To truly know something, you must become it. The trick is to not lose yourself in the process.
The communities that emerge around video games are insatiable beasts. They thirst not just for knowledge, but for a completeness of understanding. To them, no stone should be left unturned and the rate at which they flip those stones is faster than ever before.
Back in 1992 it took two years for someone to discover how to consistently access the secret Chris Houlihan Room in Zelda: A Link to the Past. In 2004, it took only two days to discover Halo 2’s first hidden skull, and less than a month to find all 15 (although it took longer to figure out their full effects). In 2015, Bloodborne’s hidden third ending was discovered the very day that the game was released.
Secrets are no longer allowed to remain secret. In their haste to tear down these barriers these communities are embarking on something fundamentally destructive. Experiencing a video game in full or partial ignorance can elevate it far beyond one experienced with an already complete understanding.
Back in the 90s there was no way to know the difference between verifiable truth or ridiculous rumour. The best sources of information were random forum threads, which contained as many people telling wild rumours as they did people dismissing them. Even ‘official’ strategy guides were filled with complete nonsense a lot of the time.
Growing up, we all believed that we could find Mew underneath this infamous truck, that the Triforce was an obtainable in game item, and Luigi was an unlockable character in Mario 64. One of the reasons that these stories were so believable was stuff like the missingno glitch. These titles were buggy, unoptimised messes with weird stuff happening all the time, so the potential secrets didn’t seem so fanciful.
This shared ignorance that led to our general stupidity was wonderful. These games were great on their own merits, but we all believed that there was something mysterious about them beyond what was obvious or even real. But inn today's day and age? With our newfound mastery of the internet, these silly theories would be debunked in about three seconds flat, a mere google search away.
All hope is not yet lost though! We can shun the wider community, and play as if we were indeed an island. There’s a particular way to play a game where you really are alone - blind playthroughs.
Blind playthroughs (distinct from Blindfold playthroughs) are when you deliberately refuse to consult outside information. For some people it's okay to consult with a friend or two, but others will cut off all outside help and influence even while streaming. They’re typically recommended for games like Dark Souls where the experience of playing them is far removed from anything you’ve tried before.
And honestly? Its a pretty effective way to simulate true ignorance. There are enemies that seem too strong to fight, quest lines with require you to go to different places in weird sequences, blocked passages and unhelpful NPCS. You’ll bash your head against the wall repeatedly trying to get through areas or trying to understand why exactly you can’t kindle a bonfire.
So you can replicate the experiences of yore with a little discipline - at least, for a time. Because when you have an amazing (or horrible) experience with a video game, you always feel the need to share it. You want to better reflect on how you feel, so you seek out others opinions and feelings. But, well, when you share with the void, the void shares back with you.
You learn how to defeat the Capra Demon with ease, instead of shaking your controller in rage at those two dogs. You look up the stats of various weapons and how to acquire them. You learn about Darkstalker Kaathe, and the implications that it has for the story. You learn how to best traverse the map and do things seemingly out of order. You become a master of the game and its systems, thanks to the knowledge that the community freely imparts.
Except...the game isn’t the same any more. There is no more mystery. Where once there was challenge, now there is routine. And what once had endless possibilities has shrunk down to fit inside the various boxes where each bit belongs. Now, the game can still be fantastic. But the time you spent with it in that first run through, that magical experience, is gone - forever. It exists only in memory.
Would we ever get to feel that way again without completely cutting ourselves of from our fellow man and woman? It seemed impossible. Until, in early 2012 when, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
Day Z was a game I first heard about through stories. Rock Paper Shotgun published an article detailing their terrifying experiences. I watched this video series where a team of 20 players gradually dwindles away, as they become victims to zombies, bugs or fall damage. I watched a video of someone being robbed at gunpoint, flares lighting up the night. I didn’t understand what the game was about and neither did the players. It was inscrutable.
Just getting the game to work was an exercise in frustration. It took me two days of constant googling to get the game to launch and not crash or kick me out of servers almost immediately. There was no easy installer, at least to begin with. I ended up resorting to some registry edits to actually be able to play the game. Right away, there was a barrier to entry here far beyond the pale.
When I joined my first server, it was pitch black. And when I say pitch black I don’t mean it was daytime in blue hues - You could barely see in front of you; the best you got was brown and greyish outlines. All around you were the groans of zombies and the buzzing of flies, warning you that someone had died there recently. I wandered around, bumping into walls, proning in the hope that I’d avoid the dangerous zombies. I picked up some empty cans and metal wire before making a wrong move and was killed.
I got better. I played on servers that were set to daytime, so I could see. I was killed by bandits, made friends with other anonymous players. I got better loot and killed a man for his beans. I made the long and hazardous trek to the northern military airfield for its famous loot, and lost hours and hours of progress to a stray sniper bullet. I kidnapped players and dumped them on small islands with broken legs. At one point I spent 2 hours guarding a bus that was stuck in a ditch. And what happened next with that bus - well that’s an article all by itself.
When I started playing, I didn’t know anything about Day Z. And amazingly, neither did anyone else. Our shared ignorance, in the modern day, led to some of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I still remember my heart thumping as I stalked another player through the forest. I remember running for literally 30 minutes straight to reach a friend, and then dying immediately after and doing it all again. And I can never forget that damn bus. But as I played, and had my fun, I wasn’t the only one getting better. The community of Day Z exploded, putting it on top of the steam best sellers list for 3 months. And we, the community, went about solving the problem of what Day Z was really about. Unfortunately, sometimes ignorance is truly bliss.
Zombies weren’t actually a threat, you see. Doesn’t matter if you shoot or not, doesn’t matter if they’re aggro’d or not - just run away and eventually their AI will glitch out. There’s no point in being friendly to anyone if zombies aren’t a threat. Their bullets and beans could be yours, an unknown player could easily shoot you in the back. Best to only play with your real life friends who you know won’t betray you. If you are getting shot at, just immediately quit out of the server! That way, you don’t risk losing your precious loot from the hours you’ve spent playing. If you get hurt early on, just restart - its more efficient that way. Why hold someone up when you can just kill them? Why go to this loot spot when the loot maps show its a bad idea?
So we figured it out. And the game collapsed in on itself. Because as it happened, when you turned the screws tight enough, Day Z was a bit of a shitty game.
The shooting was terrible. The UI was awful. It was incredibly buggy. It was a hacker’s paradise. There were many ways to exploit the entire looting system. You would spend hours running through the forests of the enormous map with no contact with anyone. The zombies ran through walls and objects and didn’t follow the laws of physics. I had people leave the server, change their position to behind me in another server and then rejoin and kill me. What was once a joyful experience had turned into a frustrating struggle where I was scrambling just to find the fun.
And as time went on and the game decomposed, people drifted away. The community was sated, it had created all the stat sheets and maps to last the rest of Day Z’s short lifetime. The Day Z mod died and its standalone version never got a chance to properly live because of this dirty little secret - the game was never good. We didn’t understand it, and filled in the blanks to create this incredible experience. Don’t get me wrong - we should be on our knees thanking Day Z for that - but it was only through our collective ignorance that any of this was possible.
I will forever treasure my time with Day Z. Its not just that I can’t experience it again, its that no-one can. We’ve evolved our understanding of these sorts of games with hundreds of clones and evolutions into survival sims and battle royales. I didn’t think the phenomenon of Day Z could occur in 2012, and I’m even more doubtful it could happen today, or in to the future.
But I live in hope. Games are at the cutting edge of artistic accomplishment. The way people interact with games is fundamental to the medium in a way never seen before. Our understandings of what games are and how they work are what gives them meaning. So if ever you hear people talking about a newly released game or mod through bizarre anecdotes, or its mechanically confusing, or it just doesn’t make sense, you should probably check it out. Because it might be your only chance to do so.