Everyone you know is dead. Cities have been overrun by strange creatures. And the only things you have on you are a flashlight, a can of beans, and a handgun. Suddenly, a human, a fellow survivor, crosses your path. He says he’s friendly and asks if you can spare some food.
What do you do? Help him? Or shoot him in the head, loot his body, and move on?
It’s hard to imagine how we’d react to something like this in real life. But thanks to the explosive rise of multiplayer survival games, more and more people are exploring these moral quandaries for themselves. The face of this new and punishing genre is DayZ, Bohemia Interactive’s open-world zombie survival simulator for PC. When they’re not busy running from the undead, players have to make these crucial decisions every time they meet someone. Though DayZ originally began life as a mod for military shooter Arma II, it grew so popular that the dev team decided to turn it into a standalone product.
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Even though this version of DayZ isn’t finished yet, it has been at or near the top of Steam’s best-seller list since debuting in December 2013. As of this writing, Bohemia has sold an astonishing 2 million copies.
DayZ’s impressive success story inspired more independent developers to create their own version of an online apocalypse, such as Rust (which hit 1 million sales in February 2014) and Nether. The genre has also attracted the attention of Sony Online Entertainment, the studio responsible for the massively multiplayer online games Planetside 2 and Everquest. Last month, it announced H1Z1, a survival game that also has players fighting against zombies. Like DayZ, all these games are or will be going on sale in an unfinished state, giving players a chance to not only play them early but to help shape the games themselves.
But how did they get so popular in the first place, convincing millions of people to spend $20 to $30 on what can look like broken games? To get some answers, I spoke with a few of the developers in this space as well as with people from academia who could talk about the effects of post-apocalyptic entertainment on game design and other forms of media.
Together, we looked at four key areas: why the end of the world is a common setting, what role zombies and other creatures play, the power of player-driven stories, and the future of the genre.
Yearning for the apocalypse
Our appetite for apocalyptic stories clearly goes beyond video games: You can find countless books, films, and TV shows that depict humanity’s struggles at the end of the world. To examine why this is such fertile ground for developers, we have to look outside video games and see how it has taken over pop culture itself.
“Usually, every type of mass entertainment — throughout history, when you’re looking at it very closely, of why something has become so popular, you see it reflecting the concerns of the time,” said Dr. Barna Donovan, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey.
Donovan studies the relationships between films and their audiences. While he doesn’t play games, he noticed that much of his findings overlap with gamers as well.
“And many people are fearing we are living in times when the complete downfall of society, whether from social unrest, disease, war, terrorism, rogue nations … these are not fantasy scenarios,” he added. “These are things that can happen to us. And usually, people turn to entertainment to manage it, to put the fears of the time at a safe distance.”
Of course, when you’re reading or watching these kind of stories, it’s a passive experience — you’re following the arc of a predetermined tale. When you’re actually playing inside of a digital apocalypse, exerting as much control as the developers give you, you become a part of a story where anything can happen.
“There are a lot of possibilities that come with suspending the normal rules of civil society — even in play,” said Dr. Soraya Murray, an assistant professor of film and digital media at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “In a post-apocalyptic scenario, you can start to explore larger themes like humans versus nature, humans versus humans, and humans versus society. There’s a great essay written by Evan Watts, who talks about how so many games are set in some kind of ruins — which are both a sign of destruction that has occurred but also a sign of the potential for something new, too. It’s a useful way to think about spaces you might see in a game like BioShock or The Last of Us. The locations become places where there’s fluctuation between civility and brutality.”
The Last of Us is part of the latest crop of single-player games that are also benefitting from the craze. The PlayStation 3 exclusive depicts a world ravaged by a fungal virus, turning its victims into horrendously mutated creatures. Tense gameplay and a refreshingly mature storyline helped it win many awards, including GamesBeat’s Game of the Year for 2013.
In March, developer Naughty Dog announced that it had sold 6 million copies of the game.
“While playing The Last of Us, I couldn’t also help but think about how the scenario is a little bit of wish-fulfillment, presented to players in the form of a horror survivalist game,” said Murray. “Sure, it’s a terrible scenario with a bleak outlook. But it is also an opportunity to explore a simulated scenario of a dire situation. The veneer of society and civility gets torn away: What really matters then? For someone who has the luxury not to actually exist in a lived reality of basic survival, these types of games might be welcome spaces to entertain a little bit of fantasy about rejecting all the impositions, pressures, and obligations that accompany modern society.”
Without any scripted storylines, characters, or quests to follow, DayZ, Rust, Nether, and the upcoming H1Z1 give players the freedom to role-play as themselves. Online servers become microcosms of fragmented societies — small clusters of people who may or may not help you live. But beyond the basic mantra of “just survive,” players still need a little encouragement.
One way to do that is to introduce a common enemy.
Each game handles death slightly differently, but for the most part, it’s swift and brutal. You lose all the things you worked so hard to collect (or someone else picks them up from your body), and you end up spawning back in a different location on the map. It’s pretty disheartening to lose hours of progress because of a small mistake, but the developers love finding new ways of making that happen.
It’s no surprise then that zombies are so prevalent in the genre: They look creepy and they can attack in groups. Using zombies as an enemy isn’t the most original idea in video games, but DayZ and others like it have put a fresh spin on our never-ending war with these rotting corpses.
“My simple answer to [why the apocalypse is so popular in games right now] is The Walking Dead has taken zombies to a really mass-market level,” said John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, to GamesBeat. “It’s such a popular TV show that I think that thing has single-handedly given a massive boost to the zombie survival genre.”
AMC’s The Walking Dead, based on creator Robert Kirkman’s ongoing comic book series, just wrapped up its fourth season last month, where an average of 13.3 million viewers tuned in every Sunday night to watch the gory adventures of Rick Grimes and his constantly shrinking group of survivors.
SOE is hoping to capture some of that Walking Dead magic with H1Z1’s zombies, specifically with the concept of hordes, where dozens or even hundreds of zombies roam together in the post-apocalyptic wilderness.
“We want people to be afraid,” said Smedley. “Our goal is, by forcing that very scary threat on them, they are going to band together.”
Others have decided to just cut out the zombies entirely. When the alpha version of Rust launched in December, players had to worry about zombies while they scavenged for raw materials to craft weapons and shelters. But two months later, developer Facepunch Studios removed the undead and replaced them with tougher bears and wolves.
Nether eschewed zombies from the start in favor of agile monsters who use teleportation to get around. Unlike the vast countryside in DayZ or Rust, Phosphor Games’s vision of the apocalypse takes place in a more urban environment: a fallen metropolis partly inspired by the developers’ hometown of Chicago.
“Zombies in general tend to be an easier type of enemy to hold on a server because they don’t have ranged attacks,” said Chip Sineni, director and cofounder of Phosphor Games. “And the way they move is pretty slow. … We started designing around [problems] like zombies getting stuck a lot. We wanted to make sure our creatures never get stuck and that they’re always a threat and that they’re always gonna get you.”
Regardless of what they are, these enemies add some tension and horror to the otherwise monotonous task of collecting gear and ammo. Attracting the attention of just one zombie, monster, or animal can quickly pull in others, and before you know it, you’re running for your life. It’s that uneasiness, the thrill of not knowing when someone or something will attack you, that draws you into these games.
The power of emergent storytelling
Computer-controlled creatures can only do so much. The other half of the genre’s chaotic formula depends on the people behind the emotionless avatars you meet online. It all feels like some grand social experiment: Certain people will just shoot you on sight no matter how much you plead, but if you’re lucky, you’ll come across someone who’d happily feed you or heal your wounds. And the more bizarre stories — see the cult-like ritual from DayZ above — tend to go viral, strengthening the word-of-mouth marketing that these games rely on.
“The interesting thing is that when you’re looking at some of the research of online behavior — this is going back as far as the 1990s, with the emergence of the first chatrooms and later the first webpages … the anonymity of all of it is unleashing an id that’s inside of people, that maybe even they never realized is in there,” Donovan said. “If people are noticing this as early as the 1990s, now with these really advanced looking video games, it’s not a surprise that the technology is opening up sides to people that I would say are probably inside of all human beings.
“But it’s something that most of us don’t want to think about and acknowledge. But then you sit down and play a game like [DayZ] and suddenly it’s staring you in the face of what you’re capable of and what everyone else is capable of.”
That’s the flip-side of all this freedom: You’re not going to have a very good time if you’re mostly getting attacked by other players. During a recent play-through of Nether, for example, I had just finished killing one of the smaller monsters and was looking to see what kind of items it dropped when someone came from behind and shot me without any warning at all.
“I think the problem with these games is it’s too rewarding to just kill people to get more gear and more weapons,” said Sineni. “There aren’t a lot of reasons to befriend them. [With Nether,] we’re just trying to do that more and more, trying to group people up. … If you’re just a new player coming out of nowhere, and you want to jump on, you just have this world against you. We’re always trying to fix that without forcing players to play one way or another.”
When something fun or extraordinary happens to you, the apocalyptic setting becomes much more personal and unique, something that scripted stories, no matter their quality, simply can’t replicate. These spontaneous moments, also known as emergent storytelling, are a powerful part of the genre’s toolkit.
The future of the genre
Since online survival games are still in their infancy, it’s hard to tell how long they can keep their players engaged or what kind of content developers need to add to maintain their interests. You get the sense that Bohemia, Sony, Phosphor, Facepunch, and others following in DayZ’s footsteps are all in this together. Judging by the close relationship each developer is trying to forge with their hardcore early adopter communities through forums and websites, everyone is still figuring out just how far they can go.
But that doesn’t mean they’re afraid to offer predictions. Both Smedley and Sineni believe that the genre will one day expand beyond its end-of-the-world trappings.
“It’ll be interesting to see where this genre heads,” said Sineni. “There’s no reason why you can’t make a game like [The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim] like this, filled with 64 other people on these lands and you’re going around and bumping into people. … These mechanics can be put into space. They can be put into fantasy. They can go into cyberpunk. You can do this kind of [persistent] world anywhere.”
New developers would do well to heed that advice. Survival games are becoming a crowded market on PC, and while they aren’t available for any of the living room consoles, SOE is arguably in the best position to make that happen (Smedley is open to the idea of porting H1Z1 to the PlayStation 4).
And if post-apocalyptic entertainment behaves like any other trend in pop culture, it’ll likely simmer down over the next few years anyway.
“The nature of the mass media tends to be that when you have something becoming very popular, everybody jumps on the bandwagon,” Donovan said. “And then soon enough, the quality starts to sag. … Even with kids’ entertainment with [Young Adult] novels and movies — The Hunger Games kind of thing — everything is post-apocalyptic. Kind of like with the romantic vampires, I think it’s going to run its course until maybe the next time we’re completely freaked out by some kind of national or world emergency.”