Day Z isn't the most difficult game to explain to people at a functional level. It is a multiplayer survival game taking place over a large area of towns and forest populated by other players and zombies. Your character needs to stay healthy, warm and well fed in order to not die, and there are provisions, items and weapons littered around which can make survival easier. However once you get past that, to the "why" of the game, things get confusing. There is no way to win; there is no guarantee of progress, no score system, no currency. In some ways this makes it one of the most challenging and creative games ever made. Not creative in the sense of the game design, but creative in the sense of how you play it—without imagination, without ideas and goals that you create for yourself the game has nothing. The game won’t tell you what you are supposed to want and you don’t even necessarily have to want to survive.
While the game grants you a huge degree of freedom it also lacks authority and with that long term consequences for actions. There is no automated police system and near-safe zones like you’ll find in EVE: Online; there is no system that simply blocks you from doing the same bad things to players as you would do to computer controlled enemies. You have a state of nature within the limitations prescribed by the game. (There are rules beyond the game, covering things like cheating, or certain gameplay options which depend on the server you’re playing on, but they're reliant upon being caught and the game admins opting to inflict a ban. Past that you’re on your own.)
The problem with freedom in the context of Day Z is that it is inevitable that players will turn on each other. There are simply not enough compelling reasons not to. In fact a lot of the mechanics of the game are actually geared towards helping people to turn on each other in creative ways. This is where things can get unpleasant. You can handcuff people. You can break people’s legs with axes. You can force them to eat tainted food or drink bleach. These are mechanics coded into the game with the presumed intention of making the game more fun for players.
Let’s think about that what that means for a moment. The game designers believed that their game would be improved by the ability to kill other player characters by forcing them to drink bleach.
The game also features voice communications: you speak into your microphone, your character speaks in the game, and people who are nearby can hear you. Hardly a revolutionary idea for anybody used to the idea of meeting and talking to people in the real world, but it’s not something that has really been used very much in video games until recently. This too can provide potential for inflicting misery upon other players. One extreme example caught my attention recently on this blog—a player having to endure two other players verbally pretending to rape her character.
What we are seeing to an extent with Day Z is a game that has embraced the capacity for great acts of cruelty, almost as a unique selling point. Plenty of other games let you kill other players, but few let you mess with them like this. Most games avoid giving players the ability to humiliate or abuse their opponents at length, but Day Z doesn’t even let you manually respawn yourself should you get bored of being toyed with.
How did it come to this? Well, from the point of view of the game mechanics, the game has changed a lot since it first appeared as a mod of Arma 2, and the most significant in terms of how players treat each other is the removal of a starting weapon. In the original game every player started with a Makarov pistol. It was borderline ineffective, short-ranged, inaccurate and not particularly powerful—but it was still a weapon. It was still enough that if somebody was to come after you they would have to be careful. Often the threat of the Makarov was enough to deter even well-armed players from hunting you. You might only be lethal at about twenty yards, but that would be enough. As everybody knew everybody else was armed, there was a degree of respect.
Now new players are known as "Bambis." Spawned unarmed on the beach they are the defenceless prey of the first armed person who stumbles upon them, or who seeks them out. You can’t outrun a bullet and you can’t usually hide too well in the gear you start out with either. You are prey, and the game makes no secret of this.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the game there is the psychological effect of including abilities like, for example, force-feeding poison to prisoners. This creates a certain mindset in a game. When a developer implements a feature, particularly in an alpha or beta, the intention is clearly that this is what they want you to be doing. You don’t create paths in a game if you do not want players to walk them. To a player who enjoys the unpleasantness, and who enjoys screwing with other players, this kind of addition to the game is a validation.
In fairness the developers are also adding friendlier things (camp fires for example are on the way), so the development isn’t a totally unfettered march towards barbarity —and at least there's no cannibalism. The risk, of course, is that if you add features like poisoning or maiming into the game, then where is the moral case for not including other acts of brutality? How far of an ethical leap is it from breaking a stranger’s legs and leaving him to be eaten by zombies to eating him yourself? If anything it is something of a surprise that cannibalism wasn’t brought into the game first. You would think horrifying acts in the name of survival would rate higher priority that horrifying acts for fun.
Day Z encourages cooperation, which is one good thing about the game, but the way in which is does this is also quite brutal on new players. Because you don’t necessarily get to spawn with your friends, or even anywhere near them or with any idea where they might be, a freshly spawned player character is not able to make use of any benefits of cooperation at first. Cooperation is reserved for those who have been alive long enough to find their friends, which will often mean finding weapons and equipment too. This makes one more element that plays against the new player, or the newly spawned one. To an extent this encourages social interaction, but any social interaction when you are unarmed is dangerous. Ironically, social interaction when you are armed is dangerous too, as many players won’t think twice about shooting somebody if they see they have a gun.
None of this means that Day Z is a bad game or that bad people play it, but we are seeing a battle for its soul. What the Day Z developers perhaps need to do is to think about what they want it to be remembered for, what they want it to bring to the history of gaming. Will Day Z be the first game that really nails unforgiving wilderness survival in a multiplayer open world, or will it be a game where creepy jerks congregated to enjoy third-rate sadistic jollies? Refusing to pander to those who want to add more cheesy nastiness to the game does not make it a casual or easier game, nor does it make it less of a challenge. The stakes of the game are high enough without adding long, drawn out humiliation to the price to be paid for getting caught by the enemy.
For all the technical issues and content that needs to be added to Day Z, perhaps the greatest challenge the developers face is getting the tone right. If they do manage this, then Day Z could be a truly revolutionary game; a hard-as-nails, dynamic and complicated adventure that breaks into the mainstream. If they get it wrong it’s just another great idea that never fulfilled its potential.