In early January, a Reddit user posted an emotional story about waking up on a beach and befriending a fellow lost soldier. But the soldier's health began to deteriorate. And the author was eventually forced to kill his friend with the other man's own gun to end his suffering. "His voice gone, I sat there staring at my monitor and began to cry," the Redditor wrote. "I'll never see that friend again and I miss him very much."
"God damn," wrote a commenter. "Alright I'm getting this game."
The writer was playing DayZ, a zombie apocalypse multiplayer PC game that sold its 1-millionth download last week, less than a month after its Dec. 16 release. That release is only the game's early-access alpha version, which developer Dean Hall will be enhancing and improving for most of the next year before launching it in beta. But even at this stage, the reason for DayZ's enormous success is becoming clear—the game play leads to a degree of psychological tension and emotional response that players report never before experiencing in a computer game.
This comes largely from DayZ's use of permadeath—meaning that players have only one life in the game and lose everything if they are killed—as well as a scarcity of survival resources, and a kill-or-be-killed relationship with other players, who often need your supplies to stay alive themselves. There are also zombies.
Hall created DayZ based on his experience in the New Zealand army, which sent him on a survival exercise in Brunei that nearly killed him in 2010. "[The exercise] was really tough, and I kind of wondered, why is it that as a soldier you have to go through and do all of this training?" says Hall. "Was there maybe a way to do some of this in a computer game?" Hall developed a mod (the term for a modification of an existing game) of military simulation game Arma 2, in which a soldier's character, health, and equipment persisted from mission to mission, rather than starting over each time. He then had fellow soldiers play the simulation as training.
"I noticed how different they were behaving when their characters saved to a database, and they knew that the character was going to be back there every day," says Hall. "They were suddenly arguing with each other. They were really tense. When someone got shot they were really concerned; they would try to help them. Normally in the simulation training we do, someone would die and they’d carry on with the mission. Well, if that happens in real life that’s not what happens, you know?"
The discovery led Hall to further explore the potential for adding psychological elements to the game, including the zombie threat and having a player's character spawn (i.e., initially appear in the game world) at any random location with almost no supplies. This resulted in the first DayZ mod of Arma 2, released in 2012. Hall had already been hired as a junior developer at Bohemia Interactive, the company that makes Arma 2, based on the strength of other mods he'd built for the game—but surpassing all the others, the DayZ mod reached 1 million players in its first four months, and early last year Bohemia announced plans for the standalone version of the game.
The fact that DayZ sold a million copies (at around $30 a pop) in four weeks came as a surprise to Hall, who originally felt that 250,000 in a year would be a success—the DayZ mod had been a free download if you already owned Arma 2, so he wasn't counting on the same numbers for the standalone. But just as surprising have been the stories coming from players.
"One of the things that really hit me was a story posted to my Facebook page from this father," says Hall. "He was playing with his son and they were getting ready to go into a barn and they were a little worried there was another player in there because they had seen players in the area. They only had one compass between them, so he said, 'You approach from the west.' And then they headed in towards it, and he saw this person coming in from the other side, so he shot them, and wounded them. Then he walked over and realized it was his son. His son is like, 'Just kill me. Just kill me.' Because his legs were hurt and they didn’t have any morphine and stuff. I felt really bad about it, but the father said it was awesome … they had this amazing experience together. And he wasn’t normally into computer games."
The DayZ section of Reddit is an endless rabbit hole of emotional accounts of playing the game. One player describes his overwhelming sense of justice after having killed and pillaged another character who shouted a racial epithet; another writes about being "emotionally scarred" after the "whirlwind of chaos, sorrow, and show of true love" that he experienced when he was mortally wounded and a friend exacted instant, furious revenge on the attacker. And about the more mundane ways the game invades the psyche, another player writes, "I spent hours [in the game] looking for a canteen or a water bottle and never found one. Today, when I went to work, someone had left an empty water bottle on the desk. It was like finding $20 on the ground. Split second of pure joy."
One particularly striking post calls the game "a murder simulator like no other," describing the player's stages of emotions after making his first kill. He starts off feeling a wave of guilt and grief for the stranger sitting across the Internet, who in that moment lost everything he had accomplished in the game. "Then the worst thing happened," writes the player. "I started to rationalize my kill. 'Well he probably would've tried to kill me.' 'Well it's only fair, I've been killed 10 times by players like him.' 'It's only a game.' Anything I could think of to make myself feel better. This is what makes DayZ so great. To think that this 'game' gave me the opportunity to struggle with morality in a way that other forms of entertainment never have. It also shows you how people can do horrible thing to others as long as everyone is doing it (think Nazi Germany). How every time you kill someone that feeling of remorse and grief is a little less painful until one day you feel nothing at all."
While Hall prefers the term "story generator" to "murder simulator," he considers the player's story proof that he's doing what he set out to.
"There are a lot of films I’ve watched that really moved me, like The Road, the film adaptation [of Cormac McCarthy's novel]," says Hall. "Some of these films can be really powerful, and sometimes make you angry. Whereas I feel like videogames, a lot of the time have been always about being fun. A lot of people didn’t take them that seriously from other media because it’s all just fun—click the little thing, jump around and do this. Whereas I wanted to see a videogame explore areas like loss and fear and anger."
As for whether the success of DayZ will inspire other developers to create similar games, Hall believes it's possible, but it's not as straightforward as saying "emotion sells copies."
"If you really want to pull permadeath off, you really have to go all the way," says Hall. "I think that can be a lot to swallow, and it can be quite a risky proposition because people aren't used to upsetting their customers. Which we do. I mean, the amount of times people have said to me, 'I got so angry with the game I uninstalled it and I said to myself, I’m never playing this again.' And then they say that an hour later they are re-downloading it because they really wanted to play."