that doesn’t turn this mod into “Deathmatch Simulator 2012″ is for us to rely on familiarity, and that familiarity only comes with haunting the same old grounds or intensive coordination outside of the game. Without that, all we have to ourselves are the tried-and-true mantras of “Avoid him or shoot him before he shoots you” in the face of death.
Till the day where that familiarity comes, you’ll still find me willing to trust in the better parts of man. I see that survivor running in the distance, a good dozen zombies close behind him. The temptation to ignore him, or even shoot one of his legs out, is there. I shoulder my Winchester and fire a few shots, taking out two zombies, missing a few others. Before long, he has noticed my shooting and is running in my direction, the zombies still on him. I don’t know who he is, whether or not he’ll kill me if and when we survive this, or if I’ll ever see him again afterward. But with each shot, as he gets closer and closer with his horror-show behind him, all I do know is that I wouldn’t have had this any other way.