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Zombies, Run!

18th August 2012

Lately I have been running around parks and hidden lanes in Edinburgh’s South Side. This is the first bit of running I have done since leaving high school. It wasn’t inspired by the Olympics; I wanted to play a game.

I aspire to stay fit, but like a large percentage of the population I have trouble keeping up a exercise regime. This is down to two factors: a busy, unpredictable schedule, and the fact that solo exercise is just so damn boring.

The local gym was fine for a bit. I took audio books and listened to them while I stretched, moved unimpressive stacks of weights and watched a new generation of narcissists examine themselves in the mirror. But the gym insisted on playing chart music at a volume loud enough to drown out my books, so I cancelled my subscription.

Along came a smartphone app called Zombies, Run!. This is one of those instantly brilliant ideas: it’s a game where you run, and zombies chase you. There’s more to it than that — as somebody said at the recent Edinburgh Interactive conference, “Once you’ve done one zombie chase, you’ve done them all.” It tracks your progress by GPS, maps your route, monitors your speed, interrupts your music playlists, and crucially it immerses you in an ongoing story. It’s a horror audio book you have to go running to experience.

It’s possibly not the optimal training tool; lately my monkey brain has worked out that if I run slower on average I will have more stamina when the zombie chases occur, and so my times have been getting worse while my score in the game has been improving. I think I may have to turn the chases off for a bit and play it more as a straight narrative with gaming elements.

The most interesting thing for me has been the juxtaposition of the immersive story, my playlist, and the unpredictable location. Once I was out of breath, forty zombies were after me, and my playlist switched in Cardiac Arrest by Madness. Another time I was on holiday, running a bridleway up the top of a remote hill in Oxfordshire. There was nobody to be seen for miles, I didn’t know the area at all, and my companion in the story suddenly produced a gun and became threatening. On some level I knew it was still a story, but the isolated location gave me a stronger sense of unease than any horror film watched on a familiar sofa.

Zombies, Run! is really not that interactive in a “choose your own adventure” sense. Your speed and distance affect the game elements which accompany the story, but I think you get the same audio snippets whatever happens. However it plays to the strengths of radio drama, forcing you to visualise the scene yourself. As a player, you have a completely unique reading of the story, because nobody else has the same combination of plot, music and location that you do. That level of imaginative experience gets me off the sofa.