A few weeks ago, I got together with five mates for a casual Sunday afternoon video game session. We played a first-person shooter, set in a research lab infested with zombies. Standard stuff, but this game was far more realistic than anything else I’ve played.
Characters reacted to players’ actions and conversation with unparalleled intelligence. I could actually feel sweat running down my forehead. My arms ached from the weight of the weapon. And when we stumbled upon a crate full of bottled water, the relief in my parched throat was all real.
If laser tag and paintball are the equivalent of competitive, multiplayer deathmatches, Patient 0 replicates the other major component of first-person shooter games: Action driven by linear narrative, in a co-operative campaign.
The research lab is actually a repurposed warehouse in Melbourne’s north. The zombies are actors in makeup, wearing sensors that react to the lasers fired by full-weight automatic rifles. The controllers, for better or worse, are your own bodies.
Turns out I'm not as agile as the average on-screen avatar. Getting ready, I fumble with the straps on my helmet, and the sergeant singles me out. Gamers are no strangers to having gruff army dudes shouting orders at them through their speakers, but it’s far more personal when he yells at me by name, berating me for being left-handed.
Soon we have our orders: Neutralize the infected staff members and discover the fate of Alpha Team. Sarge opens the door and our squad is ushered into the facility.
In the unnerving, relative quiet inside, our Comms Officer tests the radio, and we test-fire our weapons at cut-outs on the wall. It’s then that the illusion first wavers for me. The machine guns fire with a disappointingly dull sound, which I first assume means they aren’t working. The voice over the radio assures us that the guns are fine, and presses us onwards.
Thankfully it doesn’t bother me for very long. In the next room the rifles’ unsatisfying clicks are apparently enough to bring down the first zombie that runs screaming at us. From then on, my disbelief in the rather cheesy atmosphere, and my inelegant movements through it, is suspended.
I let myself believe that I, my girlfriend and friends are a ragtag team of mercenaries, who somehow made it through training despite gross incompetence. We’re probably the absolute last resort.
Ostensibly we were just there to kill zombies, but there was a pervasive sense that the story behind everything ran deeper than we were directly told.
The back-story-building began well before the mission, in a series of emails sent to us in character. Initially, the organisation employing us sent everyone a basic mission brief, but later, my girlfriend Sian and I received private messages from a splinter group, with conflicting motives. While the squad as a whole was tasked with destroying the infection, we had been ordered to covertly retrieve a sample of the virus. Doing so carefully, under the noses of the other team members, added an extra level of excitement to the proceedings.
As we progress through the facility, we discover side rooms containing the standard story source in games: Computer terminals (watch: first person footage). Behind a mini-game about completing DNA sequences, there are probably hidden text files or audio logs from characters. Sadly we don't find out – the first two computers crash to desktop before we finish. We begrudgingly move on, devoid of any deeper context for why we're here.
The third computer we find is behind a door marked "Lab", which the commander specifically warns us against entering. We stand there a minute, arguing over whether or not to go inside. Mysterious guiding radio-voices are narrative staples in games, and quite often the motives of these characters aren't immediately clear. Rebelling against them is a common plot point.
The game-players in us knew the terminal wouldn't be there without a reason. We hesitate as the voice insists we keep going, until a horde of zombies emerges to force us forward.
I'm curious about what we missed, but it's interesting to note that although we would readily disobey a virtual voice, we were less willing to go against direct orders when we knew it was a living person we'd be defying.
In hindsight, it's disappointing how much we seemed to miss, due to being rushed by the radio-voice. We could smell a story-cake on the premises, but we didn't get a full slice - the best we got was to lick the beaters.
We're not sure if the computer-crashes were our fault, but we do know we're responsible for shortening our encounters with ally characters, who were likely to fill in some narrative blanks.
The first was apparently a surviving staff member. An innocent researcher perhaps. We'll never know, because all we heard were her cries of "Help! Don't shoot!" followed by the sounds of shooting. And dying. Moral of the story: if you find yourself in need of help from tense, armed people, don't jump up suddenly and yell.
Later, we found ourselves caught between two survivors from Alpha Team, who no longer trusted each other. The first, callsign Basilisk, caught the attention of Sian and I: This was who had sent us the secret emails. We found ourselves on his side when he warned us of Raptor, his teammate up ahead who he claimed had become infected.
Confronting Raptor led to a stand-off, as she demanded we put down our weapons and warned us not to trust Basilisk. As we had received messages from Basilisk prior to the mission, I suspected that other team members might have been contacted by Raptor with another agenda.
Unfortunately our team leader made a snap decision, ending Raptor's usefulness as a narrative device.
By the end of the mission, we realized everyone had been given the same “secret” objective, with vials of virus hidden in different rooms. That sense of intra-team conflict that had seemed so fascinating while reading the supposedly-secret emails had never really existed.
It felt like a missed opportunity: The Basilisk/Raptor scenario seems perfectly set up to create conflict within the squad. What if some players were told to retrieve a sample, and others were told to prevent them? Instead of everyone receiving missions from Basilisk, dividing the team's loyalty between the two characters could have proven far more engaging.
A couple of other small niggles marred the event. For a facility apparently overrun with infected, there were surprisingly few zombies. Whether this was just the day or time we played, we aren't sure. Perhaps fewer zombies showed up for work that day? Do the undead demand overtime pay on Sundays?
The “mechanics” of the game weren't properly explained to us either. We knew the infected could injure us (electronically) if they got within three metres, but we weren't told that when that happens, the gun makes a sound very similar to its shooting sound.
At one point we gathered around a squad member who's rifle appeared to be malfunctioning, repeatedly firing itself. What we didn't realise was a zombie was just around the corner, and that was her taking damage.
I don't want to sound overly negative though. The feeling of playing a real-life video game is captured effectively (watch: first-person footage). The rooms are well designed, with plenty of hidey holes for zombies to emerge from, or to provide misdirection. Sets are decorated with delightfully kitschy shock value. Lighting is used to maximum effect, following the video game convention of guiding players to the next area. There's even a boss battle.
In short, Patient 0 is a uniquely entertaining experience that you simply can't get anywhere else. Flaws are to be expected in a project as ambitious as this, and considering it went from concept to execution in around six months, the end result is commendable.
And it's just the first offering from IRL Shooter. After it finishes its Melbourne run in February, it will do the rounds of other major Australian cities. After that, it's set to run again with a different show. And I will be waiting at the ready for our squad to be called back into action.
If you want to get involved, head to IRLShooter.com. Melbournites, act fast - Patient 0 is only in town until January 27th. There are currently plans to take the experience to Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, with no confirmed dates just yet. Sign up, register your interest and get amongst it - you know you want to...
This isn't LARP, this isn’t laser tag.
This is a video game in real life, this is IRL Shooter!
A gamer since the days of Lemmings and Wolfenstein, and a writer since Scamper the mouse in Grade Three, my two passions only met after a freak accident left them surgically inseparable. Follow @MikeIrvo.