Walking with the Dead: How war shaped 'DayZ's' zombies

Game designer Dean Hall reveals how his military experience helped create an open-world zombie game.

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If you wake up on a beach in Chernarus, the best you can hope for is some god-given luck to keep you away from local bandits, a hungry belly or worse. One guy I knew was eaten alive after trying to nick a tin of beans too close to a city of undead. Another was held up at gunpoint in the middle of a road by a fellow player and forced to drop his supplies, weapons and bandages — a genuine highway robbery.

I woke up on a beach with a gun, somewhere near the area's west coast but where exactly I couldn't be sure. Two hours later I'd be in a farm killing a stranger for the first time, before bleeding out on a rooftop in Chernarus.

A year ago developer Dean Hall wouldn't have guessed this fictional post-Soviet state would become the backdrop for a successful home-brewed zombie game. DayZ, Hall's open-world zombie mod of Bohemia Interactive's ARMA 2, is a critical and cult hit. He helped take the original three-year-old tactical shooter and push it to the top of Steam's sales chart. He re-interpreted Bohemia's open-world setting as an apocalyptic wasteland where players kill players for loot or cooperate to survive. He populated servers with hundreds of undead. He offered users one life, making in-game death permanent. And the result, since the time of its release, is a meditation on mortality.

The number of users dying at the hands of other players is 614,447 and rising as of press time, with the zombie death toll reaching over 42 million. Your basic genocide. Up against human players, undead AI, starvation and bad wounds they say the average lifespan for a typical user is four hours. But beyond Hall's interest in making an authentic zombie warzone he was fixated on another issue altogether. He wanted to recreate the psychological effects of war inside his game, which led to the question: Can you feel regret for killing another player?

Making death matter

Now when he logs into the game he designed he refuses to shoot his gun.

"I've only killed one person in the game," Hall says, "because it had quite a profound effect on me."

"I was firing some warning shots at this guy. He was way off in the distance and I was leading some new players around who I discovered. And I noticed the guy, who was miles off in the distance, started rolling over on the ground. He got down and started rolling over on the ground.

"And something ... something possessed me to keep firing. I think it was morbid curiosity. Maybe I wanted to know what it felt like. Maybe ... just because I could? And I kept firing. I don't know why, I just kept firing. And then the next minute I saw 'such-and-such is dead.'

"And it honestly affected me. I thought 'why did I do that? I just killed this guy. I had no reason to.' He could have been playing for a day, two days. It was amazing. At that moment I realized how profoundly it affected me. I was still thinking about it for days; I mean, this was weeks ago. I still think and talk about it now. I've never had that in another game before. And that actually wasn't something I really expected."

"Something possessed me to keep firing. I think it was morbid curiosity ..."
"... And I kept firing. I don't know why, I just kept firing. And then the next minute I saw 'such-and-such is dead.'"

Hall's no stranger to the psychological effects of combat. Between a hobbyist career developing mods and an eventual career with ARMA developer Bohemia Interactive, he worked for the New Zealand military, getting first-hand experience with firearms. In the last decade he's been a logistics officer for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, then later an officer in the NZ army. DayZ was influenced by his experiences in the military. Since then close combat has felt uncomfortable. DayZ would reflect this by focusing on guns and ranged combat, steering away from the pick-up-a-paddle melee gameplay of other undead titles on shelves.

"I liked Dead Island but it wasn't really for me," says Hall, "partly because I didn't really feel a connection with my character. But also I prefer weapons, because I think I tend to panic when I get in close combat. I was in the army up until fairly recently and I found the close combat stuff quite difficult. And so it was very hard for my character in Dead Island to play with the weapon."

The New Zealander first conceived of the game during his army career, after seeing the psychological effects of the job firsthand. Other studios will turn combat into a caricature, he says. The industry failed to recreate the emotions involved with being under constant attack. But the reality is that war is, at least partly, what happens in your head.

"So much of what you experience in the army goes on inside your head," he says of his past career. "Whether you are experiencing something, whether you are playing a game, whether you are reading a book, it is all that stuff that is happening in your mind. Not what you hear or see."

Realistic zombies

"I've always been interested in zombies," says Hall. His brother, a virologist, would provide the backboard for discussions about plausible reasons for a zombie outbreak, if one ever reared its head. Both looked to behavior-changing viruses as a real possibility. Rabies, for one, and obscure diseases covered by National Geographic which, if mutated, would change an animal drastically. In the Brazilian rainforest carpenter ants have been found infected with a fungus that manipulates their brain and puts them in a zombie-like state. Similarly, the virus in the game would need an element of authenticity to it in order for DayZ to remain serious.

But the setting of the game would be unspoken throughout. Players wake up on a beach holding a gun. They do not have a map or directions. Instead they stumble into ghost towns and abandoned cities now-populated with the undead. They spot other players on the horizon and wonder if they are friend or foe. They have to learn to shoot straight. They have to learn that the sound of gunshot will draw zombies nearby even closer.

Across the blog and forum circuits this has become its very own narrative meme: How did you die? How many hours did you last? What is the worst thing you've ever done to another player? The result is a wave of stories about a war against zombies and against each other, generated from hundreds of gameplay sessions:

The virus in the game would need an element of authenticity to it in order for DayZ to remain serious.

"It was about 11 p.m. when I approached a town, on my stomach, with zombies bolting past me to converge on the supermarket. They howled and barked crazily past me before I started hearing gunshots echoing out. I finally got a good view on the supermarket and saw that the row of back doors had been barricaded with barbed wire and was seeing muzzle flashes erupting from barred cracks in the wall. There was a decent sized pile of dead zombies outside of the supermarket as I approached.

I waited until there was a quiet lull again, and sighted in the first survivor. I carefully waited until he stood still and took the shot with my sniper rifle, taking care to adjust for the slight bullet drop. I took the shot and my round landed square on his chest; he went down like a sack of potatoes. The next survivor nearly made it, but my second round landed square on his back as he ran through the doorway. I went down and looted their corpses and the supermarket, was able to survive at the cost of two human lives ... more beans for me."

– "Katana67"

"My journey started out with four other group mates, and although we didn't know each other's names we stuck together through various towns as we scavenged for supplies. While we were approaching our third town, I noticed an ambient red light flickering next to what looked like an airfield. One of our members thought he saw someone calling for help. As he ran to help the wounded survivor, the rest of my group followed. I, however, was not fully convinced of the person's pleas for help. I used a pair of binoculars to observe the situation from a safe distance.

At first glance, the survivor didn't appear to be wounded at all. He wasn't bleeding, nor was he unconscious. That's when I saw, to my horror, several bandits appear from inside of the hangars. What I saw next has stuck with me as a reminder of what happens when you let feelings and morals get in the way of survival instincts. Two bandits and a survivor opened fire simultaneously; all three were armed to the teeth with fully automatic weapons. As the rata-tat-tat subsided, I was left cowering in fear. My entire group was murdered on the spot, all save for one individual. Since the moment our group formed we had been infiltrated by one of the bandits. The person who had survived the killing spree was with their group the entire time; he just posed as one of us in order to bring us into their trap."

– "Redz"

"I think we got that reaction because of the fact that the game featured permadeath," explains Hall.

"The fact that I knew they could have worked for a long time, and I think that the fact that it's a persistent server as well, means that it almost switches something over on your head. In your mind some kind of switch gets turned on because you know that it's going to be carrying over, so it doesn't seem like a traditional game. This is something that's going to be going on, and it's open-ended. It's forever. In your brain it's like something switches over that you normally switch off in a game. I think that's part of the addictiveness of it: that you switch into this weird mode that doesn't get enabled in World of Warcraft and doesn't get enabled in other games. It switches on and that's when you start getting these actual physical reactions. People talk about a 'fight or flight' syndrome and stuff like that actually happening to them in the game."

Hall developed a system that played on these feelings. When he first released the mod, Hall introduced two skins to distinguish the player-killers from the cooperators. Users would start out with Humanity points, but these could dwindle. Killing another player would result in a drop in your Humanity. Killing enough players would turn you from a survivor into a bandit. Your skin would change to reflect the transformation, and the end result would be a division between the users. Two camps emerged, and each would follow a different philosophy. Survivors would learn to live without killing and band together; bandits would survive by any means necessary.

But the system would fail to take into account the shades of grey that can appear even in a digital wartime.

"I think that's part of the addictiveness of it: that you switch into this weird mode that doesn't get enabled in World of Warcraft and doesn't get enabled in other games."

Player versus evolution

DayZ was never intended to be a PvP title. "It's not player-versus-player," Hall says with emphasis. He chooses to interpret it as a sandbox world where users decide how to play as they see fit. He adopted neutral titles for player types, using Survivor and Bandit as the archetypes. He opted against calling this a morality system, the term he initially toyed with before deciding it implied judgment against the user. The Survivor/Bandit dichotomy was originally designed to blur the lines between good and evil, says Hall. "I wanted to try to avoid making connotations about the way players play," he explains. "But I think a lot of people have struggled with this concept."

Why? Because he failed to take into account self defense, he says.

Minutes into my first playthrough I spotted a body slumped in the middle of a road not far from where I started. I found another in the water not 15 minutes later. The trail of bodies suggested somewhere nearby was a Bandit, a killer of players, and I was following him — accidentally, god help me. I checked the beached corpse for loot but a fellow player picked him clean, so instead I buried him where he was. He sunk deep into the sea. Glug, glug, glug.

In the next 30 minutes I'd commit my first murder, but I couldn't tell you whether I killed a player killer or an unlucky passerby. The user I found was in a barn nearby, crouched over a corpse while he looted the dead for items. He was dressed as a Survivor. Did he find the corpse or kill a player himself? Wait to ask questions and you could get shot; shoot first and you could attract attention from the nearest passing zombie. But the minute he turned to face me I pulled the trigger. He fell down, bleeding. In DayZ when you bleed out you can expect to pass out; fail to bandage yourself and you'll die. He had enough in him to shoot back, hitting my leg before collapsing backward.

Murders: 1

The game is still in flux. Last month Hall got rid of the Bandit and Survivor skins. It wasn't working in practice, he says, explaining it was an experiment that in the end couldn't work without major changes.

"One of the issues is that people often become Bandits because they're firing in self defense. And while the mechanics do have it that if someone shoots someone else, they can be shot without penalty for three minutes, it doesn't handle situations for when someone starts shooting at you but don't hit you. And I mean, we could probably make it work, but it also removes the ability to alternatively find clothes in the wilderness and put those on instead of having one Bandit skin. Clothes that represent your character more.

"It is an experiment and I admit I am a bit nervous about getting rid of Bandit skins, and that's why I've been thinking about it. But I think we have to stay true to the experiment. If this became an actual game it becomes very difficult to do a mass experiment like this. So really we have an opportunity which no studio in the world's got, which is to test out really radical game mechanics while having a huge audience."

The audience he's referring to is 207,328 unique players strong so far. Over 31,000 of those are Bandits, with 600,000 murders committed since DayZ's launch. One of those was my own, but whether you would call that murder or self defense is hard to say. By noon I was bleeding out on a rooftop in Chernarus. The shot to my leg took enough blood out of me, and without bandages I wasn't about to stand. I accumulated five tins of beans and a sniper rifle left hidden in one of the barns, but hadn't hit the bigger items: cars, helicopters, night vision goggles to use when the sun dies down over Chernarus and so on. The screen faded to grey while I died, only to start over again on the familiar beach I first started on.

"The beach," Hall says, "was always important to the setting."

"I had, in an early version, thought about establishing some kind of narrative or backstory that was going to be about how you washed up on the shore but I totally ditched it," he says. The beach was designed as a way of establishing a difference between areas that were safe and that were dangerous, he says. He thought it would symbolize the multitude of decisions a player can make from that point on. From the beach, some would decide to go to the nearest settlement and link up with other users. Others would decide to go inland. Some would immediately go out in search of zombies, or simply explore to nearest visible landmark: a lighthouse, an airstrip or a marketplace.

"I ditched it. It was me, the natural designer in me, the natural writer saying 'OK, I really want to establish a story here.' But I slapped myself on the head and said 'no, I'm going to stay with it.' It's so easy to lose your way in this."

Crossing the finish line

Giving up creative power to the players was one of the more difficult outcomes of the mod's success. DayZ was Hall's baby, he says, and even in a game without a story it was a struggle to relinquish his role as its creator.

But he does have a setting mapped out for the game. It's something he worked on with his brother, who he plans to bring onto the project in a more active role. Hall imagines upcoming features for the game: the inclusion of secret documents, or puzzle pieces that reveal some of the history of the area and reasons behind the zombie outbreak.

"It's hard enough for me to not go out and try and shove in some massive narrative. Because I guess as a designer you kind of want to do that. It's almost like someone is, in a way, taking something away from you. Because you want to say 'this is my story. Look at this amazing story I've come up with!' And you're kind of giving a little bit of that away."

"But there's a fine line between establishing the setting and dictating a narrative. We need to be very careful about that line."