Playing Zombies

Back when we still had room for TVs and Xbox, there was one especially popular video game in the platoon. I don’t remember its official name; the guys just called it Zombies. The privates and E4s in the platoon, especially, were fucking obsessed with playing Zombies, a two-player game where you fought off relentless, successive waves of zombies in a bombed-out theater. The theater was bombed-out because the game was set amid a war, as though the stakes weren’t high enough already, and so the zombies were dead enemy soldiers come back to life. They arrived in waves. Each wave began with an ominous flash of lightning inside the ruined theater. Then came the horde. This return of the dead in waves—and the repeated cycle of fighting them and fighting them and fighting them—was the central premise, and our guys, who were simultaneously bored and stressed out, homesick and anxious, after six months of patrols in eastern Afghanistan, loved it.

I wasn’t very good at video games and didn’t much care to play them but sometimes I sat and watched, just to pass the time. The game was both thrilling and boring at once. And even the thrill was static. Each wave was tense and sometimes desperate but also short and manageable. Each victory was about the size of the last one. The game wasn’t advancing toward any larger goal except to reach the next wave, so any wave could doom the players but no particular one was the most important or the most supremely difficult. And none was final. It wasn’t about defeating the great villain at the end. It was about stamina, about who would relent first.

The best players in my squad were Specialists Rowe and Timmins. They succeeded because they had a system. After they killed a wave of zombies, and before the next wave attacked, the action sort of paused for one or two minutes, and they used this pause to reset themselves. Between the first few waves, they acquired better and better weapons until they had the most destructive ones. Then they stockpiled ammo. They got organized, then killed zombies. They gathered ammo. Killed zombies. Replenished. You had to communicate, was the thing. If Rowe was attacked by zombies and injured, he would call out his status, and Timmins would say I got you, and cover him while he ran to another part of the theater to find more health, which came in these cans of energy drink, for some reason, so if Rowe was hemorrhaging all over because zombies had clawed and thrashed at him, he had to hurry around the theater and find a can of energy drink and chug it down, which stopped the bleeding. And the break between waves of zombies was short, so he had to move with a sense of purpose. Then prepare for the lightning, and the horde.

To give the game a little variety, some of the waves featured zombie dogs. The dogs moved faster than the human zombies and travelled in packs. Every fourth or fifth wave had zombie dogs, and the lightning flashed brighter for those waves, and getting through them was somewhat trickier. Timmins would say, Okay get ready, here they come. Then zombie dogs would come rushing from the corners of the stage, or hurtling down the aisles and Rowe would shout, Dogs! I got dogs! Because you had to communicate.

The thing about the game was that no one believed it could be beaten. Everyone figured the waves of zombies went on forever, and the platoon competed to see who could endure the most waves. The highest score in the platoon kept changing, kept getting bumped higher and higher. Twenty-five waves. Thirty. Thirty-six. On and on. Every time the high score got bumped up, Rowe and Timmins would hunker down and start with wave zero and set up their pattern, get their rhythm going, and try for a new top score. Hours and hours and hours went by like that. Months went by.

Then something awful happened: Two guys in Third Squad beat the game. Just like that. They found a better system for replenishing ammo and health. They found a rhythm, and the rhythm was perfect. They killed packs of zombie dogs. They found cans of energy drink to stop the hemorrhaging. And after some ridiculous number of waves, there were simply no more zombies to kill and no more lightning and no more hurtling zombie dogs. A screen appeared announcing that the game was over.

The news traveled quickly, to Second Squad, First Squad, and the leadership. A mixture of panic and bewilderment ripped through the platoon. Everyone rushed over to Third Squad’s hut. We crowded around the TV so each person could see for himself. Doc Riley took a picture of the screen, like it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Even the lieutenant came over and stared at the screen with his arms crossed. Eventually he said, you guys are fuckin idiots, and he walked away, but everyone got the sense that deep down, even the lieutenant was astonished.

After that, though, nobody wanted to play Zombies anymore. The game was ruined. It was only worth playing if the zombie horde went on forever. That made sense. But if the game suddenly ended after an arbitrary number of waves, it didn’t matter anymore. An ending implied trajectory, which implied that something had been changing over the waves, advancing or evolving toward some goal, and that obviously wasn’t true—the allure of the game was its pure repetition. Now the game had ended but without any sense of achievement, and further, it disrupted the achievement it had instilled all along. The guys thought the point of the game was to keep it going, and as long as they kept it going they were succeeding. Conclusion was precisely the thing the game had taught them to resist.

Reluctantly, the platoon turned to Guitar Hero. There was a month or so of some truly despondent Guitar Hero, the guys dutifully working through songs, doing each one until they could play it without a missed note. If they missed a note, they quit the song and started over—all rote timing and a little dexterity. I sat in my room reading or watching movies on my laptop while the songs spilled through our squad hut. My rifle hung by its sling from a nail in the wall. A magazine was always loaded. One day back home, Specialist Timmins’s kid was born. One day at the Pakistani border, Rowe and Timmins together entered ninety-seven local men into the biometrics database, scanning each of the men’s fingerprints and irises, recording their names and places of birth. Ninety-seven entries was a platoon record by far, and our squad leader put them in for an award which they didn’t get. Months went by. One day we learned we were moving to a new outpost in a distant valley in a remoter part of Afghanistan. In this new valley there would not be room for TV or Xbox, so guys sold their systems to the new unit which had arrived to replace us, and this new group gladly bought our things and hung their rifles on the same nails and we were right not to believe in endings.

Steven Moore received his MFA in nonfiction writing from Oregon State University. His essays have recently appeared in The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, and BOAAT, among other journals.