The Most Dangerous Game

Harcore military sim ARMA II’s zombie apocalypse mod, DayZ, offers some of the most compelling stealth gameplay we’ve ever seen. And it’s only in alpha…

Today's trek, roughly two hours of sneaking and looting from bottom left and moving to top right. The map markers and notes are left by the player; in our case, we still don't have a compass so we make sure to note when find distinct terrain features to orient ourselves and mark our position.

No doubt you’ll have heard of DayZ, the mod for ARMA II which washes players up onto the beaches of the 225km² map of Chernaus, an Eastern European province that already seemed to be decaying before being hit by this mod’s zombie apocalypse. Despite being just over a month into alpha, DayZ offers some of the best stealth gameplay we’ve ever experienced. It moves away from simple sneaking, stealing and killing, to subtly fold in more abstract social dynamics explored through more overt systems in Assassin’s Creed and Spy Party. Weighting every action is the game’s character persistence; loot may respawn, but death is permanent, and you carry nothing into the next life.

In a country with fifty other players and ten times as many zeds (apocalyptic lingo for zombie – you’ll learn it soon enough, along with how to read the Cyrillic road signs), DayZ asks one thing of you: survive. This turns players – not the zeds – into your biggest threat, and thus the motivation to tread softly and stay out of sight.

This is a natural fit for the mod’s military sim scaffolding; a genre which has always exhorted players to keep their heads down and stay out of sight until prepared for confrontation. It introduced us coordinated squad-based ambushes, taking on night missions with silencers and infared goggles, and creeping over hills with the sun at your back. By nature of how quickly one can lose the reins on a mission, players adapt to these survival concepts themselves – without need for tutorials, or on-screen direction. And DayZ’s character persistence has stretched these concepts further by making your time more valuable and the experience utterly personal.

Binoculars are critical. Being able to assess zed infestations, and players, from a distance, but also picking out which buildings are lootable and even what loot is present enables much cleaner stealth. The zombies themselves are sneaky, acting like movie velociraptors; if you can see one, there are at least two more that you are missing.

Playing DayZ with slow, deliberate purpose comes so naturally that it almost defies being analysed. There’s nary a clumsy game mechanic to deal with. No obscure shadow system or ambience meter – just your human senses and awareness, and a basic graphical approximation of your current noise and visibility relative to zombie AI, but not players. What this means is that the effectiveness of one’s stealthiness is dictated not by gaming the system, but by gaming each other. Fortunately, ARMA II’s engine provides DayZ with the environmental realism necessary to support stealth-play.

The effectiveness of one’s stealthiness is dictated not by gaming the system, but by gaming each other.

Sound is arguably the most important aspect of one’s survival. Player’s audible footsteps travel a moderate distance. When dealing with zombies, footsteps should be lessened by crouching, or even crawling forward while prone. The aforementioned sound gauge shows your current audibility and keeping that low avoids most zombie encounters, as their eyesight is beyond poor. However, sound becomes truly important when engaging other players. If footsteps can give away the position of nearby enemies, gunshots are one level below running riot with a lit flare and breed much of the player-defined goals that manipulate the ebb and flow of conflict in a server. A single shot alerts anyone around of human presence, often spurring bandits – those who have chosen a life of relentless player-killing – into action. Playing off this knowledge becomes a key source of stealth in DayZ. Much like using flares to ensnare gullible survivors, players have begun firing off rounds then running for the hills – hoping to catch inquisitive pursuers in a trap. Gunshots have such an impact in DayZ that players often trade a better weapon for a less powerful, yet less audible one.

At night, the world is pitch-black, and players' silhouettes become much more visible against what little moonlight defines the horizon. Stealth at night requires staying low.

Visual cues go beyond that of typical stealth games, too. Any movement on the edge of your periphery requires investigation. It could just be a leaf in the wind, billowing dust, a texture glitch – or, it could have been a bandit, survivor or zombie stalking you. DayZ demands constant vigilance.

Our rag-tag band of survivors plan an assault on the north-western airfield by chemlight. Its glow is only visible at very short range, so it's preferable to using a flare.

The night and day system has a massive impact on how players move through the world. At night, the moon can provide light – but for those few hours before the moon is fully out, the world lives in pitch darkness. Horizon lines, flares and chemlights help you navigate and find other players, or get you yourself spotted. During the day, it’s best to stick to cover and trees, watching your flanks at all times. At night, one becomes much more free, and the stealth play much more dynamic.

These mechanics compound in urban environments. Main cities provide a physically dense, visually cluttered battlefield where players are forced to employ every tool at their disposal or risk a quick death at the hands of patrolling bandits. When travelling with a group, the tension is palpable. Any accidental sound could be your last. You’ll hug buildings to lower your profile, hold position to ensure nobody is following you, throw flares as distractions, and lay ambushes, all the while relaying to your teammates anything your senses pick up.

These survivors have obviously just begun playing DayZ, as they're exploring their surroundings whilst holding a lit flare. It made it far too easy for us to track them.

When outnumbered, merely seeing another player is a cause for caution. Until you can establish their motives, approaching them is a grave risk. You can try and communicate with them, but that risks exposing your position. If they catch you tailing them or watching them – then they might assume that you have ill intentions.

This is where DayZ’s human side comes to the fore, in an entirely player-driven social stealth environment. What other game has had you bluffing in the chat window, trying to throw potential bandits off your trail, while drawing out information from others? Or using the mechanics of the ARMA engine (you can always free-look, turning your head regardless of what the rest of your body is doing) to keep your weapon pointed at the ground while approaching someone so as not to appear threatening?

Sure, we're working together now. But that's a mighty fine lookin' shotgun you've got there…

Teams are transient things. Some are groups of friends, standing together against all comers; others are ad hoc alliances of need. Players cannot do certain tasks alone – transfusing blood to regain health is the most notable example – so there is a need to find another player, determine their motives and then, in the ultimate act of trust, place your precious equipment into this person’s control and effectively surrender your fate to them.

How is all of this stealthy? Because of how you get to that point. How do you find another player without being found? How do you assess their trustworthiness? Every good stealth game offers some form of planning phase. DayZ offers something closer to voyeurism.

Every good stealth game offers some form of planning phase. DayZ offers something closer to voyeurism.

Despite its player-driven stealth gameplay, DayZ is not an emergent game. Emergence is something defined by the interaction of systems, whereas the ones that govern DayZ are as basic as can be. It goes beyond emergence, appealing to and being a reflection of raw human behaviour. Like EVE Online, but with less ship-spinning and more cross-county hiking, DayZ is a bastard simulator; one which richly rewards the sneaky approach with the permission to continue to exist.

But it’s that simplicity which is key. Future versions of DayZ would be careful to add more familiar, game-like elements, for anything that becomes bound to a system is something that is taken out of the hands of players. And currently, the 225km² country of Chernarus is entirely at the mercy of any sneaky bastard with a gun and the wits to survive.

No matter how DayZ changes, no matter how complex its defining systems may become, or how expertly players may adapt to them, stealth will always be the game’s lifeblood. Whether prone in the grass or playing your cards close to your chest, it is the means of persistence in this base and primal hunt. It is the most dangerous game.

Anders Russell, Sean Gabriel and Daniel Hindes

Further Investigation
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Video: Splinter Cell Blacklist – Spies vs Mercs Teaser
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Video: Video: Low Light Combat Gameplay Trailer
Overgrowth developer Wolfire Games recently completed a multiplayer stealth FPS prototype that features a fantastic interplay between power and visibility. Check it out in motion, here!
Trade Secrets: Frank van Gemeren
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She Came From Dark Space
Find out how some small changes to key mechanics have made Mass Effect 3's Infiltrator class and her cloaking device essential to any N7 squad.
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The Eye In The Sky
When technology advances to the point that every move can be tracked, stealth strategies must adapt and evolve.
Splinter Cell Blacklist – Spies vs Mercs Multiplayer
Video: Splinter Cell Blacklist – Spies vs Mercs
Video: Splinter Cell Blacklist – Spies vs Mercs
Video: Video: Low Light Combat Gameplay Trailer
Trade Secrets: Frank van Gemeren
Trade Secrets: Alex Quick
She Came From Dark Space
Ski Free Or Die Hard
The Eye In The Sky

10 Responses to The Most Dangerous Game

  1. By Drewcifer, May 29, 2012 at 3:51 am

    I’ve never heard of ARMA but this sounds amazing!

    • By Dion B, May 29, 2012 at 10:21 am

      Drewcifer, you can get it off steam for $30.
      Well worth it to play DayZ and the base game is pretty excellent too.

  2. By James Patton, May 29, 2012 at 6:57 am

    Brilliant article. I’ve heard of Day Z before but never from such a specifically stealthy perspective. It sounds utterly rivetting; I’ll probably get it at some point in the next week or so.

  3. By Jack, May 29, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Hey Daniel,

    Are you [PCPP]PhotoshopPro in Day Z?

  4. By Hartmann, May 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Bought ARMA just for Day Z.

  5. By Putraman, June 10, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    I’ve been looking for a DayZ article that really taps into the stealthy nature of the game and this is exactly what I’ve wanted. Excellent work!

  6. By ntas, June 10, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    I would like it if they added some sort of goals to achieve, because so far I’ve been looking at the font sizes of the town names on the map and checking them out in order of bigness. It’ll get old eventually… However it is a brilliant game, there’s never been anything like it. The buzz you get from spotting a survivor and debating whether you should declare your friendliness and hope you don’t get shot, get closer to him and shoot him or just ignore them completely and leave them to it is completely unique. I’m not a bandit but I spotted a guy heading toward a deer stand that I wanted to loot, I had an AK and I could see he didn’t have anything better than a handgun so I sprinted up to where I last saw him, rounded a bush and saw him pointing a Makarov at my face. I emptied the quarter full magazine into him, it might have been a bit of an over-reaction but I was 50:50 on killing him anyway, him surprising me with a gun in my face (even though that’s what I was going to do to him) tipped me over the edge. He had nothing on him other than starting gear so I didn’t feel TOO bad, but the deer stand contained nothing but chem lights and M1014 ammo.

  7. By Matt, June 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Day Z is not an emergent game. But the gameplay, coming from the complex interactions of multiple humans and their individual behaviours, absolutely is.

    But yes, it is a bastard simulator with the God Behind the Curtain adding new ways to maim and kill unwitting but certainly willing players.

  8. By Chris McLeod, August 2, 2012 at 5:23 am

    Any good ideas \ tutorials on how i’d go about starting to play DayZ without getting overly murdered?

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