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DayZ’s Superior Execution of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl’s Vision

Image from the video game DayZ

The spooky survivalism genre has its magnum opus in DayZ.

On the surface, DayZ and the series spawned by STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl seem very similar. Both take place in a dreary rural dystopian setting in areas modeled after Ukraine, and both involve lawless wilderness and the struggle against environment and fellow man for survival amidst scarce resources. The largest strength they share is a deeply immersive environment. The largest weakness they share is janky gameplay replete with bugs and oddities.

STALKER characterized the rural survival horror shooter genre and was well received by reviewers. The biggest unrealized vision of the STALKER series was the multiplayer component. Rather than being liberated to co-stalk through the convoluted single player plot with friends in an open world or fight with strangers, players were trapped in the STALKER series’ silo of solitude. Though multiplayer modes existed, they were not well populated or well thought out. Much to its credit, DayZ executed multiplayer STALKER as it should have been.

What Did STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl Attempt to Capture?

Image from the Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl video gameThe core themes of the STALKER series are man against man, and man against environment. In the STALKER games, the player is forced to scavenge for food, avoid anomalies and radiation, defend themselves against violent wildlife and bandits, and play their cards carefully relative to the armed human factions. All of the player’s challenges are a result of the game’s level design or interaction with NPCs. Certain areas of each map are heavily irradiated and require special tools to traverse. Various areas are pocked with distortions of reality known as anomalies, which are easy to navigate once they are understood but otherwise lethal. Once the behavior of the environment and the NPCs are understood, they offer few surprises. As such, combat sequences are formulaic, and often crafted by the developers to play out in a certain way.

STALKER had many chances for the player to stumble upon events which appear to be emergent behavior of the game’s properties, ranging from witnessing groups of bandits defending themselves from hostile monsters or getting caught in the middle of such a fight. The difficulty is that these emergent properties don’t hold much meaning for the player, and are merely an entertaining coincidence. As the games are quest driven, the chance encounters that define the best of combat in the series are often a speed bump on the way to something else, and the player rarely has to wander far to find a fight. The player never has the chance to select their own goals, which conflicts with the game’s large maps and semi-open world.

Did DayZ Try to do Anything at All?

DayZ began as the hit modification for the military simulation games ARMA 2 and ARMA 3 before being spun off into a standalone game. Originally, DayZ was a hacked collection of scripts cobbled together with digital duct tape, layered onto the ARMA engine. As far as new content went, the original DayZ had very little, aside from some rudimentary AI scripting. Instead, DayZ borrowed all of its assets directly from ARMA, meaning that its models, weapons, maps, characters, and everything else was exactly the same. DayZ was a simple project that spiraled due to popularity and didn’t gain any kind of coherent design outlook or strategic development direction until much later. With that being said, even from the early days, DayZ was able to perfectly nail the totality of the rural survival horror shooter genre.

Zombies and Emptiness are Enough

DayZ is a multiplayer-only game and is almost always played on very large capacity servers, allowing dozens of players to coexist on the same large map. The massive maps are slow to traverse on foot, sometimes taking hours. Weapon damage is realistic, meaning that hours of trekking can end in a single gunshot. This combination of slow pace and high danger grants DayZ an absolutely electrifying level of tension unlike any other game.

Unlike STALKER, DayZ has no discernible plot, friendly NPCs, radiation, or safe areas. There are no hostile NPCs aside from zombies. The result is anarchy. The biggest difference between STALKER and DayZ is the reaction of the player given the same stimulus in different games. In STALKER, grass rustles in the wind, occasionally disrupted by gunfire in the distance. Gunfire in the distance is a chance to gain loot from NPC battles but is frequently ignored when inconvenient. Gunfire does not really signify one person killing another to the player; NPCs killing each other is a chance for profit, but not caution.

Image from the DayZ video gameIn DayZ, the quietness of the wilderness is the norm, and deviations from that norm indicate danger. An errant grumble from a nearby zombie alerts the player to be stealthy and ready to fight or run. Shots fired in the distance mean that a player is there; are they killing zombies, or are they trying to kill another player? An overheard conversation means you’re outnumbered unless they turn on each other. A shot cracking past your head elicits an immediate hitting-the-deck or bolt for cover. Knowing these things, the player is incentivized to think carefully before disturbing the silence.

Few games can get the adrenaline pumping like DayZ can. While interactions with zombies become banal quickly, the player grows to understand zombies as features of the environment rather than NPCs or enemies in and of themselves. After some time, an experienced player can look at the lay of the zombies in the land and infer whether another player is nearby. Of course, it takes very little skill to detect another player when there is a train of zombies running after them.

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Final Thoughts

The constant genuine uncertainty of DayZ is superior to the engineered ignorance of STALKER. Many interactions between players in DayZ start or end in gunfire, creating a climate of distrust and apprehensiveness that magnifies the feeling of being alone in a hostile wilderness. By the same token, the true gratitude for a stranger’s aid during vulnerable moments cannot be replicated in STALKER. DayZ succeeds because it captures the psychological elements of a survival horror situation and forces the player to experience them.

Featured Images: GSC Game World / Bohemia Interactive

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