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DayZ, and the value of game modding

On Mods and Sods

Bit-tech is a bit of an oddity in the gaming world, because within these pages 'modding' can mean two things. It can refer to either tearing your PC to bits and reassembling it according to a far prettier design, or to tearing games apart and fiddling similarly with them.

Most of the site is devoted to the former, but as Games Editor I'm far more concerned with the latter.

Or, that is, I used to be anyway. To be honest the modding scene stopped interesting me as much around the time that Steam came out, as it was always so much easier to just download a new indie game for a few quid than it was to spend ages searching for the handful of mods that were actually worth playing. Lately though, I've been getting back into mods in a big way thanks to short mods such as The Stanley Parable for Half-Life 2. Pithy and eloquent, The Stanley Parable explores the concept of non-linear storytelling with a level of charm and smugness that's more commonly associated with Stephen Fry than Gordon Freeman.

The mod I've been playing the most in the last few days though has been of an entirely different design to Stanley's dry humour though. It's an Arma II mod called DayZ and, yes, it's about zombies - but stay with me, because this is far more than just another cash-in on a tired trend.


The Stanley Parable Trailer

What makes DayZ so brilliantly different from other zombie games is that it's not actually about the zombies at all; it's about using the environment and situation to pile enough pressure onto survivors that they might crack in interesting ways. DayZ's world is as bleak and brutal as you'd expect of an Arma II mod, but what makes it feel the most desperate isn't the pitch-dark night or the scarcity of ammo - it's the inhumanity around you. People will kill each other for a can of beans that'll keep them going through the night.

The reason that survival is so important in DayZ though isn't for the usual reasons; it's not a matter of just bragging rights or competition; it's a matter of literal survival. DayZ is a persistent adventure in that, while you can log off whenever you want with no consequences, if you die then that's it; your character is done with. All your gear and investment is gone.

I know what you're thinking now, by the way. You're thinking you could just play it with some friends and you'd watch out for each other and be fine. It doesn't work like that.

DayZ, and the value of game modding On Mods and Sods
DayZ - Click to enlarge

Not everyone wants to work together and skirmishes inevitably break out as even close friends start squabbling for ownership of the one decent rifle you've been able to salvage or the direction you should be exploring in. Again, it's based on Arma II, so when combat breaks out then it resolves quickly - but it can descend on you with equal speed. You never know when you're standing in someone's crosshairs, not even your closest friends.

DayZ becomes incredibly fatiguing to play as a result of all this, but the effort is worth it because there's no other game we've seen which offers such a compelling take on the zombie apocalypse. No professional studio would have been able to make it; it's only hobbyists hammering with freely available tools who would have been capable of producing something this far into a niche.

Modders have bought us far more influential and widely known titles than just the examples I've discussed, of course. Counter-Strike, Enemy Territory, DOTA; each of these started out as a fan-made mod and has gone on to shape the entire industry - and that's why I applaud every time I see a developer release modding tools for their games. It's only with the support of the studios that modders can be enabled to make a difference.

It's also why I'm downloading Epic's UDK as we speak; to see if I can add my own voice to the ones which might shape the future of the industry.

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