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How fighting post-apocalyptic killers briefly made me forget my problems

How fighting post-apocalyptic killers briefly made me forget my problems

Writer Stewart Who? (right) on his interactive Wasteland Experience

On first learning of Zed events’ Wasteland Experience – an immersive live-action fantasy based a dystopian apocalypse – it was tempting to feel there’s no need for such follies when we’re already living it.

However, our current depressing existence feels like an insidious dystopia, almost tedious in its creeping digital surveillance and parlous politics.

This Wasteland Experience offers the chance to take it take to another level: The frightening future that might be just around the corner.

That vision is one of armed, marauding gangs scratching around in the rubble of capitalism, warped by bioterrorism and losing battle with resistant bacteria. It’s scary, because it’s entirely possible.

Secrets and zombies

The Wasteland Experience is housed in a defunct shopping precinct in the English town of Reading, Surrey – a short train ride out of London. A Saturday morning swish down the real high street for a Costa and a Greggs pasty led my friend to observe, ‘We are already in the zombie apocalypse’.

There’s an understandable level of secrecy to the plot and details of what the Wasteland Experience is gonna throw at you.

Surprise, incremental anxiety and a distinct lack of data added to the thrill of the ride.

When we were hustled into a concrete corridor and given a health and safety brief, it was difficult to quash a feeling that this might prove a terrible and fatal mistake. There was talk of abandoned lift shafts that could be tumbled into, uneven flooring, a ruptured roof, and a darkness that would only be punctured by the infa-red torches on our replica AK47 rifles.

‘If I don’t die, I’ll break my neck or have a heart attack,’ I thought, nodding along to fire exit procedures. There were stern warnings not to abuse the ‘actors’ physically or verbally, even if they’re wearing terrifying masks and whistling creepy tunes.

Guns and poses

They explained in great detail how the Wasteland guns worked; the different settings for how many bullets would be discharged, the process for changing the magazine and how much ammunition we’d have at our disposal. This bored me beyond belief.

I’ve never understood a passion for firearms. Nothing makes my eyes roll harder than discussions around military hardware or team activities. My friend didn’t fear boredom, but a mild terror descended regardless. He didn’t warm to the 70% darkness they kept mentioning.

He wasn’t alone in this concern, but rather than agree and make a double dash for the door, I told him it would be fun and we couldn’t justify trekking to Reading on a Saturday morning for nothing. We’d reached the end of the world and there was no going back.

Stewart Who? submits to the interactive game in a disused shopping mall
Stewart Who? submits to the interactive game in a disused shopping mall (Photo: Supplied)

Game on

Suddenly, we were in a room with an actor who whipped us into a state of frenzy with a story about the apocalyptic state of the country and a mission which involved combing the abandoned shopping centre for survivors, while looking out for unspecified enemies.

We were warned it might be hard to identify good from bad, so we should think before shooting. A lack of enthusiasm found me dawdling at the back of the group. This plan backfired when my strategic position led to a task. I was told to shout, ’Last man!’ every time we walked through a doorway.

‘Every doorway? I asked incredulously. We’d already been through four in the first five minutes and this seemed like a lot of work and responsibility. ‘For fuck’s sake, YES!’ she snapped, eyes wide at my lack of combat nous.

My first shout of, ‘Last man!’ after gingerly mincing through a doorway brought more fury from our team leader.

‘NOT THAT FUCKING LOUD,’ she hissed in frustration. ‘Do you want get us all killed?’

Trigger unhappy

She then became concerned that my failure to understand the most basic task meant my mere presence was a liability to both myself and fellow dystopian guerillas. While reassuring her that I wasn’t an idiot, I accidentally fired my rifle into the floor.

She lectured me on wasting ammo, as the rest of the group looked on anxiously. At this point, my yawning cynicism started to fade and a determination to search for the hero inside myself began to emerge. A switch had been flicked, I was IN the game.

It would be churlish to reveal what we experienced for the following 90 minutes. One doesn’t want to be a plot spoiler, but it involved lots running around and dealing with a succession of vignettes that ranged from disturbing hostage situations to explosive Mad Max style shoot outs.

There’s no denying it was enormous, exhausting fun. It’s almost impossible not to be a puppet to your own mix of survival instinct, imagination and adrenaline. You know it’s a game, but you still don’t want to be shot.

You know they’re an actor, but they’re howling or hiding and in the heat of the moment you respond to their level of commitment and hand yourself over.

Murder She Wrote

My friend, who almost dropped out through fear of the dark underwent an unexpected transformation. He became a swivel-eyed killer. Unprompted, he’d run ahead into dark, empty retail outlets, sweeping his rifle round the room like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

If nothing else, the Wasteland Experience is a sure way of getting a raw glimpse into your darkest recesses. Would you only shoot in self defence? How would you feel after killing an innocent civilian? Would you ditch a hostage to save yourself? Would you fire bullets into corpse just because you can?

Oddly enough, the darkness proved less chilling than the light. Empty department stores are creepy, a maze of shadows and soft carpets. But stepping into daylight was real and unnerving. Sunlight poured through the grimy atrium of the arcade and the hollow shops screamed decay and failure.

Even the graffiti on the dusty windows had faded with age, like street culture had died with the rest of humanity. Also, when someone chases you with a massive serrated knife, it’s far worse in bright daylight. The clarity is horrific. I screamed loudly and laughed often.

Some might find the experience far too frightening. Being physically fit helps, as there’s a lot of running around. It’s not a gig for light weights, cynics or people who enjoy peace and tranquility.

Paradoxically, it proved a soothing distraction for your truly. For 90 minutes, I forgot about my family’s cocktail of problems, the unopened bills on my doormat and issues with my own health and sanity.

The escape from the reality of my life was deep, hard and sometimes hilarious. It might not be everyone’s idea of a meditation, but it worked for me.

Follow Stewart Who? on Twitter

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