UPDATE: Season 2 is now available. Click here for my initial thoughts on the new features and storylines!
Ahh, long-distance running… The fine art of destroying your cartilage and killing your weekend social life all for the sake of a $0.95 hunk of metal (which cost you anywhere from $80 to $200) shoved in your face at the end of a race, a bunch of overpriced snapshots of you crossing the finish line while making a pose and expression like you’re engaging in something akin to a full-body dry heave, and a bunch of REALLY bored and annoyed friends, family, and coworkers who are beyond exasperated at the prospect of hearing Yet. Another. Running. Story. from your entitled ass, simply because you utterly believe that if you put in the time, mileage, and energy, every other lazy-ass you come across is simply riveted by your “inspirational” home-spun tales of pain, purpose, and punishment.
BTW Runners: you know that horror that crosses your soul like the Angel of Death skimming across the surface of a Scottish loch on its way to carry victims of the plague off to the Shadowlands in a danse macabre that would make Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow pep up and say “Wolne!”? The same feeling you get when you’re at a dinner party at someone’s house and they announce they are going to show slides of their last vacation or of some bratty kid’s kindergarten graduation? THAT’S what happens when you try to regale non-runners with your running stories. Ix-nay on the unning-ray ories-stay. Unless you want to stop going to dinner parties entirely, a feeling with which I can utterly empathize.
Well… anyway, running is wonderful hobby, pastime, sport, activity, mid-life crisis diffuser, etc., but if you want to be serious about it, you need to put in those long runs. And that means a time commitment, and THAT means, if you’re any kind of scatterbrain like I am, you’re gonna get bored. That “Runner’s High” you hear so much about? It only takes you so far, maybe a block-and-a-half if you’re lucky.
Usually this is ameliorated by your music, podcasts, audiobooks, radio, or portable audio in general. I’ve never been able to run without my tunes, even though any kind of headphones are frowned upon by running groups or “serious” runners, who view them as a safety issue, a distraction from the race, an impediment vis-a-vis other runners who you won’t be able to hear as they try to pass you, and so on. Personally, I’ve never had this issue. I don’t blast my tunes loud enough to keep me from hearing other runners, people around me, cars creeping up, etc. The biggest problem seems to be jerky runners who don’t quite understand that you shouldn’t run three abreast on a bridge running lane which is accommodating two-way traffic, headphones or no headphones. But that’s a kanish for another deli…
Anyway, I need my tunes, but even though my handpicked playlist has hundreds of songs, enough to ensure that a shuffled playlist will be extremely different enough every time, often you still need something wholly other to spice things up. Something to engage you on both a physical and mentally engaging level. Enter Zombies, Run!, a smartphone app developed by Six to Start with novelist Naomi Alderman, that integrates your training runs into a compelling apocalyptic storyline involving zombies, militant survivalism, and two zany DJs who just can’t get enough of each other.
The game is billed as an “audio adventure”. The concept is simple enough: you play the part of “Runner 5”, a character who, as the game begins, survives a helicopter crash that was en route delivering supplies to Abel Township, a human outpost in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. You’re all alone, miles away from Abel, and the swarming hordes of the living dead are closing in your position. Your only companion is chirpy radio operator Sam Yao, who gives you instructions via radio broadcasts on which direction to run, what you need to pick up along the way, and an occasional horrible pun here and there.
During this first mission, Sam informs you that there is a nearby hospital, and inside somewhere is a CDC box that contains critical information about the zombie outbreak. Sam directs you to the hospital, warns you of the zombies’ locations, and provides helpful advice and encouragement. Meanwhile, the more you run, the more supplies you’ll pick up along the way; stuff like baseball bats, bandages, first aid kits, batteries, bottled water, sports bras, etc. The more you pick up, the more you’ll be able to improve your home base (more on that in a bit).
So it’s a fascinating and really fun story, but what does this mean to YOU, the person actually doing the physical running? You just RUN, period. You don’t have to interact with your phone, no buttons to push, no data to evaluate, you never even have do ANYTHING with your phone at all. Your phone’s GPS will handle the data interaction with the game. It will act as your basic running tracking app: time, pace, location, calories, map routing, it handles almost everything my Endomondo did, and uploads it to the Zombies, Run! website so you can have a complete running history every time you play the game. Each mission is flexible enough to be played over either a 30-minute or a 60-minute run.
Now here’s an even cooler part: you can integrate your music playlists into the game! You can select your desired playlist in the game settings, set it to shuffle mode if you want (I always do), and then start playing. The mission audio will set up the story for you, and then after the initial broadcast your playlist will start playing. Depending on if you’re doing the 30- or 60-minute version, the next radio broadcast from Abel Township will occur in the breaks between every song or every other song. It’s quite the novel concept, and, depending on the type of music you listen to during your training, can lead to some pretty awesome musical cues. For example, in Mission 1, Sam Yao informs you that the zombie horde is closing in on you. His voice gets panicked, then worried, then finally insistent. “Run… run!!” he screams as the horde descends upon the helicopter crash site. Almost immediately, the program cut into the opening riff of Megadeth’s “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” and that was all the motivation I needed. When you manage to find supplies, the game notifies you with quick updates mid-song. Again, you don’t need to physically interact with your phone while playing Zombies, Run! — this is an entirely hands-free experience.
But wait! It gets even cooler! If you choose to use your phone’s accelerometer, you can experience random Zombie attacks during your run. A creepy mechanized voice will suddenly emerge mid-song and announce, “Zombies detected within 100 yards…” Now you’re going to need to do some intervals. During these moments, you have to increase your pace in order to escape the roving, hungry hordes of the damned. If you don’t increase fast enough, you’ll get the next notice: “Zombies detected within 50 yards…40 yards…” etc. It’s a fun way to spice things up a bit, as you will hear them getting closer in your headphones. If the zombies catch up with you, you’re ‘caught’. Generally this means you’ll lose an item you picked up during your run, although from what I’ve read it seems that this might actually cause you to lose an entire mission later on! Creepy. Keep those intervals going.
Mission 1 finished with me reaching Abel Township, bringing the CDC box with me and a host of new supplies (along with the sad revelation that the previous Runner 5, who was fast and clever, had been ‘turned’). This took all of about 55 minutes, but as I had about another hour to go, what was there to do? The game introduced Jack and Eugene, two Abel Township DJs who broadcast their own “radio show”. Basically this means your Playlist continues playing while Jack and Eugene return mid-song with some funny chatter, character bits, news about the Zombies, Run! world, and so forth. These guys are clever and entertaining, so it keeps you immersed in the game while you continue the run, even if you’re not on a mission. You can continue gathering supplies and evading Zombie hordes with intervals runs during while you’re in “Radio Mode”. They get kind of clever about it too. After Fallout Boy’s “Dead On Arrival” finished (please don’t judge) on my playlist, Jack piped in to announce that he had his first kiss while listening to that song, and did something even nastier during the next one, which was Saxon’s “Wheels of Steel”. Nifty!
Later, you can go to your PC and upgrade your base at Abel Township. Basically you use the supplies you picked up during your run to improve your barracks, armory, comms center, hospital, recreation, cafeteria, etc. The more you improve your base, the better your chances at unlocking certain missions. While you probably don’t have to do any of this, it certainly adds an element of interactive fun to the game. You can also synch the game with your social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) so you can share runs with a whole bunch of friends and family that couldn’t care less about your fitness endeavors, but might be fascinated with zombie games. Finally, by synching your phone with the Zombies, Run! servers (you can set this to auto-synch), all your run data will be uploaded and you can review your progress on their website (complete with pace, distance, and calorie data, even a map of your entire route).
I’ve only played the first Mission and enjoyed the Radio Mode, so I can’t tell you now how engaging the story is, how the plot unfolds, if the game gets repetitious or how often upgrades occur with new content. What I can tell you is that this is a novel concept and loads of insane fun. If you’re both a runner and a horror fan, Zombies, Run! is an absolute no-brainer of a decision and just about the easiest 8 dollar purchase you’ll ever make. Even if you’re not big into horror, gaming, or high-concept genre storytelling, it’s a great way to break up the monotony on long runs. If you’re not even a runner, publisher/developer Six To Start has released a 5K training version of the game, which will bring you from absolute beginner to 5K runner over the course of several weeks.
Please note that Zombies, Run! is available for iPhone, Android, and Windows phones. Apparently the iPhone version has a feature that allows you to play the game on a treadmill. So indoor iPhone runners, you’re definitely gonna get your money’s worth.