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[Following Pip's escape from a room and Quinns' attendance of the Betrayer's Banquet, we're continuing our coverage of event games with 2.8 Hours Later. A disturbingly real zombie apocalypse for you and your friends to survive. Huge thanks to friend of SU&SD Steve Hogarty for writing this up for us.]
Steve: "Don't run into traffic." That's typically the warning you'll get from the last out-of-character member of the 2.8 Hours Later team you'll speak to before the game begins. "The zombies can't hurt you, but the 47 to Shoreditch can."
It seemed very unlikely to our assembled group of survivors that we might all at once shed our collective common sense and dash out in front of a lorry, that we'd be wholly consumed by some primitive fear at the first sight of a zombie actor and run screaming across a dual carriageway like startled fawns. Fawns that scream. But that's almost precisely what ended up happening.
2.8 Hours Later is a real world, urban zombie survival horror game in which small groups of players are tasked with reaching Zombie HQ, a human-controlled research facility in (at least when and where we played in 2012) a South London safezone. The location of the headquarters is a mystery, we're informed, one that can be solved by following a series of map co-ordinates handed out by a breadcrumb trail of non-zombified actors scattered throughout the local area.
The tricky bit, and the part that makes 2.8 Hours Later more than just an orienteering trip around a square mile of Southwark, is that London's been transformed into an infected wasteland populated by hundreds of the zombie actors. Some of them are the Pegg-bothering running kind, others shamble around groaning in general undead discomfort, but they're all out to get you, to chase you into traffic in a way that should probably put the event organiser's lawyers on edge.
Congregating with the other players in the game's starting point of Bermondsey Square, the party atmosphere and assorted fancy dress outfits gave proceedings a jovial edge, with players cheerfully chatting as they awaited their call to a staggered start. Dressed as all manner of undead-slaughtering stars of games and film, we felt invincible versus zombies and zombie actors alike.
After leaving the square we set off in a straight line northwest up Bermondsey Street, a half-mile row of cafés, pet shops, bakeries and pubs, with blind alleyways and small, badly lit parks jutting out from either side. Not quite knowing how the zombies were going to be dressed, we peered with trepidation around every corner, pointing at shadows and shouting at suspicious plastic bags, gradually growing oblivious to the non-player pedestrians milling all about us. We're wired for zombie sightings and nothing else.
You're warned not to run into traffic because, simply put, 2.8 Hours Later is a mind-altering experience, one in which concepts of personal safety and appropriate behaviour in public quickly evaporate. Reality becomes a squiffy mess of imagined threats and genuine zombies. Your atrophied amygdala begins swamping the sane parts of your brain in its most potent fear-juices. As unlikely as it sounds, some small and powerfully idiotic part of you thinks it's all real.
The first zombie we saw emerged from behind a bush, howling and dressed in blood-soaked hospital scrubs. Sprinting towards us, he scattered our now utterly self-preserving group in every direction. We ducked between parked cars, immediately discarding basic road safety knowledge and popping out in front of traffic. We barrelled into alleyways like startled cats in an effort to lose the predator, who'd soon given up the chase and returned to his bush to frighten the next set of passing humans.
The zombie actors are trained for weeks before the event, they're taught how to herd players, how to avoid getting them crushed under lorries, how to get inside their heads and chase them for as long as it's entertaining. Some zombies rocket towards you with locked eyes and terrifying intent, but know the exact moment to let you slip away. Others ignore you, shuffling and groaning quietly to themselves, blocking your path and forcing you to nervously scoot past at gut-worrying proximities.
The game is non-contact, if you're grabbed you're carefully stamped with a UV-paint bite and released back into the game. You're free to continue playing once bitten, and zombies will continue chase you with as much fervour as before, but you're now invisibly marked as infected. You can choose to share this information with your fellow players if you like, or keep it to yourself. The consequences of being bitten are never explicitly spelled out to players, but only become apparent as the game draws to a close at Zombie HQ.
Now flush with adrenaline and giddily aware of what we were facing, we reconvened and trekked towards our first co-ordinates. The characters you meet are enthusiastically played by actors, their melodramatic deliveries playing up to your already mesmerised brain. About a half-dozen set pieces run throughout the experience, some paying homage to classic zombie cinema, others disturbing creations of the organiser's own making.
There's the resilient pub landlady who cheerfully offers, "can I get any of you fuckers a pint?" as you stumble into her fortified bar, drenched in sweat and zombie gore. "Yeah, there are um, loads of zombies outside," one of our group dryly informed. "You don't fucking say," the sweary woman replied as she hopped behind the bar to pour us a drink. The plastic cups were a clue that we wouldn't be sticking around for long, and the groaning and scraping of zombie fingernails on wood interrupted the refreshments. You've led the undead menace straight to this poor woman's pub, much to her consternation, and so she angrily ushers you out a back door, shouting clues to your next location as you make your escape.
There's the zombified hen do, three girls dressed in mini-skirts, fairy wings and bunny ears, drunkenly lurching like Silent Hill mannequins and puking in the street. They were seemingly oblivious to our presence. "These ones can't see a thing," a helpful cockney at the end of the street warns us, "but they can hear you well enough". We silently slipped by them in the too-narrow alleyway, honestly terrified whenever they snapped their heads to look in our direction.
Later, around the appropriately spooky environment of Guy's Hospital, we come across a ranting doctor proclaiming to have invented a zombie repellent. We realised our mistake only after huddling close to the man to hear his story: a tight circle of zombies had formed around us, kept at bay by the magic chemical compound. We're told to wait for a gap in their ranks and then run as fast as we can, yet genuine panic gripped us at this moment, forced into near-contact with the infected crowd with nowhere to go but through them.
Shut Up & Sit Down's own Matt Lees was in that group with me. We both barged out of the tiny safe-zone and through the audience of zombies, a peril we had by now utterly become convinced was real. I zig-zagged in such a ridiculous way as to send a sprinting actor tumbling into a car bonnet. I didn't stop to make sure he was okay, so untethered had I become from reality. Lees spilled on to the kerb, bashing his legs up painfully, but was so primally charged with adrenaline that he ignored his wounds until much later.
By the time we reached Zombie HQ we were exhausted, not just physically but mentally. In the queue players share stories of survival, comparing their experiences of each of the game's set-piece scenes. We're taken two by two to a scanning booth, where we're checked for bites under UV light. Those who were found to be infected were taken aside to a face-painting room to be decorated and made-up as zombies themslves — a neat consolation prize — before being given drinks tokens to spend at a zombie-human love-in party.
We were too drained to drink, and too tired to stand, and so we slinked back outside to wearily find our way home. We step back outside to a London that had returned to normality just as quickly as it had become an utterly convincing post-apocalyptic wasteland. A London in which the real threat is the double-decker bus, and not the zombie with the ultraviolet stamp.
2.8 Hours Later reduces the sane-minded to the paranoid and the relatively fit to the jelly-legged, but it's far too surreal an experience to miss. The event's become more than a little popular lately, selling out across the UK as new dates are added. It's also had some new features added since I played — branching missions and a helpful post-apocalyptic companion app — so even returning players can expect an entirely different kind of running-away-from-zombies experience.
If you live in the UK, check out their site to find an event taking place near you. And wear some decent trainers.