This time, I survived.
The team behind DC Dead is back with a sequel to last year’s surprise interactive horror hit. Whereas last year’s version was something of a final goodbye to the New York Avenue Fort Fringe, this year’s version has moved east of the river to DC’s emerging theatre district in Anacostia. The last remnants of District humanity, or so we are told, are hunkered down in the Anacostia Playhouse. The ragtag band, each named for a different DC neighborhood, has largely given up on a cure and the mission has now turned to activating a rumored weapon of mass zombie destruction. But are we getting the whole story?
My review of last year’s version still largely holds true to the ups and downs of the concept. The gameplay is largely the same, as are the thrilling interactive highs, but so are the dangers for potential mishap. And yep, you’re still scrambling through narrow hallways dodging zombies playing a bloody game of tag, still shooting shambling actors in the head with Nerf darts, and I’m still maintaining that the DC Dead team would be wise to integrate liability waivers. I also maintain that it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
And it’s clearly struck a chord. According to director Vaughn Irving, the team is concurrently running a production in Oklahoma City, OKC Dead, based off last year’s script. DC zombie theatre has gone viral!
True to its name, Mutation is an evolution of the original concept, keeping the bones of last year’s experiment while adding more moments of player choice and tougher enemies. The world is fully immersive from the moment players enter the Playhouse to a rousing chant “Hoorah, new recruits!” Teams are still led by one of several NPC guides/referees tasked with both leading the players through the story and monitoring player actions for any potential rule or safety violations. I’d also say it’s dialed down the difficulty. Rather than the Left 4 Dead inspired hordes from last year, Mutation focuses more on stealth, timed puzzles and tougher individual zombies with the ability to regenerate. I have nothing new to report on last year’s mechanic of players turning into zombies if they take one too many bloody tags to their complementary white t-shirt armor, since my whole team of six made it through safely.
Whereas last year’s version was more reliant on haunted house-style jump scares, Mutation focuses more on group tension. Players are forced to make moral choices that effect the course of the story in a matter of seconds while under constant threat of attack. The effect reminds me of Telltale’s series of Walking Dead video games, which uses a similar mechanic. The regenerating zombies add a touch of suspense and tension, especially during puzzles, as at least one member of your squad had better keep that Nerf gun cocked and ready for movement. At one point during our run, a large zombie was downed right in front of a key puzzle piece, which meant gingerly walking over a corpse that may rise at any moment.
DC DEAD: MUTATION
October 8 – November 1, 2015
at Anacostia Playhouse
2020 Shannon Place SE
Tickets: $35 – $40
multiple performances per day
Details and Tickets
The DC Dead team is still clearly operating on a tight budget, and the set pieces still often look thrown together with stuff that was probably lying around the Playhouse. One wonders how much more immersive the experience would be if the building we’re wandering around looked a bit more like the lab we’re told we’re in.
As always, the eternal X-factor of any DC Dead run is your squad. My zombie killing partner and I were teamed by a super-enthusiastic and friendly crew with a tendency to gently push me up stairs if they thought I wasn’t ascending in sufficient haste. A year of experience has made the DC Dead team more experienced with potential wrenches thrown by player choice and behavior. Our own guide, Trinidad (a gruff, righteously-bearded Kyle MacGruther) was a gruff but gentle point man. At one point, a player on my squad actually gave her gun to an NPC, a completely left field act of charity that of course backfired almost immediately. But MacGruther was ready for that eventuality and, after some good-natured chiding, handed that seemingly doomed player a little one shot Nerf derringer. Nice touch.
So that makes two Halloween-season hits for DC Dead creators Vaughn Irving and Rex Daughtry. I’ll start stocking up on Nerf ammo for next year. Hoorah! (And godspeed, Oklahoma City.)
DC Dead: Mutation . Created by Vaughn Irving and Rex Daughtry . Directed by Vaughn Irving . Featuring Phil Reid, Kyle McGruther, Amanda Duchemin, Reginald Richard, Tamieka Chavis, Noah Schaefer, Devon Ross, Adam Harvley, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Ashley Lyles, Cambria Ungaro, Sarah Francis Williams, Denzell McCall, Davon Harris, Darren Marquardt . Set design: Rachel Witt Callahan . Lighting design: Paul Callahan . Stage manager: Jessica Short. Produced by DC Dead at the Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.