Playing dead: Australian gamers take zombie Armageddon to the streets of Sydney
A high-pitched scream pierces the air as a “zombie witch” in a dirty, white dress sprints down a street at a Sydney university, hair whipping around wild eyes as she chases a group desperately scrambling to get out of her way.
Welcome to “Zedtown” – an adventure event where competitors play out a zombie apocalypse. People race to reach an evacuation point to ensure their survival, but must also avoid being caught and turned by the “undead”.
Described interchangeably as a giant game of zombie-themed tag and a ‘live-action’ video game, the events capitalise on an emerging legion of gamers who have grown up battling virtual enemies on computer screens – and now want to experience such fantasies in real life.
“It’s a great feeling having hundreds of fully grown men and women running away in legitimate fear from you. It’s really exhilarating,” said the woman who plays a zombie witch, Katerina Halkeas.
“Video games themselves are becoming so much more immersive. And then when you have something like this, it’s really the next step,” adds Halkeas, who took her inspiration from a character in the Left 4 Dead video game.
But unlike computer games, in real life players can’t hit pause to get snacks or head to the toilet without risking their “lives”. They have to keep running to escape the threats in the game, adding to the heightened intensity.
The events kicks off with humans, dubbed “survivors”, outnumbering zombies, though all that is required to turn someone into the undead is to tag or touch them.
Both sides are in an assortment of costumes and in high spirits. The organisers add jeopardy at the start of the game by anointing a small faction, who appear to be survivors, as secret zombies. This, players say, sows mistrust and quickly swells the number of those hunting, versus the number of those hunted.
“You find yourself talking to people you wouldn’t have otherwise spoken to and relying on those people for your life and ... you form intense relationships quickly,” says Zedtown creator David Harmon, who has plans to roll out the event in other cities.
Tasks and challenges are set for people to progress through the event space, and to try to make sure they don’t simply stay hidden.
As darkness falls, tensions rise and the ranks of the undead thicken – sometimes chanting “one of us” in hordes to scare the few remaining survivors as they make a last gasp attempt to reach the evacuation point.
“Emotionally, it’s an absolute rush,” says player Ian Kilburn, whose long, tattered black-hooded cloak “Death” costume, which includes a sickle tossed over his shoulders, is well-known among Zedtown participants.
“I’ve always been blown away by the costumes and the effort that everyone goes to to make it a very fun experience,” he said during the Zedtown game held at the University of New South Wales.
Such is the demand to play, tickets for the most recent event at UNSW, which cost A$45 (US$34) each, sold out within minutes.
Shooting games such as laser tag or paintball have been around for some time but Zedtown taps into a trend blending vintage video game concepts with reality.
Pokemon Go, which is based on software first launched in the 1990s for Nintendo’s iconic Game Boy console, uses players’ smartphone cameras and satellite location to enable them to see cartoon monsters to capture – in real-world settings.
‘Escape the room’ computer games such as the Submachine series and The Mystery of Time and Space, where players have to solve riddles and puzzles to reach the next level and ultimately leave, have spawned physical adventures – known as escape rooms – where participants are locked in a room and have to solve problems to get out.
The next generation of games though, will see consumers playing in the physical world but immersing themselves in settings and against foes in the virtual world, industry experts say.
Oculus Rift, the virtual reality system and headset owned by Facebook, was released in the US in March and Britain in late September to favourable consumer responses.
“VR isn’t a thing you do, it’s a place you visit,” one gamer said in an online review of the US$599 device.
Tim Ruse, chief executive of start-up Zero Latency, says he has seen huge interest in his firm’s virtual reality system.
Competitors – sporting headsets and carrying backpacks with a computer as well as fake guns – enter a large warehouse and explore different simulated settings. These include battling zombies, an arcade-style game where you defend a fort, and an outer-space exploration scenario.
Just a year after launching in Melbourne, Zero Latency are expanding their model to the US, Spain and Japan at Sega’s amusement park in Tokyo.
“I guess humans have always – from storytelling to cinema to gaming – sought to remove themselves from reality,” Ruse said, adding: “I think this next generation of fully immersive experiences are that next level of entertainment or escapism.”