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The survival genre: a brave new frontier for gaming

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What do games like DayZ, Rust and Minecraft teach us about the current trend of gaming, and the true nature of gamers…?

It’s another gloriously sunny day in DayZ. Green hills roll, interrupted only by the bleak interspersion of industrial architecture. Non-sentient, flesh-ravaging zombies pose an ostensible threat as they aimlessly fumble through the verdure while dangerously sadistic human-controlled characters plan their next attack.

I say characters because – and this is pure conjecture combined with blind faith – the human beings behind these online characters don’t really hold people up at gunpoint, rob them of their dwindling supplies and leave them naked, cold and alone in a world infested by zombies. The difference is, DayZ involves doing this to other human players, not mere NPCs.

No, the majority of DayZ players are impossibly nice people in real life: they sip tea and they’re polite to their mums. However, give them a theoretical dystopia – a lawless world devoid of boundaries and etiquette, rich with the threat of imminent death – and these mum-loving tea-drinkers turn in to violent bandits with scant regard for the sanctity of human life.

And it’s really, really fun.

Dayz Crew

Dean Hall – the game’s designer – relinquished the moral compass when creating DayZ. While the majority of games are succinct in their approach to morality and ethics (be ‘bad’ in Fallout 3 and you’ll see a little devil caricature, but it won’t really affect the gameplay) Hall’s free-for-all survival world is merely a conduit for the most naked of human interaction: murder and deceit.

Here we have a world where players can do what they want, within the impressive infrastructure DayZ provides. Grouping up with friends and hunting down easy targets – like players wandering about on their own without much protection – is as much an objective as the linear triple AAA titles charge us with. Except we decide on these objectives, and that increases the thrill exponentially.

Take for example ‘Klyka’, who features in one of the many DayZ videos you can find on YouTube. He and a bunch of fellow survivors have accumulated enough brute manpower, combined with a nifty selection of gear, to effectively bully their way through the game. In this particular video, ‘Klyka and his crew come across three players, two of whom are wearing yellow jackets. Because of these jackets, a game was quickly dreamed up by the self-employed antagonist: the men with yellow jackets must fight to the death to see who’s crowned ‘yellow jacket man’.

In the end, one of the players decides to run away, so ‘Klyka’ shoots him in the head, bestowing victory upon the other player by default. He or she chose to take a bag of rice as his or her prize. I haven’t spoken to anyone involved in that little contretemps, but I’m willing to bet they all thoroughly enjoyed the organic nature of their encounter.

Minecraft space shuttle

“This is DayZ – someone always has to die when players meet,” noted ‘Klyka’.

Louis C.K perhaps put it best when he spoke about murder. “We really need the law against murder for one simple reason: the law against murder is the number one thing preventing murder,” he joked during his ‘Oh My God’ HBO special. At least we have DayZ to guide us through our murderous marrow unscathed by law and order.

Minecraft had something to do with this. Yes, the colourful, friendly-looking blocks of Mojang’s seminal title hold a deep, meaningful significance for the culture of gaming. Build, create, kill, and survive: it’s up to you what you do when you delve into a new world. But whacking bouncing spiders with an iron sword was just the start.

DayZ isn’t the only title inviting players to exert a concoction of their true personalities with fantasies of death and destruction. Rust, too, hands over the keys and says “Alright then, go for it guys and girls” by simply asking players to survive. And survival can mean many things. It can mean creating tools, hunting food and staying warm while the unknown dangers of night time lurk precariously close to your settlement. But it can also mean kill, maim and destroy (the order of which I’ll never understand) to ensure that you survive that little bit longer than the next idiot wielding a rock.

These games aren’t simply ‘open-world’, they’re ‘open-choice’.

Rust

Killing in Rust, Minecraft and DayZ isn’t the same as killing in, for instance, GTA V – a game that actively tells you to kill, then punishes you via NPCs who either wish to end your life or arrest you. Killing in this context is merely linear path towards the ultimate goal of completion, which seems a strange thing to say about GTA V, as it’s one of the best free-roaming sandbox worlds ever created. Yet it remains remarkably restricted.

This isn’t a denunciation of mainstream titles like GTA V, The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite. I have those games. I like those games. I loved The Last of Us so much I immediately announced to my girlfriend that it “was the best thing I’ve ever experienced in my whole life” – I was around 27 minutes into it. But the medium of gaming is certainly taking two distinct directions: enhanced storytelling and Carte Blanche for the player as they decide what type of game they’re going to play.

The enhanced storytelling side of video gaming, manifested recently in the form of Telltale’s excellent Walking Dead series, is a welcome trend for the medium. People like to be told stories and games have the ability to convey plot in a way film and books can’t. That won’t change.

But some gamers – plenty, judging by the swelling DayZ servers or Minecraft’s absurd unit sales – are more inclined to create their own stories. By handing them the tools and the substructure to carve out their own groups, online personalities and bespoke objectives, developers can impart a far richer, more engrossing videogame experience than the linear, objective based titles we’re used to seeing. Perhaps the gamers themselves hold the key to storytelling, and it’ll be fascinating to see where that dynamic takes the platform in the years to come.

Images: Bohemia Interactive, Mojang/Microsoft Studios & Facepunch Studios

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