Mobile technology is really bringing about some interesting new forms of gaming, isn’t it? Lately I’ve been experimenting with an Android/iOS smartphone game called “Zombies, Run!” while I play Ingress. I had heard from friends that it was a pretty good game, and after finding out that it worked just as well on a bicycle as on foot, I decided to give it a shot.
The premise of Zombies, Run! is that you’re “Runner 5,” a rather quiet military operative sent in to help a small settlement called Able Township by running missions to fetch supplies, deliver messages, and so on. You do this by walking, running, or bicycling in the real world, or even on a treadmill or stationary bike; it tracks your progress either by GPS or by your motions as you move your legs with the phone in your pocket.
As you walk, it plays music from playlists you have stored on your phone (or, more recently, via external music services such as Spotify, Google Play Music, etc. if you select the “external audio player” option), interspersed with audio drama segments in which your radio operators or fellow runners talk at you, telling you what’s going on. (The game is made by British developer Six to Start, which means that, to we Americans, everyone in the drama segments just has the coolest accent.) Along the way, you collect artifacts that let you unravel the mystery of who caused the zombie apocalypse.
As you run, you pick up supplies which you can use in a non-running game mode to build up and expand Able Township to have better defenses and take on more people. If you have the “zombie chase” option enabled, every so often you get a warning in your headphones that zombies are 100 meters behind you, and you need to pick up the pace to outrun them. If they catch you, you drop supplies you found, or possibly even fail the mission. Apart from the missions, which you can space out over a half or whole hour each, there are side quests where you can run endlessly while picking up supplies, run to specific locations in the real world, or even run races.
The game has a number of talented writers writing for it, including Naomi Alderman who has published a number of books including a Doctor Who novel. She was also lead writer for the alternate reality game Perplex City. The game has also featured episodes by guest writers including Joanne Harris and Elizabeth Bear (herself no stranger to new, Internet-enabled forms of storytelling).
In playing Zombies, Run! at the same time as Ingress, I find the two games complement each other pretty well; in Ingress, you have to move from place to place in the real world to hack portals, whereas in Zombies, Run! you just have to keep moving from place to place (sometimes faster than you’d like).
The same company has produced a game called “The Walk,” which is more of a pedometer you use all day, keeping track of when you walk from place to place just doing things, opening up new audio drama segments at particular milestones. I haven’t had the chance to play around with it yet, but it looks promising for people who want a more continuous experience.
It’s a very interesting way of storytelling, and it’s only possible with mobile devices like this that keep track of where you are. And yet, fundamentally when you get right down to it, all it really is at heart is a good old-fashioned audio drama, like a radio show or an audiobook. It’s just that it combines the thrill of listening to a good story with a mechanism for making sure you get some exercise while you’re doing it.
Six to Start doesn’t seem to be through innovating gaming with mobile devices, however. On the horizon is a new game called “Nova: First Contact” which uses cards with NFC chips to power a cooperative card game about operating a starship. They’re planning to launch a Kickstarter sometime soon.