The DayZ standalone alpha (2013) is a broken, punishing world, inhospitable to players, but excused because of its "pre-release" presentation.
Movement is buggy, so you might fall unfairly to your death while walking in the hills. Items are not fully implemented and not documented, so some whole categories either don’t work, or simply have no purpose and waste precious inventory space. Individual items might get glitched and fail to function. If you put an item on the ground, it may vanish completely. And putting things on the ground is the only way to pass items to other players: desperately sought and improbably found medical supplies could just snap into nothing.
Are you supposed to be here?
What if the game world wasn’t made for you? That’s the heart of every game: a world and a player character made for each other. Your avatar is the embodiment of your interaction with a world, and that interaction is the game. What if the world isn’t finished then? What if it’s broken and unreliable and not actually built around your goals and abilities? It’s not deliberately challenging the abilities of the player character; it just haphazardly frustrates actions that should be taken for granted. It should be a failure as a game, but DayZ gets away with it because it’s billed as an alpha. “Don’t worry: the world’s not ready for you yet, but it will be — it’s improving all the time.” So we forgive the problems and persevere.
It didn’t take long for players to murmur about whether DayZ will ever reach a final release — it had already raked in a load of cash anyway, and grown a huge community, and then there was the whole The War Z fiasco still fresh in people’s minds. But apart from that, DayZ is a game that maybe shouldn’t be finished: being broken makes it the game it is.
A broken game that works
In DayZ, you’re playing a rare survivor in a hostile post-apocalyptic world, and the hostility of your environment is perfectly modelled by DayZ being an untrustworthy “alpha”. You will die, probably unfairly. All you can do is concentrate on not doing anything stupid, to improve your odds. Even just going round the huge, beautiful map as a tourist is fraught with danger — falling, starving, getting ill, getting attacked by stray zombies — even if you’re experienced. This is a game where finding a rusting gangway or something in a disused dock counts as a highlight, just because maybe you could climb the steps and it might look cool from up there. But actions like climbing steps and walking platforms — although they’re seemingly intended to be straightforward — are perilous. How much do you really want to try out those binoculars you found? If the controls, clipping, and ladder-climbing were consistent, the danger would be gone: those subtly gripping and intrepid discoveries would be sterile and predictable. If your equipment wasn’t at risk of failing or disappearing then you would feel a lot safer hiking to find a ruined castle or shipwrecked hulk.
Could anyone even make a game like this?
Simply getting from A to B without event can make your heart race. I doubt you could make a game like that that isn’t broken. With “early access” you’re supposedly contributing to ongoing development and things aren’t set in stone. In and out of the game, you’re on a frontier — dangerous, free, and real — and you’re going to have to look after yourself. The unplanned, hindering irregularities give the game an authentic atmosphere of independent survival, but without the “alpha” excuse, they certainly would’t be tolerated.
Could anyone produce that game on purpose? Could a developer make a deliberately cruel game with a ruleless, broken world, then call it an alpha just to buy some perseverance and acceptance from players? It would be like a writer of improbable fiction successfully passing their work off as factual, so that readers will allow themselves to be amazed. It would be an unlikely hoax, but would open up credulity and good faith from the audience that could otherwise only be dreamt of.
The DayZ alpha is a perfect, broken contradiction of a game that seems unlikely to happen again for a long time, if ever. It has struck an unlikely balance of being both unaccommodating and tolerated, perpetuating its theme of desperate survival. Pay a visit while you can, because eventually something will give: either it will get fixed or players’ tolerance will wear out.