E3: ZombiU plays with the power of unconscious decision making.


The last few years have brought a bounty of new evidence about how the subconscious guides our actions. Where this leaves the concept of free will is up for debate but we are discovering large parts of our lives run by the rote guidance of the unthinking mind. ZombiU dramatizes the stress between the conscious and unconscious mind, its most dramatic moments rooted in set pieces that require you to fixate on simple actions like moving items around your inventory and scanning environments while filling the background fills with intensified threats.

The idea is a perfect match for the Wii U’s secondary screen, which makes the controller a portal into storage boxes, lock-picking puzzles, and keypad punching while the television screen lurches with approaching zombies. Trying to figure out what is in a storage box and determining whether or not you have space in your own inventory to take it while the sounds of nearing death drift in from the screen you’re forced to look away from demands off-loading some form of information processing to the subconscious. 

There is no time to think through how close the zombies are based on the sound of their lowing and clumsy footsteps, instead you must operate by instinct, letting your unconscious mind run keep track of the countdown timer. 

The game’s permanent and punishing death system, which leaves your character dead after a single bite from a zombie, adds to the stress. After death you’ll come back to life as another character in a safe house. When you wander back out into the level you’ll be able to find your previous character’s body and, if you had any important items, you can loot your own corpse. If you wait too long, however, you’ll find you’re previous character has been risen again as a zombie, a scenario in which you’re basically fighting against all your former selves, and a subconscious reminder that all the other zombies are someone else’s former selves too.