I don’t recall how my first attempt at surviving the horrors of DayZ actually ended. I may have been cornered by a group of infected, or perhaps I was dispatched by a fellow player looking for a spot of food or an extra bandage to add to his or her backpack. The details of my demise aren’t particularly important. What is important, however, is that in just a handful of months, a rather straightforward game mod has gained over a million players, and rewritten what it means to experience survival horror.

In DayZ, up to 50 players per server can scavenge and explore abandoned villages and decimated cities in order to achieve a singular objective: staying alive.

DayZ is a zombie mod for the PC title Arma 2, a three-year-old military simulation. In the fictional post-Soviet country of Chernarus, up to 50 players per server can scavenge and explore 225 square kilometers of abandoned villages and decimated cities in order to achieve a singular objective: staying alive. Aside from dying of hunger or thirst, the only two immediate risks to your life are the hundreds of zombies that populate the urban areas and small towns, and fellow players who may decide that taking gear off of your dead body is easier than finding it themselves.

Each player starts out with just a bandage and a bottle of painkillers, and absolutely everything else – including weapons, other medical supplies, food, and water – must be scavenged from buildings, stolen from military loot locations, or taken outright from fellow survivors. If you die, you respawn once again with next to nothing in your inventory. It’s a harsh system that requires you to thoroughly plan out every single move you make, and ensures that nothing you do is without consequence.

Should you live long enough, you can usually acquire important equipment that makes you not only a more skilled survivor, but also a more deadly assassin. GPS units let you keep tabs on teammates and make more strategic decisions in highly-populated areas, night vision goggles let you explore the world after the sun goes down without giving your position away by using a flashlight, and silenced weapons let you take out zombies and players in a much more covert nature.

Despite the seemingly rigid ruleset that governs life and death in the game, you are free to do absolutely whatever you want in order to stay alive. This includes teaming up with fellow players in order to take out the zombies that group up at high-quality loot locations, or simply hiding until a well-geared player walks by so you can spring an ambush upon them. You may think you’d able to pick between those two options in an instant – and if you happen to have a decent firearm, the temptation to simply kill everything in sight is ever present- but it’s just not that simple in DayZ.

After you pull the trigger, and the well-meaning survivor you have been casually playing along with for an hour or two drops to his knees and dies, you’ll need to deal with the consequence of your actions immediately. You’ve not only downed a fellow player, but your shot has alerted everyone in the area to your presence, including unapologetic “bandit” players who will simply hunt you down for sport. Zombies will also flock to the sound of gunfire, and if you’ve wasted your last clip during the ill-timed betrayal, you may find yourself swarmed before you even get a chance to loot your ex-comrade.

Survival horror games have always leaned on creepy monsters, dramatic sound effects, and unsettling locales in order to scare the player, but DayZ hits a nerve that no other game before it can match. Yes, the zombies are dangerous and can’t be reasoned with, but turning a corner and coming face to face with another survivor – one who may have murdered a dozen players just like you – is far more unsettling. In a split second you must weigh the pros and cons of either pulling the trigger or simply going your separate ways.

Is it worth killing him? Does he appear to have any gear on him that I might want for myself? Do I want to waste the last four bullets in my clip in the hopes that his backpack is filled with ammo? Does he have a friend on top of the building behind me, perhaps with a sniper rifle? And most importantly, is he a threat? All of these uncertainties flood your mind every time you encounter a fellow player, and create an anxiety that no amount of atmospheric lighting or creepy sound effects can duplicate.

Of course, you can also team up with those you encounter, but determining whether or not to trust anyone is a difficult prospect in a zombie apocalypse. The in-game chat function usually allows you to get a feel for your would-be teammates, and the psychological games that players engage in is almost as stressful as dealing with the zombie horde itself. Hearing a player yell “Friendly!” as they approach you must always be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes fellow survivors will offer equipment or consumables like cans of food or soda in order to prove their good intentions, but even this seemingly kind gesture can turn deadly in a matter of seconds.

The scariest thing about DayZ isn’t the zombies themselves. It’s the fact you’re always truly alone and vulnerable.

I learned this the hard way near an abandoned hotel in the Cherno, one of the largest coastal cities on the map. I was hunkered down inside the lobby of the building with an assault rifle and a few basic supplies when I heard sniper shots coming from the tallest building in the city. While I attempted to pinpoint just where the shooter was, an unarmed survivor ran inside yelling at me to take cover. I explained that I knew where the sniper was, but I needed to leave the building in order to grab some food from the nearby market.

In what I thought was an almost suspiciously kind gesture, my new friend offered me his last can of beans and asked if we could team up. I graciously accepted, and asked him to put the beans in my backpack. As he crouched behind me to access my backpack’s inventory, I knew instantly I had made a mistake. Then, I heard the click of the spare pistol I had stored in my pack being loaded. I turned around and before I could even plead for my life, I was dead on the ground. It was a momentary lapse in judgment, one that cost me my life and all the goodies I was carrying.

The notion that a player can turn from friend to foe, yet still be playing completely within the rules of the game is something entirely absent from the vast majority of multiplayer experiences. There are no predetermined teams here. The only thing telling you to either kill a player or let them live is your own mind. You can save a player from zombies, drag them to safety, and offer medical attention one second, and then have that same player put an axe into your skull just moments later. Not knowing who to trust is one of the scariest things in life, and that feeling permeates DayZ‘s unforgiving world

Teaming up with others does offer some very large benefits, however. If you become injured, the best way to regain your health is to scavenge a blood pack from a hospital. Unfortunately, blood packs can only be administered by a fellow player, and if you find yourself in a particularly dire situation – with a broken leg and no ability to even walk, for example – you may find yourself begging a nearby player to fix you up.

The scariest thing about DayZ isn’t the zombies themselves – though their guttural moans and coughs are admittedly very creepy. It’s the fact that no matter where you are on the map, who you’re with, or what weapon you’re holding, you’re always truly alone and vulnerable. Players can turn on each other in an instant, and they do. You can be taken down by a fellow survivor who simply needed your can of soda, or be abandoned by your teammates after a swarm of zombies has you cornered, simply because they didn’t want to waste their precious ammo.

The best part about this unrelenting tension is that the game itself isn’t actually creating it – you are. Your mind will play tricks on you. You’ll kill innocent players simply because your own negative thoughts have gotten the better of you. You’ll fight against your own psyche, and you may reach a point where you wonder why a free game mod has given you more heart-pounding moments than any $60 title ever has.

Mike Wehner has been a gamer since the Atari 2600 days, and is the Senior Editor for Tecca, which specializes in consumer technology. You can follow his daily shenanigans on Twitter.

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