The survival-horror genre has gone through a rough patch over the past decade. Horror IPs have gradually trended towards shoot-’em-up action and Indiana Jones-esque adventure rather than towards the harsh scarcity and barren landscapes that often accompanied their forefathers. Since Resident Evil 4, a game which symbolically transitions from a more traditional survival-horror in its first act to action adventure in its third, “revolutionized” the genre it has just become a subsection of action games many might call “action-horror.”
Recent PC games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender have attempted to revive the genre but instead of de-emphasizing combat, like Silent Hill 2, Eternal Darkness, or Resident Evil 2, they remove it all together. While this is certainly effective in making the player jump along with any hapless viewers on the couch, it eliminates the idea of “survival,” or struggling in a world with limited resources.
Bohemia Interactive’s Day Z is a lot different than survival-horror forerunners like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Day Z is a multiplayer game, and there is no creepy music, no mind bending story, and no characters besides the ones that players create for themselves. In fact, in terms of gameplay it resembles a multiplayer rogue-like more so than something like Silent Hill. That said, Day Z is not only true to the core concepts of traditional survival-horror games, it also expands on them in new and exciting ways.
First of all, Day Z is a survival game if nothing else. The moment that you start the game and in every succeeding moment, you are continually reminded of your character’s mortality. Every new character spawns thirsty and on the verge of hunger. If not tended to immediately (within an hour), your character will start to lose blood and die. In order to survive in the barren environment of Chernarus, the player must loot everything that he sees in order to find food, water, and gear. Resources are scarce, and it takes skill just to survive. Indeed, my first two or three characters nearly died of hunger solely because I could not find a can opener. In this sense, the game is unforgiving and allows the scarceness of resources to dictate its gameplay, forcing characters to come together at loot “hot spots” and interact.
This survival aspect replaces the character development and plot in a traditional survival-horror game. Instead of connecting to Leon S. Kennedy or James Sunderland on a psychological level as one would connect with a movie character, the player connects with their voiceless and emotionless avatar because they are spending hours just trying to keep them alive. The player’s character becomes not just an extension of the self, but an investment paid for with time and effort.
The horror element of Day Z comes in an almost unexpected way. While the game has zombies and they attack the player, they are not a real threat. Instead, it is the mechanic of dying in Day Z that facilitates fear.
If your character dies in Day Z, they are gone for good. Any gear, weapons, or food is instantly lost and you spawn anew thirsty and on the verge of death. You may spend hours in-game collecting resources only to be shot entering a town and instantly killed by another player or fall off a ladder and break a leg (practically a death sentence if no help is available). Because of this, playing Day Z puts the player on edge and induces paranoia — at any moment a shooter could be lurking in the woods or an axeman could be lurking around the corner.
Because of this, Day Z flips the traditional format of the survival-horror game on its head. As in most video games, in Day Z the player starts off weak and over the course of the game gets stronger. In a survival-horror game this means that slowly but surely the enemies become less scary as the player begins to have more means to eliminate them. For instance, the first half of Silent Hill 2 is terrifying because it is difficult to deal with enemies, but by the end, the player is no longer running from Pyramid Head; the player is fighting him head on.
Day Z is the only game that I’ve ever played that gets scarier the better and stronger that one’s character becomes. As a thirsty new spawn, your life means nothing because, if you die, you’ll come back relatively the same as you were when you died. But if your character has been alive for a few hours and you’ve just found your first gun, even though you are significantly more powerful than you were when you spawned, the game is significantly scarier because now your character has something to live for. Other players are no longer possible friends, but threats that must be taken care of.
I consider myself a pretty nice Day Z player. There is a strong “kill on sight” mentality among players and a lot of bandits will just shoot every player that they see, but my friend and I try to not kill anyone unless we are fired upon first. Still, Day Z gets to you and changes the way that you think about other people. You get to the point where you think anyone with a gun or axe is going to try to kill you.
For example, once we were looting a grocery store, and we saw a man with a rifle across the street. We were safe behind some shelves, so we yelled out to him through the in game chat “Who are you? Are you friendly? Don’t move!” At this point, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I’d invested at least seven hours in this character, I’d been collecting all the medicine in the game to serve as a medic for other players, then without speaking a word, the rifleman started crossing the street toward us. My partner and I instantly opened fire, and the man dropped to the ground bleeding.
We, being nice midwesterners, ran over to his unconscious body and apologized for shooting him, stating that there was no other alternative — to which he responded that he couldn’t even hear us. Humorously, we were able to bandage him up and give him a saline bag to restore the blood he lost, but it was still one of the most arresting and riveting gaming experiences that I’ve ever had. And something just as enthralling happens nearly every time that I meet a new player.
Day Z hearkens back to old survival-horror games in its scarce environment, in its wonky controls, in its tense atmosphere, but where it really excels and pushes the genre forward is in the way that it makes you afraid. In traditional survival-horror, players inevitably figure out the computer’s AI or are no longer scared by the grotesque images crawling across the screen. However, I doubt we will ever get used to the unpredictability of another player or the fear that that brings.