Lace up your favorite pair of running shoes. Pull up a playlist of some of your favorite songs. Finally, plug in your headphones. Now, you are Runner 5.
Some of you have been Runner 5 for quite some time now. Zombies, Run is well into its fifth season, with 190 missions from Abel Township to date. After finishing those missions, you may have volunteered for dozens of side missions and challenges to protect your village from zombie hordes, rival towns, evil scientists, and shady corporate interests. Others may have fallen behind. That’s okay – if you only go out running once a week, it would take over four years to catch up with Abel Township’s efforts to rebuild a semblance of civilization in the wake of a zombie apocalypse.
ARGNet has written at length about Zombies, Run in the past. But for those new to the free-to-play mobile game, Zombies, Run is an episodic audio narrative designed to blend seamlessly with your running experience. At the start of your run, just load up the app, choose a playlist, and begin your mission. As the series’ silent protagonist Runner 5, you are thrust directly into the narrative through a series of short audio drama vignettes to provide a narrative context behind your run. Your own playlist serves as the musical interludes between the story. Sometimes, tortured groans from zombie hordes serve as impetus to pick up the pace, or risk getting caught and devoured.
The free-to-play version of the game allows you to unlock one story mission a week. If that pace is too grueling, a $19.99 yearly membership unlocks every story mission, along with a host of other features.
Keeping Things Simple Through Iterative Design
Zombies, Run‘s success is built off the back of the most non-intrusive user interface in mobile gaming and its incredibly rich storyworld. It’s generally easy to spot players of other location-based games like Ingress and Pokemon Go on the streets, because gameplay is so heavily centered around looking down at your smartphones, and briefly stopping along your route at dozens of different locations. Zombies, Run still lures players into the real world for its gameplay, but does so more stealthily. It’s practically impossible to distinguish a Zombies, Run player from someone simply listening to a podcast or musical playlist on a long walk or run. And the game’s frequent updates have held to that core principle. Recent updates have made it easier for runners to binge through a series of missions by enabling auto-play functionality to get caught up on the 200+ episodes the first five seasons of Zombies, Run will eventually encompass. Audio syncing capabilities have expanded to allow runners to pull in music from external services like Spotify or Pandora to serve as soundtrack for their runs, expanding past the phone’s built-in playlists. And new offerings like 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon training plans help provide structure to personal goals.
None of that would work without Zombies, Run‘s riveting narrative, which provides the backbone of the experience. Over the past five years Zombies, Run co-creator and lead writer Naomi Alderman has been leading the team of writers through the difficult task of guiding players through their role of silent protagonist through the trials and tribulations of post-apocalyptic survival. For the most recent narrative arc, Alderman notes,
Season 5 takes Runner further from home than we’ve ever been before, in search of the truth about the origins of the zombie plague. Season 5 also sees us have to tackle enemies who are more powerful – and know more about us – than any we’ve ever dealt with before. There’ll be wolves and bears, soldiers and spies and of course constant zombies chasing Runner 5.
The team clearly places a priority on ensuring the highest quality of writing and audio production goes into every mission, and the series pulls on writerly talent from sources ranging from the game’s own fan base to Alderman’s Arts Initiative mentor Margaret Atwood, for a brief cameo appearance.
Even Runners 5 who don’t expect to reach the newest content for a few years still have a few surprises in store for them. One of the more surprising projects in development is a Zombies, Run board game, coming soon to Kickstarter. The pending game is being pitched as “real-time, open world, story-driven, co-operative, and app enhanced.” The other main update? Virtual races.
Virtual Racing Through a Zombified Prequel
A relatively new innovation to the Zombies, Run universe is the addition of virtual races. Since its inception, players could track their runs through ZombieLink, the game’s online portal. These post-race reports offers a mission-by-mission breakdown of how fast you were running (or walking), and a visual representation of your progress.
Leveraging that capability, Zombies, Run recently added a series of virtual race events to its repertoire. For $35, runners can sign up to participate in the 5K or 10K race. Similarly to their real-world analogues, participants are mailed a race bib, certificate of completion, and finisher’s medal. Additional tiers at $55 and $65 also include special shirts for the run. Runners may not be surrounded by their fellow competitors, but the finishing times are uploaded to an online leaderboard so the more competitive zombie survivalists can compete for top finishing times.
The story element is where things get really interesting. Virtual race missions are standalone experiences taking place before the events of Zombies, Run, so the virtual races can serve as an entry-point into the series. A series of training missions pave the way to the race day events, with a few secrets bundled into the experience to keep things interesting. For Zombies Run‘s inaugural spring race, runners were told they were participating in a race to claim a warehouse of candy for their township, before things turn ugly. Part of the experience included an “operative briefing” accessible to players who called a special phone number. The Fall Virtual Race is scheduled to take place between October 20th and November 1st, and tasks runners with sneaking into the headquarters of Xia-Hifa Biologics in a story the Six to Start team describes as “Zombies, Run meets Ocean’s Eleven.”
Zombies, Run is a heart-wrenchingly emotional drama, and the series has wracked up quite the body count over the past few seasons. Zombies Run co-creator and lead writer Naomi Alderman remarked on the experience of writing one-off narratives for a long-standing episodic series, noting
One of the major considerations is that it should make sense wherever you are in our five-season arc. So it needs to be set right at the start in season 1, or before the start of season 1. It’s quite funny going back there; imagine writing something now for Game of Thrones in which (spoiler!) all the Stark children are alive, and Robert Baratheon’s on the Iron Throne!
Interested in experiencing a look back at the Abel Township of years’ past, before the body count piled quite so high? Looking to get into the game, but prefer to get a medal for your trouble? Spots for the Fall Virtual Race are going quick, so be sure to sign up at ZombiesVirtualRace.com soon.
To install the core game, head on over to ZombiesRunGame.com, or find them on the iOS and Google app stores. If you’re interested in learning more about the Zombies, Run board game, sign up for the project’s mailing list.