A Zombie Survival Game Saved My Life

My bed was once an ocean. A Queen-sized red sheet strapped along a yellowed mattress, worn down and weathered by a generation. Kept too long past the childhood it served that bed I had hauled from Brampton, Ontario to Toronto, Ontario was one of the few familiar fragments I had, in the room where I spent the summer of 2017.

A series of circumstances from beyond my control had thrusted me to a room in a shared house in mid-Toronto. It was tucked between a run down commercial district snarled by construction and the dying remnants of the Toronto suburban dream: in this neighbourhood the droning buzz of early summer still blanketed young families with driveways and kids as they spent nights at the park. All of this was watched over only by the billboards advertising the future condos that would cast shadows on the still running splash pads.

I spent a great deal of time in that bed with that buzz outside my window.  I won’t explain what anxiety is, by now you’re aware, I’ll just say mine is the type that is delivered in unanswered emails with vague subject lines, the type that diminishes a former A-type personality to the bench. In my life there is an overwhelming sense that I was scouted once sure, but now I’m more likely to be asked exactly why I can’t seem to shoot the ball with the same poise that got me here. A question to which I have few answers.

The long, long spiral downward

The year before I had crashed. Laid off from my third media job in four years, picking up the remnants of a jarring year in student politics and a growing sense my relationship to who I thought was the one was faltering. An erosive and overwhelming sense of failure eclipsed my every thought and move. I drowned myself in podcasts and that ocean of bed as a response. I had little energy for much else.

There is a grinding sense of inability that strikes at mine. It holds the monumental failures so plainly in your every thought that the smaller habits of one’s life become in themselves impossible. Each time I can limber off to the grocery store would be a success, if I could send a single email seeking a job, another. Calling home, calling a friend, sometimes rising and showering before noon - all triumphs followed by periods of stagnant recovery.

How to build an anxiety simulator

Games take us to places not possible. Pixelated landscapes are limited only by the imaginations of those who code them. It’s in my darkest periods of my life then that I seem to fall into the escapism with urgency. Last summer in the days I couldn’t quite make it beyond the drywall barrier of my sublet to the real world I leaned into my own in 7 Days To Die.

7 Days for some reason plays like no other game I’ve ever experienced. There is an existential dread that creeps into every moment of the game’s play which, while mostly just a fun time playing in co-op with a friend turns into an active onslaught of angst when tackled alone.

You are a drop in a procedurally generated sandbox designed to kill you. You could starve, die of thirst, be stripped by exposure or have your neck gored by a wandering zombie at any single moment. Each 7 day cycle to, counted down in the top corner and true to the title, was marked by a red moon and a plague of undead who will hone in our your location no matter how embedded in fortifications you may be.

Unlike most survival horror games however the anxiety is not coded in spectacle, there are no screeching sirens of warning and there is no swelling orchestra meant to premeditate fear or alertness. One moment you are scaling the sandbox’s sprawling geometry while gathering supplies and the next you’re in a pit being torn apart by monsters. In effect there is no designated time to experience anxiety, and no designated time to break from it. It’s merely omnipresent, hanging over you at all times whether you are on a walkabout in the daylight collecting supplies or hunkered down in a wood box while tortured screams echo around you in the night.

Zombies saved me

Much has been written on games as anxiety simulators. What’s interesting to me is how the tools and coping mechanisms of combatting anxiety in-game can sometimes connect so closely with the same tools in real life. When your real-world anxiousness is so rooted in life’s big failures being ever-present, and when it manifests itself in the staggering inability to tackle a structured day-to-day there is an appeal in the 7 Days formula.

Here we see a larger goal, of surviving the next day-7 horde combatted not by monumental and singular acts of violence but instead in the labour that occurs in the week beforehand. Simply put if one does not ration, gather, and build up the walls they need before the red moon hits you’re dead. It’s wonderful then how necessary a regimented schedule is to surviving the zombie apocalypse. 

And when such a schedule is so elusive to those strangled by anxiety it’s a special gift to be able to experiment with one in a world with a reset button. Developing the habits needed to survive is a liberating experience when if such habits can come crashing down with no further consequence than a game over screen. As I played 7 Days the zombie hoards camped in the pockets surrounding my character became their own metaphor for the fears that snarled me in the real world. While he slowly and methodically built up the reinforced concrete walls needed to shelter him I noticed too the confidence to rebuild my own.