Zombies, Run! is an exercise game compatible with iPhone’s iOS5 that is part audio book, part resource management, part running (or walking). It’s a unique take on the ubiquitous zombie media these days, using either GPS or an accelerometer to have the player outrun zombie mobs that want to eat them. Their wildly popular KickStarter campaign in September/October 2011, with 3,400 backers, shows it is a popular idea, but is it successful at making running more fun for those who are keen on exercise, and does it help give people like me, who haven’t ran since secondary school, the motivation they need to get out of the house?
The game is presently broken into twenty-two missions, each approximately thirty minutes in length, with eight additional missions to be added by the end of Season 1 (so presumably, if the game is popular, there will be more content in future). The first mission describes the setting: post-apocalyptic Great Britain is overrun with zombies, and only a few scattered makeshift encampments remain of civilization. You are Runner 5, a necessarily silent protagonist who is recruited into Abel Township, a safe but otherwise scarcely habitable community. In order to increase the town’s viability, you will need to scavenge the wasteland, collecting supplies like med kits, ammo and food. By giving the supplies you’ve collected to the appropriate building (ammo in the armory, med kits in the hospital), you’ll increase Abel Township’s population and unlock new missions.
A typical mission works as follows: you hear a short story segment for a couple minutes detailing the premise of the scenario (save a child, recover some CDC documents), and then whatever music playlist on your iPhone you choose to listen to starts. As you progress to wherever it is you are going, an electronic voice advises that you have picked up X items of Y quantity. A few minutes in, another story segment begins. Occasionally at the end of a story segment, or randomly between them if you turn on zombie encounters, a zombie mob appears. To evade them, you will need to increase your speed twenty percent faster than you were before for an entire minute, which is the difference between walking and jogging, or jogging and running. The zombie moans, increasing in frequency and volume as they get closer, inspire you to keep you moving. Although I lost the first half dozen or so attempts, when I finally successfully out-ran the zombies I felt like a legend. Luckily, if the zombies catch you, it’s not a mission failure; you merely lose some of the supplies you’ve already collected. This would be more frustrating if supplies had value beyond upgrading your town. As it stands, it doesn’t feel like you’re being punished for failing, although the zombies keep you motivated to do better. It’s also rather nice that you can pause the story or replay something you might have missed, since not all runs are going to take thirty minutes. As for runs that are longer, after a mission is completed you’re informed that you’re listening to Abel Radio, which is your playlist interspersed with news and updates from station DJs. They’re entertaining at times, but not nearly so much as the story proper.
Where Zombies, Run! really shines is in its production values. The voice acting and writing are better than your average zombie fare, with a realized world and convincing dialogue. The sound effects are on par with world-class radio programs like Radio Lab, drawing you into the world they’ve created with realistic aural imagery. It works really well for setting a dystopian mood where you need to be moving constantly in order to survive. The graphics for Abel Township and the information codex are serviceable, akin to the cartoonish artwork in Tiny Tower albeit with a more militarized theme.
Now that you know how the game works, you want to know: is it fun, and will it help you get motivated to run? If you already enjoy exercising, absolutely. If you’re like me, well, time for some full disclosure: I weigh 108 KG or about 238 lbs. Most of my weight is fat. I’m the sort of person who likes the idea of being more athletic and more attractive conceptually, but I typically find myself dreaming instead of acting. That said, if there’s a purpose for exercise beyond it being healthy – commuting to work, grabbing some milk, returning a library book – then I’m down for it. This is where Zombies, Run! found my heart. By incorporating the game into some of my usual routines, I’m keener to move about. I’ve found that returning that library book isn’t a chore anymore; it’s now of life and death importance because I need to get those supplies – there’s an entire town depending on me. Of course, whether the game’s intentions will rub off on me long after playing are largely up to my own willpower, but I’ve never encountered a more novel exercise plan or one as engaging and entertaining.
Now to share my largest criticism: it’s expensive. At $8 ($7.99) for the iPhone app (Android version coming out in the next few months), it’s one of the highest priced apps I’ve ever purchased. While I’m confident that those who like the zombie genre or are seeking an interesting reason to get moving will find the product more than worth the cost, unless you already want that excuse to see trees and flowers, you won’t get much if anything out of it.
Perhaps a secondary criticism is that the game doesn’t have a proper soundtrack of its own. You’re left entirely to your own selection of tunes, and since I’m not a runner (well, maybe I am now!), it never occurred to me that running music isn’t necessarily your favorite music. For example, one mission had me convinced that it was up to another character in the story to save my life by shooting a zombie. I heard the zombie moans, and the sound of the gun’s hammer clicking back for dramatic effect, when the story segment ended and I began listening to a very happy song from Cabaret, the change was sufficiently jarring that I accidentally ran into a tree. This isn’t actually the developer’s fault, but it behooves me to advise any other overweight people who’ve never ran before to choose your playlist wisely, because if you don’t, you might get hurt. Or use some common sense, which would also be helpful.
All things considered, I haven’t been this emotionally attached to a zombie world since The Walking Dead comics, had this much fun in a zombie setting since Left for Dead 2, or encountered such quality genre writing since World War Z. For the first time since secondary school, I’ve ran more than a kilometer, and I’m really enjoying it, which is something I would not have thought I’d say a few weeks ago. If you’re keen on exercise, and can’t get enough zombies in your life, then Zombies, Run! is a game I whole-heartedly recommend.
If you’re looking to make your zombie missions more realistic, Richard Andrew Clark is a writer for a company that sells Zombie costumes.