A Cataclysmic Dawn: Zombies and Immersion
A couple of weeks ago, Rhodes University played host to a week-long, live-action game called Humans vs. Zombies. More details can be found on the official website and web logging tool, but the game is basically tag with a few modifications: players turn into zombies permanently when tagged, and humans can stun zombies by throwing socks at them.
This was a game I’d heard about several years before – when I was in grade 9 and a friend’s sister was at Rhodes, messaging him about this game and asking for help. It sounded delightfully fun then, when I was hearing about how students had to sneak between classes, hide beneath rooftops (areas which were considered safe zones) and constantly have socks at hand.
It didn’t disappoint when I finally got to give it a try.
From the outset, I, and several other enthusiastic individuals, got immersed in the game. Some built professional looking sock bandoliers, others got injury make-up ready, all of us were anticipating an intense, difficult week as humans against a growing zombie horde. I folded up an old T-shirt to use as a convenient carry bag for my anti-undead projectiles (AUPs – and yes that is their official name).
And so the week commenced, with two unknown zombies amongst a total of 200 or so humans. By Tuesday night, there were nearly 80 zombies after an incident we called the Drostdy Lawns Massacre, which occurred during one of our missions. By Thursday, there were more zombies than humans – especially after inactive humans were purged from the game, which runs through a very well thought out online platform (linked above).
The players who were initially heavily invested were at the forefront of the game – both on campus and online, where an active Facebook group had emerged and humans and zombies flung banter back and forth.
The zombies were organised – they stalked individuals humans’ timetables and waited outside their lectures and tutorials, lurked outside test venues, and camped busy routes. The humans were resourceful – a WhatsApp group allowed stronger players (especially once certain bonuses were added to the game) to co-ordinate extractions and group runs so they would not be swarmed by zombies.
The situation got increasingly frantic; humans had to be sneaky or prepared to lose some socks, and zombies were getting used to the tactics used against them. More zombies were waiting outside lectures and by supply drops, and fewer humans were able to fight back against them. A close shave with zombies on Thursday afternoon granted me only a brief respite before I was tagged on the mission that night.
That was largely the end of my game; Friday saw me working on articles and coursework due for that day – life still went on, after all. Plus, after the level of investment I’d put into being a human, I was loathe to hunt my newly made friends down. It didn’t stop me participating in the final mission that night, but it certainly made me a little less bloodthirsty (metaphorically speaking) than some of my fellow zombies.
The week-long HvZ game was something I could sink my teeth (once again, metaphorically speaking) into; it was fun, it was nerve-wracking, and it was surprisingly tactical. But what does it have to do with video games?
In a sentence: Because HvZ succeeded in providing an immersive, frenetic experience where many video games fail to. A game which entails throwing socks at people wearing brightly coloured bandanas held my attention for a full five day period, nights included. How on earth did something so simple manage it, when a big budget video games can’t?
It would be easy to say the physical involvement; it’s far easier to get involved with something when you’re in the heat of the moment, and to a point I’d say that’s true. That’s not the full answer for me though. For me it comes down to the way in which the game presented itself, and how focused it was.
For relevance, I’ll compare it to State of Decay and Dead Rising 2 (I haven’t yet had the privilege to play Dead Rising 3, so I don’t know if it can be criticised for the same things).
Humans vs. Zombies did not fundamentally change my day-to-day life: I woke up, went to my lectures tutorials and meals, and continued to fulfill my extra-curricular commitments. The only serious differences were that I was constantly watching my back for any pursuing undead, and that I had to attend a daily supply drop – more so that the moderators could ensure that people weren’t just camping the zombie apocalypse out in their rooms than anything else.
Campus was basically the same too – Humans vs. Zombies had a very niche target audience of around 200 students out of over 7,000 enrolled at Rhodes University, which is around 2-3% of the student population at most. But the way in which HvZ was constantly there: subtly in play, yet not particularly obtrusive or disruptive.
In contrast, Dead Rising 2’s mission layout was terribly built. The timed mission structure meant that completing any mission, be it main or side, meant constantly sprinting from area to area while juggling numerous obligations and not exploring your surroundings. This was problematic, as it never utilised its free roaming environment fully and made it a hindrance rather than a positive selling point.
At no point in Dead Rising 2 was it ever advantageous in the long term to explore your surroundings, whereas Humans vs. Zombies actively encouraged finding alternative routes between locations and knowing your surroundings intimately. This was a case of a misdirected, and ill-presented title, which didn’t seem to know what it wanted to portray, and the immersive quality of the title suffered as a result.
State of Decay was a far better zombie survival sim, in my opinion, but still suffered from some of the same issues. State of Decay took place in quite a large US county-like environment, which allowed players to travel between a couple of small towns; its environment was daunting, rewarding and free to explore. The basic concept was to build a group of survivors and band them together in a base which you can customise or reinforce as you chose
However, State of Decay suffered from somewhat of a lack of focus. The title’s narrative was a set of missions which seemed largely tacked on and dissonant from most of the title’s gameplay – ultimately detracting from what was otherwise an immensely fun open-world zombie survival sim.
That’s not to say the title couldn’t have benefited from a narrative. But if done right, a narrative would serve to enhance the environment, not rehash constantly visited locations the way State of Decay’s did. HvZ had somewhat of a hacked together narrative, but it was more to provide context – however cheesy or clichéd – to developments in the game.
Instead it’s State of Decay’s side missions which match so well with HvZ’s optional mission structure. State of Decay’s involved helping other settlements, who would either be randomly found or periodically contact you, to do… something. The missions had a good amount of variety, offered tangible player bonuses – whether it be a safe haven or cheaper supplies – and allowed players to acclimatise themselves with, and adapt to changes to, the expansive environment.
HvZ missions took place on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 19:00 until completion, and offered buffs to the faction which won it (eg. tokens which allowed certain players to “revive” recently tagged friends). The missions were varied, fun, and allowed participating players from both sides to use the Rhodes University campus to their advantage – more than once we wound up sneaking past the rears of residences and hiding behind trees, bushes and walls to avoid being seen by patrolling hordes.
Ultimately – I believe HvZ kept me, and many others, engrossed because it was built purely for fun. It wasn’t built on an ill-conceived time challenge system, or a pseudo-community management mechanic – it was built on the concept of survival, and fairness to both sides, regardless of numbers. Outside of the supply drops, how you played was entirely up to you – you could play as a lone wolf, or group up with people headed to the same class, and you could choose to avoid throwing socks the whole week, or exhaust a whole cupboardful.
Obviously that didn’t work for everyone, as not everyone really wants to put time into getting involved in these things, but for those that did, Humans vs. Zombies was a rewarding and memorable experience. It entrenched itself so deeply into our daily lives in such a short period because it was built as a game first – a game centred around everyone having something to enjoy – before it started to get focused on the semantics of missions and tasks. It allowed players to construct their own underlying narratives instead of forcing secondary gameplay mechanics upon them, and it worked excellently.
Humans vs. Zombies was simple, and it was versatile, and very few games – live action, video game or otherwise – manage that.