Play of the Dead
On the day before Easter, what's a better activity than to go zombie hunting?!
This weekend I went with Amber Bitolas to Zedtown, a live action role playing zombie hunting game. It was a beautiful experience considering all of my ventures into social play lately.
The game was held on some sort of fair grounds property in Costa Mesa. After finding parking, various signs point you toward a booth where your stuff is searched and you show your tickets. As we walked through this process, Amber and I began to realize that we had not approached this as prepared as we should have been. We came holding only our tickets. Everyone else came strapped with nerf guns, ammo, and various cosplay-esque gear, like team outfits, signs and banners, and various makeup routines. We were glowing neon noobs.
Unfazed, we moved on to register for our team, gather our team badge and arm band, and receive basic instructions, the gist of which were zombies will gather and we humans need to band together to fight them. However, the humans are split into three different teams and will spend the first portion of the game defining their team boundaries, which apparently involved people shooting each other and some sort of time-based respawning. All fairly straightforward stuff that you might expect out of a live action shooting game.
Before the game began, we found ourselves in a large airplane-like hangar. All of the teams were gathered, with various smaller groupings within larger groups huddling together. Once again, Amber and I stood out. We were on the edges, definitively not among the group, and this seemed to draw attention to us. We got lots of suspicious stares and several groups near us actively moved away from us. I couldn't figure out why this might be. Were we marking ourselves as potential zombies? Was there some sort of meta-game element we didn't understand that was marking us? Or were we just so not like the others that we were suspicious— just suspicious.
Regardless, once the game began, we went from being suspicious to being aggressively ignored. The zombies were loosed from their holding area and running wild through the crowd, who were all busy shooting, variously, between both zombies and each other. And as they all ran out of the hangar, they passed us by without a look. Or when they did look, it was brief, fleeting, and as if we were invisible. Whatever had marked us as other was now marking us as not-a-threat, or at least not involved. Or something. Who knows, but no one was shooting at us, no zombies were biting us. And we were utterly fascinated.
Somehow we had figured out how to be invisible in this game and we took full advantage of it. We wandered where we felt like wandering. We stood back and observed, never getting involved. We watched various bands have a to and fro battle for power, all while dodging zombies. We watched zombies go in and out of character, organize plans, and take chase breaks. Eventually we found ourselves chatting with the various security guards and employees of both the Zedtown organization and the Costa Mesa Fair Grounds. Each had their own take on events. Some, despite having been involved with it earlier that morning, still didn't understand the point. Why were these people shooting nerf guns at each other. Others were amazed that such a thing exists and decided to join the next day's game. We found one who explained some of the nuances of the safe zones, respawning, etc.
As night came, once Amber and I began to feel like we needed a new perspective, we let one of the zombies "eat" us and thus became zombies ourselves. In terms of the game, this is an irreversible state change. We were, from that point on, zombies. And zombies in Zedtown are never down for good, they simply need to return to a spawning point and wait for "Thriller" to finish playing. Interestingly, however, the moment we became zombies, we became visible. And definitively a threat. So after respawning several times, we became the threat we were supposed to be.
As it happens, we joined the zombie horde just as the effective next phase of the game began. This next phase was not so much an official thing as it was the nature of the games rule structure. Because zombies cannot be unturned, eventually you begin to have a mass of zombies that overpowers the remaining humans. The game is designed such that, within the course of the 3 hour experience, eventually there are very few humans remaining. To ensure this, the zombies are often gathered to formulate plans for breaking up large groups of humans. The players, as well, engage in personal tactics meant to take advantage of the numbers difference. Primarily, this means accepting that you may have to respawn for the sake of the horde. As the evening drew on, more and more zombies would gather to overwhelm large groups of humans, throwing themselves at them for the sake of a few more turns, even if the zombie death count in any particular assault was comparably large. After all, what did it matter; listen to a bit of "Thriller" and you're back in the game.
And while the humans have their own incentives to succeed, from being the last few alive to representing their group well, the zombies also have incentives. For instance, as zombies turn more humans, they level up and become stronger versions. They get powers and abilities that make them more effective. Some of them also took to collecting their victim's player tags as a sort of trophy. And the higher level zombie you were, the more you were asked to join in on horde runs or given special upgrades only higher level zombies could use. All of this became ever more important once the payload showed up.
The payload became a mutual goal. I honestly never learned why it mattered, all I knew was that the people wanted it and the zombies wanted to stop them from getting it. And ownership over the payload changed multiple times over the evening. As the population of people lowered and lowered, however, eventually the payload came under the control of the game's few NPC-like special characters. These roles are filled by actors who are apparently unkillable and unable to be turned. They're most readily identified as "different" because of the quality of their costuming and makeup. And at the end, they formed a perimeter around the survivors and the payload, calling to all other remaining survivors to join them in order to be lifted from the grounds via a fictional helicopter.
All in all, this was a blast. It was awesome to play legitimately, and awesome to play as invisible spectators. The degree to which people were willing to commit to their roles despite largely playing with and around a bunch of strangers was amazing. It felt like LARPing simplified for the masses, with nerf guns and sock bombs.
Special thanks, again, to Amber Bitolas for coming out with me.