Part One: The Bandit Lifestyle
“Go on, just pull the trigger.”
The devil is sitting on my left shoulder, unnerving me with his quiet whispers in my ear. It sounds so simple when he says it, and some would heed his words, but I was never one of those people. Then again, that’s a lie; I know it, and the devil knows it too. He tempts me, but I like to think I’m different now.
My gun is raised. I’m holding a survivor in my sights, watching the back of his head while he clambers up some steps to a water canister. The split second I have to make my decisions plays out over what feels like hours and, unexpectedly, his own life flashes before my eyes. I ponder the choices that have led us to this point in time, this place, this impasse where he knows nothing about the event which will soon decide both of our fates.
He’s drinking some water now. He doesn’t see me up in the loft of the barn, the place I hid myself after a few hours of a backstory he’ll never hear. I wonder how long he’s been out here, beneath the clouded sun. We’re in a world overrun by the walking dead, but I find myself with a gun trained on what could be my one chance for survival, or a quick escape from the fear.
Just before I make my decision, I hear another whisper. It’s in my right ear now, sweeter than before.
“Please, don’t do it.”
An angel is sitting on my other shoulder, fighting, adding more static to the claustrophobic silence. I question myself again.
How did it come to this?
At the age of 10, I killed a man.
I first laid eyes on him in a bank, during a visit to store my supplies. The shine of his armor ignited a fire in my eyes – the kind that scares those who see it – and I proceeded to strike up a conversation. When he mentioned his hunt for an easy coal source, I knew I had his attention.
“I know a great place,” I said.
We left the bank and the clock started counting down to the end of his life. He never questioned me. Tick-tock, the end was nigh.
We left the bank and the clock started counting down to the end of his life. Even when the notice appeared plain and clear as ever – “You are now entering the Wilderness” – he never questioned me. Tick-tock, the end was nigh.
We progressed a little further, every step damning him to the future I had for him, and he was oblivious to it. We went up some stairs to the top of an abandoned building.
“Where’s the coal?” he asked. There was innocence in that simple text bubble that I failed to notice at the time.
I replied to his question with my rune sword. Smack. Smack. Smack. It was all cartoonish and awfully hilarious on my end. Probably less so on his. He fell to the ground and I looted the armor from his corpse. It was sold by the next day.
A few days later, it began to eat away at me. This was less for my actions – they were calculated and completed to perfection, like every piece of a puzzle falling into place – but more due to the scorn of friends who couldn’t believe what I had done.
The day after? I quit Runescape.
Looking back on it now, for all of Runescape’s stigma as the MMO for MMOs’ sake, its wilderness was a fascinating display of human behavior: such an intriguing place to simply be. I only ventured into it sparingly, but I would often camp on the outskirts and watch players playing cat and mouse on the border, not brave enough to commit wholeheartedly.
Those jumping between that line would talk to one another, goading each other on to cross it. The Wilderness was Runescape’s PVP zone, but more than that, it was a place to fool new players who were unfamiliar with how it all worked, people too pure to think another player would be out to hurt them.
I don’t transform into another character, they transform into me.
Since those days of murder in Runescape, I’ve avoided the evil options in videogames like the plague, much like those players who would toy with the Wilderness border line. In the throes of the virtual world – when push comes to shove and I begin to panic – I always fall on the morally good side or, at least, choose the choice I myself would make in the real world. I don’t transform into another character, they transform into me – Commander Shepard, Lee Everett, the saviour of Skyrim.
In the videogame landscape, I follow my moral compass, and it guides me along the straight and narrow.
It’s partly that guilt that sits at the pit of my stomach if I hover over that choice so clearly marked in red – shoot the kid or save him, destroy the planet or let it be. During one playthrough of Mass Effect my mouse died as I sat under the pressure of a life decision, and before Wrex’s body had even hit the ground I had let out a cry and reloaded. How could anyone do such a thing?
I take to asking myself if I could do such a thing. The black-and-white nature of the question makes it so easy to find the side I want: I always end up feeling like that kid complaining in the back of the car, “Are we there yet?!?”
I don’t want to walk the path of the whining, inevitable hero, on his journey to save the world.
My eyes open, and in those first waking moments I question why others have been talking so poorly of this place that looks so welcoming. The sound of the waves are calming at my back and the forest ahead of me tells of a million opportunities.
At the bottom left of the screen, I see messages popping up. They are disconnected voices and I don’t know where they’re coming from. I’ve chosen a bad time to start, it seems, as they ask repeatedly “What time is it?”
The chat is flooded with those questions and I look out over the sea to the horizon.
A player replies, “It’s sunset.”
The response ignites the chat again, with a cavalcade of, “Oh, shit.”
I question why they’re so upset and I take their existence at face value, much like the content of their words. It’s a naivete I’ll mourn the loss of not two hours later.
In the weeks preceding the Internet’s love affair with DayZ, I began to question whether I wasn’t missing out on something. If my timid play style was holding back some experiences that shouldn’t be missed.
I had started Mass Effect 3 with a generic male soldier, default face and all, with my crew still alive and kicking. I returned to Skyrim having left the decision on the war unmade because I still didn’t know what side to fall on. And as DayZ’s groundswell grew, I began to read tales that ignited that fire in my eyes again. Burning bright.
Survivors talked of the bandit lifestyle – the apparent “bad choice” to those on the outside – and for the first time, it sounded not only like an option, but a viable one as well: groups roamed the land holding up survivors, looting towns, while others ran lone-wolf style, scavenging for supplies.
So I found DayZ and hit Install.
In that moment, I decided to tackle my ever-growing aversion to evil head-on. In the apocalyptic future, I would shoot on sight and ask questions of the corpses later. I would be a stone-cold killer. Just me and my gun. The decision would be easy, I told myself, or at least, tricked myself. There was no real investment yet – I was one of those people looking from the outside in, judging player decisions without understanding the gravity of situations they faced.
I swore an oath.
I would leave none alive.
The hours have crept by, but I’m unsure of how many – it’s easy to lose any sense of time or place out here.
The day bid us a fond farewell, damning us to a night of hell in one gorgeous sunset filled with grasping rays that paint the sky a foreboding red. I tiptoe in the dark. I’m one of those curious people now. I ask question after question, as if their disconnected answers will bring me comfort, but they don’t – they only reveal more information that makes me feel like this was all a really bad idea.
I’ve only progressed a few hundred meters, crouched and as silent as I can be, snaking through buildings, away from the prying eyes of the undead. Here I make my first decision and this world informs me, so wholeheartedly, that any choice comes with repercussions.
I throw a flare out ahead of me and it lands in a field outside the town I’m slinking through. I crawl over to it, my stomach scraping the ground, and I sit on the outside of its small red light, just far enough so that the zombies drawn to it don’t see me. But then a noise – I hear a noise! – and there are footsteps coming from my right. I look over and see another survivor, but he hasn’t seen me yet. He is crouching and looting zombie corpses as desperately as I had just done. He creeps into the half-light of the flare a little too quickly, and the zombies are on him within seconds, swarming on him like moths to a flame. I sit in the shadow, watching as he runs in circles around my flare, the flare that drew the zombies – and most likely him – in the first place. Eventually, he collapses in a heap.
“Help me!” he types, or he would have, if his fingers weren’t mashing at the keyboard as quickly as he could.
“Hewlp mer,” it comes out.
I’ll come to know the feeling of hurried fingers, but in that moment I don’t reply. I don’t move. I offer no words of condolence as I stand as a silhouette in the shadows, and the zombies feed on him.
“It wasn’t my fault,” I tell myself.
Those words are cold comfort in the grip of night. That death weighs heavily as I loot his corpse and tiptoe away. No one will ever know. They will never need to know. The sun rises some hours later and, with illuminating rays, passes silent judgment on the actions that transpired while it slept.
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