From Dark Souls to DayZ: the high-risk, high-reward cycle of masochistic gaming

By Brenna Hillier
30 June 2014 08:14 GMT

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DayZ

Like Dark Souls, DayZ presents a fragile player character who can be offed with a few blows, but in general it is a far more masochistic experience. Those who ask “what is the point of Dark Souls?” may be completely lost here – Dark Souls has a story and a definite sense of progression, whereas DayZ offers no end goal of any kind besides the promise of eventual death.

“Dark Souls has a story and a definite sense of progression, whereas DayZ offers no end goal of any kind besides the promise of eventual death.”

DayZ is definitely a survival game. Players have to keep themselves alive, first and foremost – and that means scavenging for food. They have to evade or kill the zombie hordes, and that means transport or weapons. They have to have medical supplies to survive wounds taken in combat or through careless exploration. And they have to keep other users from stealing what they have, or killing them outright.

Through all of this, DayZ is uncompromising: if you die, you lose everything. Everything. Characters can survive anywhere from weeks to bare minutes, but they do not last, and they leave no legacy beyond what impact they have on other player’s experiences – for example, as a handy source of supplies for the bandits who sniped them.

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What makes DayZ particularly compelling is the opportunities it offers for player-created stories. Crawling with bandits and clans of trolls, it’s a world where strangers immediately treat each other with distrust because each may hold the power of life and death. It encourages meta-gaming as friends pretend to be strangers, lure victims in, and loot their corpses.

Learning your way around DayZ’s maps, figuring out which equipment and supplies are worth gambling on and learning the ways of the community gradually elevates the game from insta-kill territory to an absorbing time-sink. Playing DayZ with a group of well-equipped, experienced friends can be a ball; playing alone is a tense and a furtive affair in which players crawl about, ears and eyes straining. Both experiences end in death. Logging off only delays the inevitable.

What they have in common

On the surface, Dark Souls and DayZ are wildly different games: one a linear action RPG with progression, the other a first-person shooter sandbox with no acknowledgement of player actions. Yet both of these games are masochistically difficult, rewarding players for their skill and then taking it all away again at the drop of a hat (in Dark Souls, it does this by escalating difficulty or introducing new kinds of enemy requiring new equipment or tactics, in DayZ, it just literally takes everything away again).

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and everyone likes the noise when they knock something down.”

The other thing they have in common is runaway success. Dark Souls spawned a sequel, which also sold strongly, and developer From Software is now making Bloodborne, a PS4 exclusive that looks to borrow much of the now-famous formula. Initially a mod for Bohemia Interactive’s ArmA 2, DayZ drove sales of its parent game so sharply Bohemia wisely picked it up for full development. Even in Early Access state, it has sold over 2 million copies.

What is it about the high-risk, high-reward gameplay loop of both these games that pulls us in? I think the words “high-reward” are enough to explain part of the appeal, but the “high-risk” part is less explicable. Why does anyone enjoy chancing their time and effort to an uncaring game that is deliberately designed to try and rob you of it at every opportunity?

“Masochism” is the joking explanation, but there are some basic underlying psychological hooks. The first is the rush of overcoming a challenge; making progress in difficult games feels much more significant than in a game that practically plays itself. The second is the sense of exclusivity that results from being among the “elite” who succeed; even in a game like Dark Souls, where stats reveal there are millions of others who have done as well or probably even better than yourself, you know there are others who just hopelessly mash buttons and give up in disgust, and you can enjoy feeling superior to them.

Does that explain the popularity of both games? No, of course not; there are lots of complicating factors, like the mysterious hype-beast of gaming culture, and nostalgia for the teeth-gindingly challenging games of old. But at the heart of it is a simple truth: the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and everyone likes the noise when they knock something down.

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