The lights are on
Day Z is like The Walking Dead without the promise of splendor.
Telltale’s zombie adventure game is powerful and well written. Its choices mattered. Its characters were loved, hated, sacrificed, betrayed, and shunned because those are things we do as human beings, to human beings. And while I never knew exactly what was going to happen next, I never doubted that Lee and Clementine were destined for terrible, yet extraordinary things.
With Chernarus, the post-Soviet nation in Day Z, grandeur is not guaranteed. Once I bled out on a beach, right there in my own footprints. One morning I was murdered by a group of well-armed travelers who probably looted my last can of soda, which I pray was expired and rancid.
Through sheer potential, Day Z transforms from just a zombie-skinned mod for a military FPS into a breeding ground for ghost stories and campfire tales. Its best moments are fleeting and often accidental. Peek into the community for a bit and you hear about players who have faked injuries, only to then kill their would-be rescuers. One survivor, out of rounds and close to death, was saved when an unknown sniper took out the zombies chasing him.
Compared to those examples, my story sounds unremarkable: My friends and I let a man live. But doing so was a risk, and it betrayed Day Z’s not-so-subtle nudges away from humanity. It has stuck with me for longer than I anticipated.
After hours of travel and scavenging, Ben, Jayson, and I were prepared – a rare state in Day Z. Between the three of us we had rifles with dozens of rounds, a crossbow, melee weapons, medical supplies, and food. We planned to loot one last apartment complex near the waterside city of Chernogorsk before heading north to an abandoned military airfield.
A man stepped out of the building in front of us. Through our headsets, we could hear him pleading for help. He asked us not to shoot. Ben walked forward to speak with him; Jayson and I stayed back and discussed our options. I looked up at neighboring buildings, fully expecting to be shot at any moment.
He was hurt, and he said he needed our help to perform a blood transfusion – a somewhat lengthy procedure that leaves both participants vulnerable. He told Ben he was alone and that he’d been attacked. I was tempted to say something dumb and dramatic like “Buddy, we ain’t doctors, and this ain’t a hospital,” but instead I equipped my sidearm and kept it pointed in his direction. It doesn’t take much to kill someone – just a few rounds, and then we could head north as planned without a chance of being stalked.
When there’s no law but the one you make, it’s easy to behave badly. Day Z’s permadeath and resource scarcity impose a Lord of the Flies brand of morality onto its players. To grow strong, trust only your own. Power begets survival, and the more you have, the more afraid you are of seeing it stripped away.
I don’t remember exactly why I didn’t shoot. Unlike the Grinch, my heart didn’t suddenly grow several sizes. Maybe I believed him when he said he’d been attacked by other players. Maybe I saw his standard equipment and didn’t think he was much of a threat, though that all could have been theatrics. Before I could reconsider my choice, he was patched up and ready to go. He thanked us graciously, said his goodbyes, and headed into the city.
As he walked, the words “He will remember that” didn’t flash on my screen. But I think he will.