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DayZ breaks my heart

Translation by Joe Köller

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I have a hard time playing DayZ. Not because of the zombies which populate the survival-sandbox, nor because of the other players, which are more ruthless to each other here than in other games. I’m simply wandering towards the edge of a forest, basking in the golden light of that familiar autumn sun, or looking back at the wooded world behind me from a hill I just climbed, and there it is: a faint dizziness, a dry feeling in my mouth, the sudden realization that my heart is in my throat. It’s a feeling of sadness mixed with physical longing and the more abstract pain of parting. I’m homesick.

Most virtual landscapes are artificial creations, planned and designed to facilitate the passage of players. The islands of Far Cry, the nordic expanses of Skyrim, the barren steppes of Fallout; they are all synthetic worlds, cobbled together from bits and pieces, shaped with an eye for aesthetics and entertainment. This is why the majestic mesas of Skyrim blend elegantly into foothills blending elegantly into mountain ranges in the span of a couple hundred meters. As players we’re used to pocket-sized worlds offering a maximum of variety in a conveniently small space.

DayZ is different. It’s no coincidence that Chernaurus feels this organic, that its landscapes show no sign of having been created in a test tube. They aren’t. DayZ is based on a real region, a strip of land of 15 by 15 kilometers, which Bohemia Interactive have recreated in painstaking detail, down to individual buildings, trees and paths. DayZ’s coastline is based on the path the Elbe takes through this area in the north of the Czech Republic, which resembles the world behind the screen so perfectly that locals have no trouble getting their bearings in the game, and enthusiastic players have taken to indulging in a questionable kind of survival tourism there. The real name of zombie-ridden Elektrozavodsk is Povrly, Chernogorsk is Ústi nad Labem-Nešt?mice, and they’re about an hour’s drive from the German city of Dresden.

The biggest difference between DayZ and its real world equivalent is, obviously, the lack of an apocalypse. Its rural roads are frequented by trucks instead of bandits, its fields dotted with tractors and grazing cattle, not the undead. The bustling towns and villages in the region are the opposite of the empty shells in DayZ, where only scattered remnants hint at the everyday life that was lost when the dead attacked the living. And yet, I recognize these abandoned settlements, and they put a lump to my throat.

I grew up next to the Iron Curtain, 20 kilometers south of the country that was then called Czechoslovakia. Far away from Povrly, but in a region that looked deceptively like it. The Bohemian Massif, the Bohemian Forest – terms from geography class which make quite clear that borders, even seemingly immutable ones like the Iron Curtain, are figments of human imagination with no relevance for landscapes, autumn light, forests and rolling hills. The scenery of my childhood looked so much like the northern regions of DayZ that I can almost smell its forests when I play the game, can almost feel the cool shade of the trees and catch myself thinking I recognize this boulder or that from childhood adventures.

What I definitely recognize, however, are the broken windows, empty homes and deserted villages. I grew up 20 kilometers south of a dead zone, with my back to a border where the world ended, and behind that line: overgrown fields, empty houses, barbed wire and watchtowers. DayZ, with its depopulated, grieving cities, in a landscape I will always see as that of my childhood, fills me with the immediate, personal pain of compassion.

My grandmother was sixteen when she was forcefully driven from home and relocated forty kilometers south, to the town in Northern Austria I was eventually born in. She, her siblings and parents, members of Bohemia’s and Moravia’s ethnic minority of Sudeten Germans, were all convinced that this could only be a temporary misunderstanding at the end of this era of insanity – an insanity some of those chased from their land had taken part in. Her home, her big, thriving farm, where her family had lived for centuries, suddenly disappeared behind an insurmountable border. As some of the war’s more inconsequential, and not entirely innocent victims, she and her family remained where they had been pushed during the forceful cleanup that followed the terror of World War II. Their kitchens, stables and churches were no more than a stone’s throw away and yet hopelessly out of reach. Compared to others, they were lucky. Compared to the deaths of millions, the loss of their homes was trivial. Still, they waited their entire life at the locked door to their old home, paralyzed, in the shadow of the border that grew higher and higher to become the Iron Curtain.

The apocalypse had indeed claimed this space, without any need for nuclear war or zombies

The border was daunting and dangerous. Even though both sides of the invisible line looked the same – the way DayZ looks – the barbed wire still marked the edge of an unimaginably huge border strip, twelve kilometers wide and filled with the eerie silence that follows any disaster. The small roads that timidly followed the border’s path for a while offered a view into the depopulated dead zone, in which more people were killed than along the much longer line that had been cut through the middle of Germany. This border, separating the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic from Austria and Germany,  was, as we’d learn much later through the reports of historians, the Cold War’s deadliest border. More than 700 lives ended on this hollow plot of land, among the rolling hills and light forests that look so tremendously like the ones in DayZ.

Overgrown paths, rusty signposts, piles of rubble from vacated, leveled villages near the border and, a little further away, the cold ruins of abandoned villages and farms, shrubs growing from their windows. The apocalypse had indeed claimed this space, without any need for nuclear war or zombies. Here, 20 kilometers from my room, was the cadaver of one of the smaller catastrophes of that blood-soaked century, rotting under the autumn sun.

I remember the day my grandmother, although quite settled in at this point, wanted to see her lost childhood home one last time. The border was still a frontline in the standoff of the Cold War, and so we waited for a long time in our cold car, under the watchful eye of border guards, guns at the ready. It was, of course, another autumn day, when we rode through the dead land, between barbed wire fences that cut a path through the ruins, tank barriers, minefields and watchtowers. Behind that surreal road was my grandmother’s old farm, quiet as if asleep, and the old woman cried when she saw the rooftops, fruit trees and farm roads of her youth. Strangers, similarly relocated, looked back at us from the windows of her former home.

There was no anger in her, only sadness, and I hugged her not knowing what was wrong. I don’t know if, at age ten, helpless and unable to comprehend, I managed to comfort her. We rode back home, back from our deafening time travel, past hills, woods, meadows, past deserted villages, homes with empty beds, open cabinets, blind windows and ragged front yards, past where aged apple trees disappeared between sizeable weeds.

DayZ breaks my heart. In its fields, hills and forests I see the landscape of my youth, its perfect likeness to the abandoned towns and empty roads I remember makes me shiver. It brings back a pain that shaped my family and many other families, and that is now slowly dying. When my great aunt was buried a few months ago, two years after my grandmother, her brother, the last of the siblings, stood next to me in the funeral hall and sang, with his trembling, high-pitched old man’s voice, about home, displacement and longing. Possibly for the last time.

The borders of the Cold War past have long since given way to the mundane horrors of dental clinics, gas stations, cross-border shops and brothels. The dead zone disappeared from the real world. In the game, it continues to exist, the unintentional, unsettling twin of a darker past. I enter DayZ, this brutal, laconic sandbox of human cruelty, and there it is: a faint dizziness, a dry feeling in my mouth, the sudden realization that my heart is in my throat. It’s a feeling of sadness mixed with physical longing and the more abstract pain of parting. I’m homesick.

It’s easy to forget that there’s not just one apocalypse, but millions of them, and they all leave behind broken lives, broken minds and people just holding on after their world has ended. Uprooted, driven away, dying in waiting rooms. They, too, are revenants, dead yet restless. As in DayZ, their ghosts shamble around the sites of their lost homes and fortunes, scratching at the door to their former lives.

Meanwhile, the evening sun bathes the woods and rolling hills in soft, golden light, as always.

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Header image by K putt

Other images by Midhras