By Sachal Khan
“A few days ago on top of this castle, I told her I love her. At the dam, we put down our guns and bags and waded into the water. I washed out my hair and came out feeling like a newborn baby.” – J. April 27th, 2014
Thus began my daily cycle of death and rebirth. At the end of another day surviving the crushing awkwardness thrust upon a culture-shocked teenager in a predominantly white school, I would put this reality – my reality – to bed. By sunset I’d transported myself into another world of survival, a survival of my own choice. I was J., and I was no longer in Hertfordshire. I was a survivor roaming the swathes of farmland, abandoned military bases and infected-ridden industrial cities of Chernarus.
Chernarus was the home ground of ArmA 2, an open-world military simulator. Based on satellite imaging, the 225 square kilometre island was a virtual simulacrum of the war ravaged post-Soviet Czech Republic. The base game let players realistically play out the classic American dream: an operation to save this microcosm of Eastern Europe from communist insurgency. DayZ Mod developer Dean Hall saw in this dream an opportunity to construct the perfect nightmare of the Western psyche.
The early 2010s saw a renaissance in the zombie survival genre, from Call of Duty’s additional game modes to the intricate storytelling of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In Western culture, zombies have been used as interrogative metaphors for every inch of the human psyche. What can we learn about consumerism and our basest instinct from apocalyptic narratives? What can Western zombie flicks tell us about our deepest raging desire to tear off the grip of capitalism, limb by vicious limb?
Dean Hall’s DayZ Mod transformed Chernarus, populating it with hordes of bloodthirsty infected. Its realism was brutal. You awoke on a beach with a gun and bandage, with rapidly increasing hunger and thirst. You needed food and water to survive. The infected chased you endlessly across Chernarus if you couldn’t fight or lose them. The sight of another player across a street or in the opposite field was terrifying, because everything was life or death, and death meant losing everything. One community, my community at this time, believed that DayZ Mod could be more than a horror survival.
DayZRP was born from a community of players for whom DayZ had the potential to be a completely new reality. In DayZRP’s servers, you weren’t simply a player trying to survive the apocalypse. You roleplayed a living, breathing person with wants and desires, with memories of the world before, finding a way to cope in a land turned upside down. DayZRP’s Chernarus was populated with gangs, remnants of the old world and its armies, groups of pacifists, lone survivors. It was here that J., a schoolteacher turned wanderer of the apocalypse, was born. And after months of wandering, surviving, and searching for meaning, it was here that J. met P., and a love story emerged from the spontaneity of two lonely roleplayers.
It began with tinned peaches
“We just drove around and somehow we found ourselves at this beautiful lake. We talked, we laughed, we kissed. Breathing in the same rhythm, looking at him and knowing how much he wants me. His hands studying every millimetre of my body, feeling his skin, smelling him, kissing him, whispering.” – P. May 12th, 2014.
In only a couple of weeks, J. and P. were inseparable. They talked and laughed. They survived together. They spent hours looking for each other’s favourite food – tinned sardines, cans of peaches. They walked together along dams, old South Zagorian castles, skyscraper rooftops. J. and P. could not imagine another day in Chernarus without each other.
Outside the game, me and F., the lively, 31-year-old woman behind the character, laughed along to our characters on TeamSpeak. We talked about our possibilities with glee. Could anything tear us apart? Would P. walk away from J. because he is too weak? How would J., almost entirely a pacifist, feel about seeing P. kill in self-defence, or torture for information?
One night, P. is nearly in tears. She asks J. what good he could ever see in her. I smile warmly and type an action in text chat. J. caresses P.’s cheek and kisses her, saying nothing.
It is just over a week before my 18th birthday. We’ve taken a break from the game and are talking to each other on Skype. She says she wishes she could be 18 again, that she would like me. A few days later she tells me she is attracted to me. She says she feels bad for even saying it and asks me if I’m sure I don’t mind her being much older than me. I reason that I’m mature enough to handle it. She agrees.
I continue living like this. At school, I’m awkward and passive. One day, my friend tells me he wouldn’t go to a university like Leicester because he doesn’t want to feel like a minority in his own country. The others go through their daily routine of mocking my accent whenever I speak. They carry on and on until their imitations lose any semblance of my voice, incoherent grunts upon grunts. I think of P., of love and survival, of our tired hands wrestling through hordes of shrieking infected. Love can get me through it all.
F. sends me a card and chocolates from Germany on my 18th birthday. We have since been professing our love to each other on Skype. Our loving text roleplay spills over from Chernarus into Harpenden, a world I once considered real. She tells me what she knows about sex and relationships, she assuages my teenage fears:
“How can you kiss someone the wrong way? We would need to find our own pace.”
“Yes, I love you. Now I’m blushing. I feel bad for saying it.”
When I go to visit my family in Pakistan, I invent a reason for J. to be away too. We duplicate our emotional goodbyes both on Skype and as P. and J. We don’t stop talking while I’m away. What did I care whether it was F. or P. who really loved me? The emotional warmth in her voice was the same whether in a WhatsApp message or huddled next to me by a virtual campfire.
As the weeks went by, so did the silences between us grow. A quiet, awkward, newly 18 year old and a funny, attractive, older staff member of this large community. I found myself echoing P.’s words to F. over Skype. “What do you see in me?” In Chernarus, P. and J. marry atop the peak of Pik Kozlova, while across the virtual red curtain, I wait for F. on TeamSpeak and, after no response, sent her a couple of more messages for good measure. It becomes harder and harder to let myself float away into J.’s mind when F.’s voice weighs on me like this. Eventually she breaks the silence by telling me she’s met somebody in the real world, and she wants to see him again.
It was only then, two months after the beginning of J.’s love story and a month after mine, that I even considered the absurdity of my double life. Leaving it felt like waking from a dream, the kind that begins lucid but eventually crams you into the most subterranean crevasse of the mind. I searched for love as far away from the outside world as I could, and I found it in my virtual doppelganger, however young and unprepared I was for it. You can create alternate realities and mirror universes. You can strip away the shackles of reality and embody somebody different, somebody new. But you cannot escape your awkward teenage years.