Date Night With the Zombies

Why battling the undead with my partner via a two-player Playstation game makes for surprisingly fulfilling quality time together

Bryan’s avatar and mine, in mutual portraits (Matt Thompson)

I am watching, helpless and terrified, as the love of my life is beset by a raging pack of zombies intent on tearing him apart. I feel cowardly and ashamed, perched as I am on a platform far above him. While he was down in the trenches, fortifying the pillars that lead up into our base, I was up on this bridge smelting iron, and now all I can do is pluck lamely at my bow and arrows, trying to pick off a zombie here and there while he fights desperately for his life.

As I sit gasping on the edge of my seat, I’m surprised by the intensity of my adrenaline and terror. There may be zombies on screen, but in real life, we’re in no danger. We’re in the comfort of our living room, seated in front of our Playstation 4, playing a wonderful, unpolished game called 7 Days to Die.

In the nearly nine years of our romance, we’ve gotten better over time at finding the experiences we enjoy most together, dates that balance our very different enthusiasms. We don’t just game together: This year we’ve hiked together in Rock Creek Park, and strolled down Provincetown’s Commercial Street in skirts and corsets. I took him to see Hamilton on Valentine’s Day; for my birthday, he swept me off to Brooklyn for a performance of a lovely, immersive play called Then She Fell. We’ve come a long way from our first date, when I took him to a seafood lunch, not knowing his distaste for anything that comes from the ocean. But few dates have been as mutually enthralling for us as this game that was released to Playstation just this June but has already devoured hours of our time.

These types of collaborative, two-player, side-by-side (“couch co-op”) games seem to be a rarer and rarer breed in the age of massively multiplayer online questing. But I’ve always been a sucker for couch co-op, ever since the days in grade school when my cousin and I would spend whole days in our pajamas playing Secret of Mana together on my Super Nintendo. And even when my boyfriend and I find a couch co-op game, it’s not always a fit for our very different styles of play: While I want a dramatic story with vivid characters, he wants nothing more than to speed past the boring dialogue and mash some bad guys in the face. A few games succeed at scratching both of these itches, but none as satisfyingly as this one.

The past few years have given rise to a boomlet in games like 7 Days to Die that occupy a very specific niche: the survival horror crafting game. Games in this subgenre—which include DayZ, Rust, Fallout 4, and (to a lesser extent) Don’t Starve—tend to marry the thrills and aesthetics of Resident Evil with the strategy and creativity of Minecraft. The premise of 7 Days to Die is simple: You scour the game world for resources to fortify yourself against a raging zombie horde that descends upon you every seven days. (You have the option to define the length of a day in the game, up to a couple of hours. So “seven days” in-game might mean as much as 14 hours in actual time.) But atop that basic premise, the game’s makers have built a surprisingly complex and complementary set of mechanics.

Because zombies become more prolific and aggressive at night, you might spend your days roaming a randomly generated game world, fending off scattered zombies and stalking pigs and deer for food. Or you might choose to follow a derelict road into an abandoned town, where you can scour bookstores and hardware shops for vital knowledge and supplies. At night, when the zombies are out in force, you can stick close to your base, making random repairs and fortifications, or meditatively tapping stones underground to mine for iron. On the evening of the seventh day, you find yourself in a tower defense game, hoping against hope that your walls will stand against a zombie onslaught. Having a partner by your side effectively boosts your chances of survival—one of you can scavenge while the other tends the mine, or you can venture out together and watch one another’s back. All of this makes for a varied, enjoyable game … if you can get past its instability.

The biggest knock against 7 Days to Die, particularly on consoles, is the surfeit of bugs that plague the game, some of which are potentially fatal to its enjoyment. Online forums warn against playing as two of the characters on offer for PS4 (Clint and Miguel), because of a bug that sometimes prevents the game from loading a save from either of those characters. Reports abound of players unable to load games after spending dozens of hours building forts and leveling up. The game’s menus, ported over from PC editions that were built for a mouse and cursor, can be cussedly slow to navigate with a console controller. The longer we’ve played the game, the more it seems to lag, crash, and jitter.

The game began its life after a successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign that brought its developers, “The Fun Pimps,” half a million dollars. They released an early build on Steam a few months later, joining the increasingly popular practice of releasing games to eager players before development is finished and the bugs are hammered out, in part so developers can learn from player behavior and adapt the game in response. Now, nearly three years later, the game is still in alpha—that is, not yet even beta—form, and the lack of polish often shows.

Still, for all its flaws, I find myself grateful for this game, at worst a welcome distraction from a litany of depressing headlines, and at best an experience I can savor with a person I love, an experience that reveals and reinforces new dimensions of our personalities and our relationship. And I’m not the only one who treats the game as addictively entertaining couples therapy. One Redditor told a story of looking on in admiration as, right before his eyes, his wife became a bloodthirsty zombie slayer. “I look over to her [in real life] and she is literally bouncing on the sofa,” the user wrote, “a grin as big as the sun spread across her face.”

The intimacy of couch co-op, the pleasure of playing side-by-side with one’s partner, makes moments like that one possible, but it presents certain tradeoffs. The only reason my partner and I can play this game this way is that we forked out the money a while ago to buy a television large enough to make split-screen gameplay tolerable. Winda Benedetti, who writes about games for NBC News, made a different choice with her husband: They opted to buy two Xboxes, so they could play Borderlands together on separate screens. (They made the sensible calculation that the dual setups would be more cost-effective than hours of couples therapy.)

Other couples may get more out of beat-em-up games like Super Smash Bros, or MMOs such as World of Warcraft. The web is rife with lists of good games for couples; the comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his partner Emily Gordon even have a podcast about gaming together. Part of the reason 7 Days to Die has resonated so strongly with my partner and me is that the slow, laborious task of building our base has been a project—like cooking a complicated recipe—that brings into vivid focus our traits, our differences, and the ways we complement one another.

In life, as in the game, my love is reckless and impetuous, endlessly sweet and giving, but completely unabashed about confrontation. He’s the person I yell out for when the presence of a large insect has rendered me immobile, and he always takes care of it with a smile. I, on the other hand, am cautious and diplomatic, wary of public discord, prone to biting my tongue. We still sometimes find a little dark humor in the moment years ago when I had to come down to the street from our apartment and smooth things over with a police officer who was nearly at the point of putting him in handcuffs, after pulling him over for a minor traffic offense. He swore he wasn’t in the wrong, I told him to contest the matter in court rather than yelling at the nice officer, and he escaped with a warning. How often is it, I joke with him now, that a white guy in D.C. calls a black guy who’s not his lawyer to make sure the cops don’t haul him in?

There, on the couch, playing 7 Days to Die, I held my breath as my reckless, impetuous partner, who’d been down in the trenches of our base doing valuable but perilous scut work, fought off the zombies pressing in relentlessly from every side. I exhaled in relief when he miraculously found an alcove to duck into, out of their reach, and I managed to dispatch the remaining zombies from my perch far above. Or so I thought. He stepped out of the alcove, bruised and close to death, and surprise: Another trio of zombies was waiting in ambush, and he was overwhelmed. His character respawned at a distant location with a little less health and a missing toolbelt.

He sat back on the couch, somewhat spent. With inklings of dread in his voice, he cautiously broached a subject he worried might be delicate. The episode with the zombies had reinforced his fear that we might have to abandon the base we’d built and start anew with a different plan, in a different location, scrapping hours of work. But in my mind, I was already sketching out designs for a new fort, and I was, more than anything, excited to build it with him at my side. I found myself beaming at him in admiration.

“You’re brave,” I told him. And I meant it. With him, I’d take on the apocalypse.