“I got an email from Korenchkin this morning saying he was coming up for an inspection. And when he arrived it was... something... revolting... it was Anatoly... but it wasn't... at the same time it seemed beautiful... and I felt like part of it... He sang to us... all of us... and we felt like one of Many...”
System Shock Audio Log
It’s not often someone comes up with a new way of telling a story. Most of the time, it’s just a subtle twist on an old standby. Games have been the place where we’ve seen the most ingenuity. The first time I encountered the audio logs of System Shock, for example, I knew that something interesting was going to happen. Not only was I in my own story as I journeyed through the Citadel, I was experiencing the stories of the cast and (spoilers) mutated crew as I went through the now-signature Looking Glass Audiolog Storytelling System ™.
Last week, a relatively unknown writer named Naomi Alderman (former writer on the Perlex City ARG), together with developer Six to Start, quietly did something that, while perhaps not as original as System Shock, pushes stories in a new direaction.
She released a little game called Zombies, Run.
The elevator pitch is simple: It’s a GPS-based run-tracker for your iOS device that, instead of just saying “You’ve just run 1 mile,” tells you a story. The functionality is really no different than any of a dozen running applications available for various mobile devices. But what it does with that functionality is.
“[Klaxon sounds] Runners, this is an emergency. The gates are stuck in the open position. We are open to all attacks. The following runners are to report to the main gates immediately, for deter and distract: Runner 2, Runner 3, Runner 5, Runner 8. Go Go Go!”
When you first start Zombies, Run, you simply start running. As you start running, people talk to you – the citizens and radio operator of Able Township, a community of some 60 people beset by the zombie apocalypse. It’s done in a similar fashion to the one-directional communications of countless videogames that eschew cutscenes, like, for instance, BioShock. Instead of Atlas taunting us, however, we get exhortations from our radio operator to run faster, harder, away from the zombies, towards supplies.
Importantly, it’s not just an audiobook. The snippets of story and dialog come interspersed with music from your own playlist – which can be anything from hair metal to back episodes of My Brother My Brother And Me. In between tracks, or occasionally interrupting your tracks, you’ll get tiny little bursts of content.
There are some “game” elements to the experience. The more you run, the more supplies you’ll pick up, and your headphones will chime with the occasional “Picked up a medkit” or “found a tin of food” update. These supplies can then be used to upgrade Abel Township, and unlock more missions.
But the most interesting part of the whole experiment is that it creates a form of immersion extremely rare in storytelling. The story being told (so far, after about 6 missions), is the story of a runner – Runner 5 (a hat-tip to Logan’s Run), but it’s also my story. It’s a story I’m enabling by running through the physical world, in effect earning the story with my own sweat.
Is this “gamification” rearing its head in my daily run? Not really. I'm not chasing points with a pedometer. And I’m entirely uninterested in the “game” part of Zombies, Run. I’m interested in the surprisingly well written zombie/mystery story that’s unfolding under my sneakers. The flaw of most fitness games is that they’re actually pretty uninteresting. Earning imaginary trophies or climbing imaginary mountains is, at the end of the day, not all that much more interesting than just listening to music. But Alderman and her crew of voice actors and sound-effects editors have made something that’s not only interesting, but compelling enough to make me want to get out tomorrow, rain or shine, just to see what happens next. Will the Doctor find something useful in the CDC files? Will Runner 8 finally learn to trust me? And what are the folks in that nearby township really up to?
It’s hardly perfect. With just 13 missions at about half an hour each, a good week or two of running will exhaust the storyline, and at $8, that’s pretty expensive as iOS experiences go. Replayability is questionable, since it’s fundamentally the story that’s interesting.
But as long as Alderman has stories to tell, I’ll keep listening. And running.