Walking the Death Road

At the end of the day, the group hides in a [draughty] old house. Some zombies roam around outside, and the doors of the house are barely on their hinges.

Should someone barricade the house?*

Death Road to Canada starts in Florida, in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The player controls a small party of survivors, and the goal is to make it to the safety of the Canadian border.

I spent eight weeks playing Death Road. I would wake, read the news, go to work, come home and play the game.

Hostility to the ban on single-use plastic bags has been stronger than expected.**

The player is required to manage the group’s food and provisions, and this is no easy feat. A working car is essential: suffer a breakdown, or run out of fuel, and the group will need to walk until they can locate another ride. On foot, the group is more vulnerable to zombies, bandits and wild animals. Trading camps provide an opportunity to swap food for weapons, to exchange supplies for character stat upgrades, or to recruit a new party member.

Unlike the gritty realism of recent television fare such as The Walking Dead and The Handmaid’s Tale, Death Road plays the apocalypse for comic effect. In tone, it’s closer to the 2006 film Idiocracy, or The Fifth Element, or the 1993 Super Mario Brothers movie. Forebears in the gaming world might include the early Duke Nukem platformers, before Duke became 3D and misogynistic. In Death Road, colourful pixel art and jaunty music serve as a backdrop for improbable events and zany characters.

A bee flies into the car! Even with the window open, it doesn’t leave. It keeps flying right into the group’s faces!

This could be the biggest challenge yet!*

But underlying the silliness and the absurdity, there is a pervasive sense of grief. In the mid- to late-game, maintaining the party’s morale becomes increasingly difficult. Characters bicker among themselves. They sulk. A night without food or sleep will leave them upset, and they can become angry and morose for no discernible reason. They remember what has been lost.

You wake up and learn that humans have killed 83% of all wild mammals on Earth. There is nothing to be done – it is just a fact.**

The player is given frequent opportunities to scavenge for supplies. Avoiding zombies is relatively easy – until, with little warning, it isn’t. Looting an office building for first aid materials, the player’s team might get stuck in a closet or bathroom with only one exit. The arrival of a swarm at the wrong moment, too thick to fight through, will seal the party’s fate.

Because of this, the game has a random, capricious feeling. As is common in the ‘roguelike’ subgenre of roleplaying games, progress cannot be saved, and death is permanent. If the party wipes out, it’s game over and back to Florida to start the journey all over again.

The group spots an extra tall pile of garbage near some buildings. It’s maybe over 12 feet tall. Littering got pretty bad near the collapse of civilization. An Extra Large Can O’ Baked Beans is stuck near the top of the pile. It shines like a beacon of hope.

– Leave it alone.

– Climb garbage pile.

– Smash garbage pile.

– Eat garbage pile.*

With limited information, the player is forced to make choices that will affect her odds of survival. When camping overnight, should the group plan for the next day, or stay up telling ghost stories? When a naked man wearing a horse mask approaches, should the group run away, or try to recruit him? The consequences of these decisions feel entirely unpredictable.

A nihilistic freedom accompanies the breakdown of the old ways. An abandoned golf driving range can be re-purposed as an anti-zombie fortification. A genie will materialise and grant wishes if you check enough toilets for loot. Amongst the wreckage, there is potential.

As the Arctic ice cap recedes, oil and gas companies are racing to profit from new exploration sites.**

At night, I dreamed about zombies. This sometimes happens with games I overplay. Decades ago, as a teenager, I would close my eyes and see the familiar alien forms of the Protoss and Zerg from Starcraft. Sleeping, my brain would re-work tactical scenarios, trying to find solutions to puzzles that had eluded me while conscious.

My undead dreams would break in strange ways, and morph, and omit whole scenes. Dreams are like that; awake, it was not so different. The more I played Death Road, the more I started to notice the absurd in the world outside the game. The dots did not join up.

While trekking through the woods, the group gets pretty lost. If they keep going like this, they’ll waste a lot of time.*

On Gumtree, I offered my old Ikea dining table free to a good home. A university student, recently moved into his first share house, came around to collect it. He didn’t have a car, or any idea about how he might get the table back to his place. I was baffled: this guy had decided that he wanted the table, but he’d given no thought at all to what would happen next. When this critical failure became apparent, as we leaned over the heavy piece of furniture he wanted to take, but could not, his face crinkled in embarrassment. He seemed so pathetic, so ill-equipped to navigate the world, that I packed up the table and drove it, and him, back to his apartment on the other side of town. I showed him how to put it back together.

Japan is in mourning after learning of the death of Rabio, the psychic octopus. Rabio predicted that Japan would win its first three World Cup soccer matches. Rabio was killed and sold as sashimi following the Japan-Poland game.**

My day job involved drafting contracts for business deals that were always changing. My role, like the cartographers in Peter Carey’s short story, ‘Do You Love Me’, was to ‘know the extent of the nation, to know, exactly, the shape of the coastline, to hear what land may have been lost to the sea, to know what has been reclaimed and what is still in doubt.’ But like the cartographers, my maps were flawed, out of date even before they were completed. The maps did not dictate the features of the land: we had the causation running backwards.

The group gets frustrated because the CD player in the car is jammed, playing the same song over and over again. Who should try to repair it?*

When I started playing Death Road, I felt anxious. The game can be unforgiving, and because most choices lead to unguessable outcomes, there is a constant sense of being one wrong move away from failure. It’s always a struggle to find enough food to support the party.

The British Poultry Council has warned that a lack of industrial carbon dioxide could interfere with chicken processing. ‘With the supply of CO2 tightened across Europe, the BPC is calling on government and major gas producers to prioritise supplies to slaughterhouses and keep the food chain moving.’**

A few weeks in, my anxiety faded and was replaced by a mild euphoria that compelled me to keep playing. The journey was everything. I resigned myself to fate, or at least the harsh, ironic version of fate depicted in the game. I accepted that some of my characters would not make it all the way to Canada. By this stage I was playing for three or four hours each night, and even more on the weekends. When I made it to the northern border, or when my group was brought down and consumed by the undead horde, I would start again.

The ‘Think of the Children’ brigade have this much right: a computer game is qualitatively different to television. The interactivity pulls at a player. The twitch of muscle memory as one guides a character around a screen forges an emotional bond. The player is tethered to his avatar, this careful arrangement of sixty pixels on a screen.

The group finds an empty spot along the road that looks as good as any. The weather is clear and there’s no sign of danger in any direction.*

Still, more than the life of any one individual, it’s the continued survival of the party that is paramount. And there were times when it became advantageous to allow a straggler to fall behind, to be picked off by the mob, to divert attention from the rest of the group as they made their escape.

One hundred hours logged, and the road became endless. Infinite zombies stood between me and my goal. But always there were ways to advance. Opportunities to survive one more day.

A Tamil family has won a last-minute injunction that prevents their deportation from Australia. When approached for comment, The Department of Home Affairs stated that the family’s case had been assessed, and does not meet Australia’s protection obligations. The Department intends to fight the ruling.**

One night, after work but before I sat down at the computer, I found myself staring at the fruit bowl in our kitchen. Four yellow citruses huddled together, a squad, as if seeking reassurance in the touch of their neighbours’ bodies. Were they lemons? They were very small. The dimples on their skins were all wrong.

My partner noticed me looking, and explained that these were limes with yellow skins that she’d been given by a friend who kept a garden. ‘Huh,’ I grunted.

My gaze shifted to a bunch of bananas. I remember that they were unripe. They had a greenish tinge. And unbidden, I thought: I wonder what kind of fruit those really are? And then, right away, I realised that this was a strange thought to have when looking at a bunch of bananas.

Alvis is walking along the road when he is suddenly mauled by a feral cat! Feral cats coat the United States after the zombocalypse. You never see them, but they’re always watching. Waiting for any weakness.*

The news from overseas became harder and harder to process. It defied all norms and conventions. It was untethered from the real.

President Trump has asserted that he can pardon himself for any crime. Do you:

– Jump on Twitter and argue the finer points of US constitutional law.

– Do your best to think about something else.

– Resist! … By baking a cake shaped like the scales of justice.**

In Death Road, it’s often the risky, seemingly low-percentage plays that yield rewards.

At work, I became sceptical that any arrangement between persons (natural or legal) could ever be reduced to writing. Intentions, actions, cause and effect – these things were too frail to survive interrogation. Or perhaps the world had become too layered and dynamic for humans – we slow sacs of meat – to comprehend.

Outdoors, commuting, I questioned whether any of my actions had predictable consequences. What if I stop sleeping? What if I only eat pumpkin for a week? What if I walk out into traffic? Are these the keys to finding a positive breakthrough? An end to the shuffle?

The group finds a large campsite that is occupied by a few carloads of other survivors. Camping with strangers is risky, but there’s nowhere else to go.

None are heading to Canada.*

After eight weeks, I knew I had to stop playing. The game was fun, but it wasn’t healthy.

Now, months later, I no longer dream about zombies. Everything is back to normal.


* Excerpts from Death Road to Canada, 2016, Rocketcat Games

** Real events


Image: Screenshot from Death Road to Canada

Andrew Roff

Andrew Roff is a writer living on the unceded Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. His short fiction and non-fiction has appeared widely, and his debut short story collection, The Teeth of a Slow Machine, is published by Wakefield Press. He can be found on BlueSky and X/Twitter at @roffwrites.

More by Andrew Roff ›

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