In these long absences I guarantee I’m not just sitting on my ass twiddling my thumbs. I am playing, thinking, and enjoying new strategies to games. Recently, I’ve played five open world titles. Of those, I’ve beaten two, retraced my steps in the third, and am a total noob in the last two.
Applying proper nouns, I’ve beaten both Arkham City and Skyrim, am going back into Far Cry 2, and have no idea what I’m doing in Minecraft and DayZ. What I find fascinating is, despite their shared genre of being sandbox games/mods, they could not be more different in terms of not just scope, but mood, tempo and design theory. I don’t want to spend too much time on either Skyrim or City, since many of you probably already know those games well. Instead, I want to look at Minecraft and DayZ in contrast to the more streamlined open worlds offered by the big names.
Building a life from nothing
Games offer one of the most exquisite escapes from real life in existence beyond some of the most powerful hallucinogens.* Which for me is what makes Minecraft perhaps the greatest example of a life-game that stays both immersive and endlessly fun. When brought down to its most basic, Minecraft is essentially a giant toybox filled with blocks, much like those you may have played with as a kid. There is no goal, no quest, no villain trying to destroy whatever it is you hold dear. There isn’t even a single NPC to talk to. In single player, it’s just you and the world. In a populated server, it’s you, some other people you may or may not know, and the world. The story is yours to make or destroy.
The argument exists that the same is true for Skyrim, or Far Cry. There is no one correct way of doing anything, no singular path to your end, or even a correct way of forging your character. The difference is focus. In Skyrim, you have Alduin. Far Cry has The Jackal. Even if you spend a hundred hours collecting every diamond briefcase, unlocking every safe house, charting every point on the map, The Jackal remains, and your mission is still to kill him.
In Minecraft, you build a house. Then a bigger house. Then a dungeon to fill with monsters. Then a monster farm. Then a giant Golden Wrench that you fully intend to blow up in honor of some charity event. And you still haven’t found those diamonds yet, or a Nether portal, or even enough ore to build a TNT house with to test your graphics and processing limits. There is no built in cap on what you can and cannot do.
For all its complexity, Minecraft knows exactly what it is: a game with funky elements that add spice to the experience. It makes no pretentions of being realistic or catering to any real world design aesthetic. That’s your job. It engenders cooperation and betrayal only as much as it will make someone else laugh and you angry, or vice versa. Neither is necessary for success, and many players never encounter them in their hundreds of hours.
Life is rare; don’t waste yours
Spend any amount of time in the fields of Chernarus, and cooperation is as commonplace as betrayal. More so at some times due to the frequency of the one following the other. But as unforgiving and construction-less as DayZ is, it shares plenty in common with Minecraft. In neither game are you given a goal other than to make some kind of a life for yourself. In neither game are you initially given the tools to make that life, and once found they are hard to maintain, though for different reasons. And in both games failure means death and the complete loss of your accumulated wealth.**
The largest difference, and the main thing that I think makes DayZ so successful is the adherence to the concept of “game.” Minecraft is aesthetically, conceptually, and emotionally opposed to DayZ in almost every way. At few points in the blocky world are you reminded of your imminent and inevitable demise. Creepers, while frustratingly destructive, are not a life-threatening force if you have at least two functioning brain cells.
Zombies in DayZ will murder you. A lot.
They respond to the slightest sound or light source, move erratically and claw at you with great force, and take several precious bullets to take down. Moving across a street can be more dangerous than spending hours in a house, and equally as productive. I mentioned the price of failure meaning death, and by extension the loss of accumulated materiel. In Minecraft, this is again something of an annoyance, especially with the addition of lava. But there is always more of what you lost, and it’s likely easier to find the second time around.
Again, Dayz is quite different. Unarmed, visible, and likely without friends to back you up, survival is uncertain even before you’ve begun to try. Set in the best game for something like a zombie apocalypse, ArmA 2 touts itself as the most realistic shooter on the market. Nowhere are there bright colors, or clear indicators of where you might find the next horde of sweet loot. Sure there are towns with abandoned buildings, but you aren’t promised anything for your efforts. You might be right behind someone who raided the place, and he left you with the last can of Who Hash. Damage can’t be healed by eating anything not nailed down, and you if you can’t run, say goodbye to at least one life and hours of work.
Is DayZ still aware that it’s a game? Of course it is. You can’t easily qualify hunger or thirst without a psychical sensation. It’s somewhat forgiving when it comes to the zombies seeing you, and it rewards you for smart play, barring outside interference. Soda is the drink of choice, and raw meat is good for patching up bullet holes. Despite what little quips I could make, DayZ comes closer to a real zombie apocalypse than anything so far. Like Minecraft, it gives it players free reign to do, say, and kill what they want. The only punishment for legitimate play is dealt by the edge of an ax or the barrel of a another player’s gun.
*Conjecture only. I swear.
** Seems kind of like the stock market, now that I think of it…