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Wherefore Art Thou, Romero

July 24, 2012

Over the last while, I may have subtly hinted that I am (occasionally) a bit of nerd. As such, I hope it doesn’t shock you to learn that I have thought long and hard about the zombie apocalypse. I have an escape route, a bug-out bag, several forum profiles and a Christmas list full of AK derivatives. But you can teach an old dog new tricks, and there’s always new stuff to learn.

Day Z[1] is a still-in-development modification for ARMA II, an old, niche shooter game that has rocketed upwards in popularity since the mod’s release. Even before the proper ‘release’, Day Z has over 800 000 players. The last two days, I’ve been finding out why. Simultaneously, I have discovered that I am embarrassinglyunderprepared for a weekend hike, let alone the rising of the hungry dead.

You see, Day Z isn’t just the most accurate simulation of zombie survival yet, it’s probably the most accurate simulation of existing in Russia, ever.

 

 

Carpe Diem

Most zombie survival plans consist of long-term goals and strategems. “I will flee over these mountains before setting up camp here.” “I will pick up my parents from their house in this suburb, before finding a nice solid bunker to shit ourselves in.” “I will charge recklessly up this highway, decapitating no fewer than 2.6 thousand undead.” “I will go to the gun store, because I am a blithering idiot.” Always emphasizing goals, always with a precise route to achieve those goals.

Well, in Day Z you wake up on the shores of fair Chernarus (220 square kilometres of forest, shuffling corpses and adorably fuzzy textures). You have in your possession a flashlight, some painkillers, and a bandage.

You know the adage, no plan survives contact with the enemy? Forget that. In Day Z, no plan survives contact with the ground.

You could sprint past the houses and factories into the relative safety of the forest, but you’d be exhausted and desperately thirsty. You could scrounge through the closest houses, but if a zombie gets a whiff of you, prepare to spend the next twenty minutes sprinting, sobbing and crying desperately for your mother. You have to eat, drink, stay warm, not catch an illness, treat individual injuries, and (soon, apparently) shit.

You have no idea where you are – no map, no compass, not even a watch. The street signs are all in Russian. In zombie Chernarus, world navigates you.

Yes, that’s very helpful.

So what happens? Well, you seize the day. You forget about tomorrow and live in the now. You plan in five-minute bursts.

This morning, I started out on the beach with the vague idea that I’d hide in a nearby crane until sundown, when I could move more freely. But I got spotted by a zombie in the bushes before I made it halfway, and had to swim a few hundred metres out to sea (and nearly drown) before I lost it. By the time I made it back to the shore, I was equipped for nothing more than curling up under a bush while a dozen undead tramped by. Sticking my head out, I decided to try to move back to my right – maybe I could find a crowbar in the nearby warehouse.

Then I heard snarling.

When you’re weak, when you’re desperate, ‘plans’ are about as hard to stick to as a lubed-up waterslide, and ‘strategy’ is just another word for ‘run away from the monsters’.

 

 

I Am My Rifle

As most sociopaths (according to statistical analysis, 65% of my reader group) already know, people are nothing more than walking shelves. Day Z seems to prove this theory.

There is no friend/foe mechanic in Day Z, and no penalties for killing other players. As well as the zombies, the map is also populated by between 40 and 200 other players. Many of these players are bandits – they will kill you and take your gear without a second thought. Bandits are indistinguishable from more merciful heavily-armed strangers until they start shooting.

So, you – and everyone else – defines players by their gear. The guy in the zombie-less forest with a sniper rifle isn’t your friend. An unarmed guy isn’t a threat, and he probably isn’t worth stealing from, but he could always have a knife stashed in his toolbelt. Any guy with military gear has been around for a while, and almost certainly has buddies covering him from the treeline.

I popped my head into the warehouse and saw a man laying into a zombie with a crowbar. I politely waited until he’d put the ex-housewife down, and then opened up local chat, ready to sprint away.

“I’m unarmed, don’t kill me.”

He replied quickly, in a Scottish accent that would have made Fat Bastard feel like a racial stereotype. “Not gonna. I got nothing good.”

I didn’t get close to him; we stood awkwardly for a few more seconds, then a trio of zombies burst through the door. He waded in, crowbar swinging. I ran like a little bitch.

In the actual zombie apocalypse, what you carry doesn’t just help you, it defines you to other people, like some perverse exaggeration of fashion in the civilised world. A nice gun can paint a target on your back (skinny jeans, excessive fringe), make others wary of you (tattoos, denim vests) or make you a beacon of hope and safety to the helpless masses (a namebadge reading ‘Emmett’).

 

 

You Got the Power

That first half hour – alone, unarmed, thirsty, with an empty pack – are incredibly tense. Run and hide isn’t just a phrase, it’s your life’s ambition. Every time you die, you are brought back to this horrible hell of empty suburbia, crashed cars and desperately rubbing yourself up against a bush every time a zombie sneezes in the distance.

But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Moving slowly and quietly, staying behind the roving undead menace and avoiding player-heavy areas like the plague, you can scrounge up what you need to survive.

After my encounter with Scottish Gordon Freeman, I skulked, slunk and terror-pissed my way through an industrial town over the next forty minutes.

After leading an epic conga line of zombies through a railway park like the retarded, heavily-panting Pied Piper, I wound up on top of a small factory, with most of the crowd dispersed. There was one zombie left though, at the base of the ladder; I named him Princess Bitchface. With a combination of crawling, weeping and throwing empty tin cans off into the distance, I managed to get him away from the base of the ladder. I hit ground level, ducked into a shed, and on the floor was a hatchet.

Lightning crackled in the distance. Dramatic Latin chanting started up. I believe a score by Hans Zimmer (or was it speed metal?) started up.

When you spend an hour constantly afraid for your life, where every single stray zombie can ruin fifteen minutes of sneaking and scrouging, and then you find some way to strike back… It may have gone to my head a little

Half-remembered quotes from Rambo playing in my head, I stepped out of the shack, hefted my new toy and strolled up behind Princess Bitchface.

“Here’s Johnny!” I yelled triumphantly, spraying the computer screen with joy-saliva, and then I brought my hatchet down on his skull.

A few minutes later, the Princess was in at least 17 (but no more than 24) pieces, and I was feeling puffed, exhausted, satisfied, and vaguely disgusted by what I’d just done.

What I’m saying is, the aftermath of axe murder is the exact same as the aftermath of sex , and don’t let newfound power go to your head.

 

People Are Pretty Cool, Except When They’re Not

You meet a lot of people in Day Z, and a lot of them seem to be much better at apocalypsing than me. Maybe they’ve had more practice, maybe they’re more careful, maybe they understand the difference between a tactical firefight and being possessed by the warrior spirit of Conan the Barbarian.

But despite the lack of trust endemic to such a desperate, morally ambiguous, realistic game… yeah, most other players are pretty sweet guys.

I mean, it’s not like I’m such an intimidating presence that I scare them straight. I was in the corner of a barn, screwing up the insanely complex and comprehensive controls and stuck in a perpetual loop of lying down, crouching and sticking my head in my backpack when a dude came up behind me and said hi. I promptly spun 360 degrees, looked up at the ceiling and screamed “don’t kill me, I have nothing, please” while sprinting into a wall.

But if Day Z teaches us anything, it’s that the apocalypse doesn’t have to be like The Walking Dead. People don’t randomly turn into irrational, hostile, aggressive jocks when you add zombies. Sure, people are suspicious as me when I get hit on, and it’s never a good idea to turn your back on a new buddy, but… these survivors are alright. They let you know if there are bandits nearby. If you’re searching a building together, they share the loot they find. People wish each other luck when they part ways, even if they’re just passing by in a field. It gives me hope. But, then…

 

After two hours of petrified scrounging, random encounters and Highlander moments with my axe, I was fairly happy. I had enough food, soft drink and hot packs to keep me happy for a couple of days. I had a compass, a map (in Russian, but still helpful), all my wounds were patched up, and best of all, I’d found a half-loaded shotgun near a bloodstain and spent shells. I hiked north, away from the zombie-filled towns of the coastline, through autumnal forests and rolling hills. I could hunt game, perhaps find a deer-stand or farmstead with more supplies. A song in my heart, I filled up my canteen from a lake and began heading uphill into a sustainable, hopeful futuTHWIP

A headshot from a suppressed rifle. I don’t know where they were hiding, I hadn’t seen a sign of life for fifteen minutes, and I sure hadn’t heard anything on the chat. It was only after a few minutes of staring at the black screen that I began to laugh. Because that’s exactly the sort of magnanimous, meaningless, pathetic death I would actually suffer if the end did come.

I hope they enjoyed my food.

 

If you like zombies, see a psychiatrist, necrophilia isn’t normal. If you like zombies in the socially acceptable way, play Day Z. It’s awesome, it’s realistic, and you might just find out something about yourself. I sure did.

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