I don't recall how my first attempt at surviving the horrors of DayZ actually ended. I may have been cornered by a group of infected, or perhaps I was dispatched by a fellow player looking for a spot of food or an extra bandage to add to his or her backpack. The details of my demise aren't particularly important. What is important, however, is that in just a handful of months, a rather straightforward game mod has gained over a million players, and rewritten what it means to experience survival horror.
In DayZ, up to 50 players per server can scavenge and explore abandoned villages and decimated cities in order to achieve a singular objective: staying alive.
DayZ is a zombie mod for the PC title Arma 2, a three-year-old military simulation. In the fictional post-Soviet country of Chernarus, up to 50 players per server can scavenge and explore 225 square kilometers of abandoned villages and decimated cities in order to achieve a singular objective: staying alive. Aside from dying of hunger or thirst, the only two immediate risks to your life are the hundreds of zombies that populate the urban areas and small towns, and fellow players who may decide that taking gear off of your dead body is easier than finding it themselves.
Each player starts out with just a bandage and a bottle of painkillers, and absolutely everything else - including weapons, other medical supplies, food, and water - must be scavenged from buildings, stolen from military loot locations, or taken outright from fellow survivors. If you die, you respawn once again with next to nothing in your inventory. It's a harsh system that requires you to thoroughly plan out every single move you make, and ensures that nothing you do is without consequence.
Should you live long enough, you can usually acquire important equipment that makes you not only a more skilled survivor, but also a more deadly assassin. GPS units let you keep tabs on teammates and make more strategic decisions in highly-populated areas, night vision goggles let you explore the world after the sun goes down without giving your position away by using a flashlight, and silenced weapons let you take out zombies and players in a much more covert nature.
Despite the seemingly rigid ruleset that governs life and death in the game, you are free to do absolutely whatever you want in order to stay alive. This includes teaming up with fellow players in order to take out the zombies that group up at high-quality loot locations, or simply hiding until a well-geared player walks by so you can spring an ambush upon them. You may think you'd able to pick between those two options in an instant - and if you happen to have a decent firearm, the temptation to simply kill everything in sight is ever present- but it's just not that simple in DayZ.
After you pull the trigger, and the well-meaning survivor you have been casually playing along with for an hour or two drops to his knees and dies, you'll need to deal with the consequence of your actions immediately. You've not only downed a fellow player, but your shot has alerted everyone in the area to your presence, including unapologetic "bandit" players who will simply hunt you down for sport. Zombies will also flock to the sound of gunfire, and if you've wasted your last clip during the ill-timed betrayal, you may find yourself swarmed before you even get a chance to loot your ex-comrade.
Survival horror games have always leaned on creepy monsters, dramatic sound effects, and unsettling locales in order to scare the player, but DayZ hits a nerve that no other game before it can match. Yes, the zombies are dangerous and can't be reasoned with, but turning a corner and coming face to face with another survivor - one who may have murdered a dozen players just like you - is far more unsettling. In a split second you must weigh the pros and cons of either pulling the trigger or simply going your separate ways.
Is it worth killing him? Does he appear to have any gear on him that I might want for myself? Do I want to waste the last four bullets in my clip in the hopes that his backpack is filled with ammo? Does he have a friend on top of the building behind me, perhaps with a sniper rifle? And most importantly, is he a threat? All of these uncertainties flood your mind every time you encounter a fellow player, and create an anxiety that no amount of atmospheric lighting or creepy sound effects can duplicate.