I look around, trying to anticipate a cold start, searching for that little something that will start the controlled riot I’ve been waiting for. Nothing. Just a restless mass, shifting about. Waiting.
My friend zips her sweater, tosses the hood up and pulls down – hard – on the laces, bundling herself up for protection. She kneads her hands together in front of her face, muttering something quietly. Were this another circumstance, she could be wrapped up in prayer. Perhaps she is.
Her eyes dart up. I meet her gaze and, with overblown gravitas, place a hand on her shoulder. “Whatever happens… live. Just live.” My joke is met with a small, nervous laugh, the kind that says we’ve made a grave mistake, with the kind of adrenaline-fueled jitteriness that takes hold just before the horizon peaks above the crest of a rollercoaster.
We are in the middle of San Diego during Comic-Con weekend, taking part in The Walking Dead Escape, and I don’t think we’re going to make it.
I take an inventory of the course. An hour ago, we were part of a crowd of onlookers, watching survivors as they navigated the horde. We have an idea of what we’re up against, vague bits and pieces, but no clear map. A siren blares. I can see flimsy chickenwire fences shaking at the front as a haggard military man bursts out of the heavy gates that are holding us back – or holding them back.
He tells us things are under control. That the route to the Evac Center is secure.
My friend and I disagree.
Within moments of our group passing into the husk of PetCo Stadium, all hell breaks loose. Fences come apart. The crowd panics, pushing and shoving away from the shambling bodies that are pouring through. It's like something the AI Director from Left 4 Dead would orchestrate. The only thing missing are the pounding drums and tense musical score. There are, perhaps, eight to ten ghouls menacingly shambling toward a group of at least 80 people. This is enough to trigger that base instinct that tells you to RUN. A dozen people get caught, too far away from the safety of the group. I check for my partner, she’s a few steps ahead. Safe. We turn and run, dodging a few dazed zombies, climb up a rope ladder, then slide down a makeshift barrier. We zig and zag through orange security walls, around cars, up stairs and down them again. As the adrenaline rush normalizes, my lungs begin to burn. I thank the hand of fate that pushed me to start running two months earlier. A nasty looking member of the undead lunges lazily out at me, startling me. I pivot awkwardly and the feeling goes out of my leg. I tumble, rolling on uneven patches of concrete. I get up just in time to hear a growl behind me. I’m too busy running to turn back.
We make it through more makeshift obstacles. All the FPS games I’ve ever played are ringing in my ears. I peek around corners, avoid hugging the walls in blind turns, save the sudden movements for when they’re really needed. There’s an oasis ahead, a safe zone with much needed water. But we have to get through a narrow hospital corridor, and there’s an imposingly large dead fellow eyeing us in the middle of the road.
I repeat to myself: this is just a game, just a fun-run.
I don’t want to die.
My small group is paralyzed. The “tour guide” cheerfully exclaims “all you have to do is get past and you’ll be safe!” Oh, is that all? Alright then. The ghoul advances, pushes us back towards an area we’ve already cleared. There's a certain feeling of helplessness that takes over. In a game, this would just be a matter of picking up something to hold between the obstacle and myself: a plastic sheet, a hazard cone, a metal barrier to hold in front of me. But this is a scenario where we can only rely on agility. There’s nowhere to go, no props to use as bait. Someone’s going to have to head out first.
I face my partner. With a nod, we’re off. “Left, left, LEFT!” she shouts as she jukes right. I break left, into the thing’s path. She whizzes by with a puzzled (concerned) look on her face as I manage to avoid a bloody hand slapping me on the arm. Someone else from my impromptu band isn’t as lucky. He’s treated to a spectacular bear-hug, left with tacky-sweet blood tracks on his arms and back. Can’t save ‘em all.
Wheezing, I catch up. She’s chilling in the safe zone, crumpling a Dixie cup that moments before had been full of crisp water. I lean against the wall to catch my breath. “Dude, you’re an idiot.” Guess you can never be sure just how an act of heroism will be taken. I swish water in my mouth, try to center myself, tell her I’m ready to go on when she is. She can tell it’s empty posturing. We rest up, amazed that we’re but a third of the way through the trial.
The rest of the course plays out like a series of QTEs. A bloodied nurse bars my exit down a series of steel steps. I choose to hop off the top rail, instead of taking my chances. One of the tour guides takes me to task for my choice. Easy to say when you're not being treated like a delicious main course. Crawling under plexiglass operating tables, a barely-restrained zombie reaches out at my arm. I time a fortunate lunge so that I sneak under the arc of his swing. Throughout, these fantastic jump-scares riddle the experience. I’m taken back to the persistent dread that inhabited my first brush with Resident Evil.
Up ahead is the final obstacle: a two-lane rope-netting bridge that’ll drop us into the safety of a decontamination hold. With the end in sight, my friend, still cocooned in the safety of her hoodie, parts ways. She hurries across the gaps, pressing tightly away from the rotting hands that reach out. I make my way across, when my leg gives out for a second time. I slip through the net, one leg dangling out in the open, the other braced against a pair of knotted ropes.
That’s it. I’m done. I’m certain one of the shambling corpses will descend on my head, grapple my arm, pull my torso towards its bloodied grasp. But as I look about, they’re more concerned with the teenager that’s reluctantly stepping up to the platform. Miraculously, they’re unaware that I’m vulnerable. I think back to all those times I frantically mashed on X to free myself from peril, wrap my hands around whatever purchase I can find, and hoist myself up.
Exhausted, I slide down into a dark holding area. Blacklights and fog populate the freezing corridor. No time to catch my breath, a masked soldier points a gun to my face and commands me to raise my hands. I look to my side, searching for my friend. I make out silhouettes, people being placed in lines, pushed against walls, vanishing in the fog. A technician comes to me, flashes a light in my eyes, asks if I’ve been infected. A black light scans my face and arms. I’m clean. I’m patted on the back and led through a final scene where a corpse is being examined by medics. I step out into the bright San Diego sun, my friend impatiently waiting at the gate.
I am survivor #04964. And I am alive.