MMObility: The quiet brilliance of Die2Nite

It's rare to find a game that does something with design that makes me think, "Huh... why hasn't anyone else thought of that?" There are a few cases, of course -- the Wurm Onlines, the Spellborns -- but they do not happen often enough. In the world of browser and mobile gaming, the chances of finding something that really tickles your design fancy are even lower. After all, this is a market of RTS games galore and embedded worlds for younger players.

So when I found Die2Nite, I was very excited. It took me a while to warm up to the game and the idea (I'm sick of zombies, too), but once I got into it, I found some brilliant design. Keeping things simple is a rarity in games these days.

Click past the cut where I'll discuss how Die2Nite creates atmosphere, tension, and a wonderful gaming environment with just a few icons and a browser.

I'll try to explain the method behind the madness of Die2Nite, but honestly it's better to experience it yourself. If you saw the movie The Blair Witch Project years ago, you might have an idea. I remember watching that movie and being thrilled that it made me use my imagination to do all the damage. After we got home from the theater, I was actually scared when I had to walk down to the curb to take out the trash. I was smiling the entire time. The fear I felt wasn't brought on by state-of-the-art special effects or multi-million dollar budgets but by clever lighting and the impression of reality. Also, by tapping into our imaginations, movies like Blair Witch and games like Die2Nite are allowing our brains to work out just how scary the situation is. Our brains, and our imaginations, are more powerful than any game engine.

"At the time of this writing, there are only three survivors in my town. Over the last two days, we lost something like 30 people, and I feel pretty good that I made it this far."

When you start out in Die2Nite, you are a drifter in a new town, but you have to get to work almost immediately. The normal day-to-day activity consists of scavenging in the desert, hoping to find crucial parts for making defensive items for the town and specialized items like a laboratory. Communication with the rest of the town is kept to a small forum that is unique to each town. Players can send private messages and post notes on each others' doors, but there is no immediate chat.

I'll walk you through a typical day (the last day, probably) in the town I am in.

At the time of this writing, there are only three survivors in my town. Over the last two days, we lost something like 30 people, and I feel pretty good that I made it this far. When I first arrived at the town it was tiny, but as more people joined, it was obvious that the camp was really becoming an active, small city. We would spend our day going into the desert and scavenging for important items like metal bars, then we would bring them back to donate to the cause of defending ourselves.

In order to perform many activities, you must spend ability points, of which you get six per day. If I walk three squares into the outside area, I must keep the remaining three ability points to get back. Now, if I go further into the desert -- say six squares -- I can run out of AP and die out there. I can drink some water or eat some food and become refreshed and able to move again, but even then I have to be careful. In one of my first towns, I once took a trip into the desert with a full ration of water. I got six squares out and then drank, only to realize that I had already been refreshed by a water ration that day and that all the water in the world would not refresh my AP points anymore. I almost died that night except for a helpful citizen who decided to bring me some food.

"The hordes come at midnight every night, and even the website shuts down during the attack. After it is over players log in to see who survived, then they start the process -- and the day -- over."

After surviving two nights of zombie hell in my current town, the remaining two citizens and I have decided that it's every man for him or herself. I have pulled out mattresses, boards and cement blocks from the town bank to protect my individual home. We gave up on dragging bodies back out into the desert (which costs AP) so the town will be filled with the undead at dusk, whether we close the protective city gate or not. The hordes come at midnight every night, and even the website shuts down during the attack. After it is over players log in to see who survived, then they start the process -- and the day -- over.

It's amazing how this odd browser game, which uses nothing but text and a bit of Java and Flash, makes you feel. I think that feeling, or creating that feeling, is something that we are missing in many recent MMOs. Everything is so obvious, so spoon-fed to the player, that imagination is almost pointless. After all, why imagine a mighty steed when the mightiest-looking steed you have ever seen only costs 50 silver and stands right in front of you? Music in today's gaming is pure bliss, and graphics ensure that we see everything we need to see.

Somehow, though, I found myself dreaming about Die2Nite and the plight of my lonely citizen more than my main in RIFT or my character in Mabinogi.

The browser is the perfect mode of transportation for a game like Die2Nite. I am able to run it in almost any browser: Opera, Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer (with some loading issues in Chrome), and also on my new toy, an HTC Inspire. Because of the Flash elements, I was not able to run it on my iPhone, but perhaps the developer would come out with an app for that?

This means that anywhere I went, I was able to check on the progress of the town. Despite the fact that I could not do anything once all my AP points were exhausted, I found myself checking the forums obsessively. Who was stealing from whom? Were we running out of food? I had to know.

So is Die2Nite really an MMORPG? I would say it definitely is. First of all, the "massive" part of the equation is open to interpretation. No one player has the ability or the right to define what "massive" is. In fact, any argument about what "MMO" means will always be filled with several different definitions. The towns in Die2Nite have the ability to grow and grow, but I imagine that they never grow too large, thanks in large part to the culling effect of midnight undead invasions. Is there persistence in the game? For sure. If you do die, you become a "soul," just like you would in many "normal" MMOs. You drift off to find a new town, and the process starts again. You even gain titles, stats and bonuses as you survive longer. Players have an effect on each other, and towns go on even if you log off. In fact, logging off a lot will normally mean that you might come back to find yourself dead or surrounded by zombies.

The game is MMO-lite, though. But it works and does its job so well. It can fit in your pocket, and no graphics card upgrade is needed.

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr.
This article was originally published on Massively.