The makeshift barriers of trash are finally torn to pieces and the undead swarm across the courtyard of the post-apocalyptic rebel camp, grasping wildly for brains. I empty my clip into the faces of the horde clambering in from the front only to turn around and find another closing in from behind. Just minutes before the rescue helicopter arrives, General Asskick goes down in a heroic act of self-sacrifice so that his team of plucky NME survivors might get out of this freak-infested hell-hole alive.
We’ve all been there – on Netflix, in video arcades or in our more harrowing drug nightmares. But have you ever actually been there? Because in a 200 square foot warehouse unit in Wembley Boxpark, the zombie apocalypse is happening, virtually, every 15 minutes. And you can be right there in the middle of it, blasting the heads off the encroaching zombie hordes as they swarm around you or – crucially – running away.
For this is Zero Latency’s Zombie Survival game, part of the first free-roaming VR experience in the UK, created by MeetSpace VR in Wembley and Nottingham. Here, a team of up to eight players are dropped into the middle of a virtual garage-cum-stronghold and tasked with fighting off the hordes of zombies until help arrives in an arena which, unlike the more static VR experiences you might play at home, you can actually walk around. It’s essentially virtual zombie laser quest, or like stepping inside a House Of The Dead machine, and it breaks the final barrier of VR – you’re as fully immersed in this Walking Dead nightmare as you can be without something that used to be a riot policeman actually chewing out your liver.
Since MeetSpace opened their first Zero Latency centre in Melbourne – the Wembley site is the 41st to be opened in 20 countries around the world – CEO and Chief Zombie John Lilley has noticed the experience bring out what he calls “hidden assassins”. “They exist in most groups,” he says, “Your fight or flight instinct kicks in and you know how to do it, it’s so intuitive. When the technology disappears and you’re just in it and you hear people say ‘mind the step’ and ‘look out’ and ‘I’m going up a staircase’ people’s minds just get so immersed in what they’re doing that natural instincts take over.”
The origin of the idea was to use cutting-edge technology to create an entirely new type of social experience. “We just wanted a social experience, something we could all do together,” he explains. “I believe social VR needs a venue. You can do VR and be in the same game as someone else who’s also in their darkened bedroom but it’s just not very social. The picture in our head was we wanted to do paintball/Lazerquest, but in a strange world. I don‘t want to freeze my ass off in a forest in Surrey somewhere, I don’t want to run around a warehouse in a downtrodden bit of Guildford. I want to be in space, I want to be in the zombie apocalypse, I want to be in a city and I want to feel like we have to try and survive. You want to be able to be immersed in a situation that would be just too dangerous to do in real life, but have it feel real.”
Zero Latency’s games certainly do that, sometimes too well. Having narrowly caught the last chopper out of Entrailmunch City, the NME team – General Asskick, Headsmusher and a couple of using-their-real-name grunts – are transported into Singularity, the sci-fi game which involves working as a team to fight your way through waves of murderous robots while also traversing dizzying zero-gravity rooms and narrow walkways over a vast drop.
“Seeing people walk up a vertical wall in Singularity is brilliant because people have to combat some sense of fear,” Lilley says. “And walking across the bridge, where essentially you’ve got a chasm either side of you, and seeing people literally fail, going ‘can I do this?’ and then someone else going, ‘Yeah, come on, you can do it, you can do it’ and then they go and they make it and you hear that yelp of success – that will never grow tired.”
Have you had anyone have a real postal freak-out? “The one thing we did have where the person could not continue within a split second of going into the world, was a person suffering from agoraphobia. All of a sudden you go from a small briefing room to this massive world and that was too much.”
Having overcome the initial challenge of developing VR software that didn’t give the player motion sickness as they walk around, Lilley’s biggest challenge now is making social VR a regular team activity.
“It’s so unique as a social experience,” he says. “We’re not even a category yet. Probably over Christmas you all sat down and go, ‘what shall we do for a bit of a social?’ and you probably go ‘bowling, paintball, go-karting, race day, track day, get drunk, eat’. Social VR isn’t even in a category list yet. Escape rooms have worked their way into that, they’re a category of thing that people go and do together, but we’re still some way off it. We’re building a market, but everyone who comes along is thrilled that they were absorbed with something that they could play with their friends and be instinctively good at.”
Social VR isn’t a new phenomenon – US VR experience Void has been creating arenas that allow players to move around inside virtual worlds based on major movies including Star Wars, Jumanji, Avengers and Ghostbusters, among others. Lilley believes this will help VR become the cinema outing of the future.
“It will be a thing people do regularly,” he says. “I think it’ll be programmed a bit like the cinema. You’ll be saying ‘what’s on at MeetSpace VR this weekend?’ There’ll be more familiar IP where you can go and have the Jurassic Park Experience or the Alien Experience or the Call Of Duty Experience, etcetera.”
As the technology and software improves, Lilley can imagine the arenas getting bigger, until you could find yourself representing England in a full-sized, roaring virtual Wembley Stadium. But the Ready Player One dream of having fully immersive, free roaming VR in the home is still some way off, not least because people can’t be arsed clearing out their entire living room to play it.
“You’ve got to kick everybody off the TV, then you’ve got to set up your equipment, then you’ve got to set your sensors up and re-set-up the area you’re gonna play in,” he explains. “As soon as there is that inertia to overcome it tends to stay in the cupboard gathering dust. If you’re going to make it as immersive so you can really feel like you’re in space, you’d have to almost be implanting memories – it’s in your mind, a hallucination or a programmed feeling you’re getting. That’s a long way off. Our reason for existence is that it’s a social event that you do with your friends versus being in your home maybe playing against other players in other locations. I hope that as a human race we still value our social desire to be entertained together.”