Launched in 2009, Chatroulette is a symbol for all that is simultaneously great and awful about the Internet: from access to different people across the world to, well, some pretty lewd self-promotion. Unrestricted content and anonymity rarely produce good outcomes, and for this reason Chatroulette has more or less become the red-light district—or at least the Vegas Strip—of the Internet
But Chatroulette’s platform—random video pairing—has also provided the foundation for something wonderful and creative: an interactive, live-action, first-person zombie shooter. Produced by the British independent film company Realm Pictures, the game takes place in the company’s backyard—a conveniently creepy church where gravestones and hedgerows and religious paraphernalia abound.
Unsuspecting chatters are suddenly prompted with an enticing “Type [Start] To Begin.” Each looks totally baffled. Expecting the“Ew-oh-god” miscreant, they instead get a FPS-HUD.
The hero is trapped in a mausoleum. He clenches and unclenches his fists in anticipation. A zombie-monk lies passed out on the floor, dangerously close to a set of keys. The door is jammed.
“You gonna help me or what?” comes a gruff voice from the other end of the Internet.
Pulling off this experience was no easy feat. Collaborating with Red House Mysteries—a creative group that designs escape-room challenges—Realm painted nerf guns as assault rifles, made up locals as zombies, and decked out one cosplayer’s space marine costume with a massive demon mask.
And while the superficial features of the project created a fantastically immersive experience, it ultimately came down to a seriously impressive amount of computing power and innovative technological solutions to pull it all off.
Watching the behind-the-scenes video is almost as fascinating as the end product itself. Creative Director David Reynolds speaks quickly with his hands, jumping about and building a sense of creative energy and excitement as he explains the first-person POV during the spare minutes of production. The process is more like a baton relay than a simple live feed.
Reynolds shows off a motorcycle helmet–mounted Go-Pro, which sends HDMI to be converted and streamed by a box mounted to the forehead. The box converter then streams the video out to a wireless router, which is—get this—attached to the back of a zombie running thirty feet behind the hero, before finally making its way up to the control room in the church.
The “nerve center,” as they call it, looks like a NASA command center. You can barely count the number of screens on one hand. With an interface overlay, live mic (for the hero’s voice), and a soundboard of almost fifty sounds, the game all comes together when the final screen in the room logs into Chatroulette.
“This is the best place to be,” Reynolds says, sitting in front of the computer, “because you get to see everything coming together and you can see, live, the reaction of the person freaking out when they realize they’re in control of this space warrior in a tomb full of zombies.”
In the viral video, currently sitting at 7.5 million views on YouTube, players hesitate as zombies chase the hero around the backyard. Seasoned gamers are savvy enough to know to look in pots and tombs for hidden weapons, while everyone else shouts out whatever solution comes to mind, often leading to zombie pig piles, failed attempts at leaping over blockades, or in one case, the ludicrous suggestion to shoot a guy accidentally caught on camera next door while unloading groceries from the back of his station wagon.
If the player reacts quickly enough to the “programmed” ambushes and roadblocks, however, they reach the final boss—a towering demon with a massive axe standing above the church’s pulpit.
Upon felling the behemoth, the camera switches and the players are greeted by the team. Everybody waves, and they chat briefly—mostly in exasperated disbelief, perhaps dazzled as the team camera confirms that this had been a real production. But in the randomized ebb and flow that is Chatroullete, the player must ultimately relinquish the controls to the next chatter in line.