Zombies, Run!

In Others
September 14, 2011

So: Zombies, Run! It’s a new iPhone app I’m making with the fantastic games studio Six to Start. We launched it on Kickstarter just five days ago and kept it low-key, just sending out a few tweets and Facebook/G+ status updates, and it’s already got $21,209 of funding. Wow. Could this have gone any better?

So I thought this would be a great time to talk about how we came up with the idea, and what our thoughts are about how to make the story work with the running and the gameplay.

Origin story

Earlier this year, on a total whim, I joined the first “Up and Running” online running training run by the lovely Shauna Reid and running coach Julia Jones. It’s great fun and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s new to running and a bit freaked out by the idea.

One of the first things they asked us was: “why do you want to run?” and one of the other participants gave an answer that made us all laugh: “to outrun the zombie horde”. And this started me thinking. That’s really why we want to be fit (or fitter), isn’t it? It’s not just a vanity thing, we want to know that if things go bad we’d be able to rely on our bodies to get us through and keep us safe. And it’s cool to imagine yourself in an action movie – I dorkily do that all the time when I’m on the treadmill.

At the same time Adrian and I had been talking about finding a project to create together. We sat down for a chat. Adrian’s a very keen runner and he’d thought about making some kind of running app. I said the words “running away from the zombie horde” and it all came from there.

Storytelling on the move

From my limited experience of running, I know it’s pretty taxing, and part of the joy is getting ‘into the zone’. So we’ve been thinking really hard about how to tell a story which is exciting and enhances your run rather than annoying you.

Our idea is that the story will come in bursts between the tracks on your own playlist. We all have those ‘workout’ playlists, right? That great song will come on, you’ll get into the groove, and then as it comes off there’ll be that burst of static and, there you are, Runner 5, out on a mission, being told what you need to do, or what’s happening around you, or what’s… coming to get you.

So this presents some interesting storytelling challenges. We figure you don’t want a burst of story that’s too long, because running with music is awesome. But you need enough to communicate what’s going on and keep you excited for the next instalment, because running with music while wondering if the zombies got runner 12 out there is even more awesome. And there’s the added challenge that we don’t know how long you’ll want to run for and we don’t think it’s really the purpose of our app to prescribe that.

Storytelling in short arcs

My conclusion, having turned this around many different ways, is that the story will have to develop in very short arcs. Let’s say no one’s going to go out for less than 20 minutes, we want each arc to be able to conclude within 20 minutes – so within let’s say four or five 60-120 second bursts of story. (Writing-craft geekery: four or five sections is how US TV dramas are often divided up, which interests me. It’s a good number. Teaser, plus three or four ‘acts’.) This means that if you run for more than 20 minutes you’ll hear more than one arc, but anytime you stop there should be a hook to make you want to go back.

I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises, but I think we’ll be able to tell some pretty great stories in those windows. There’ll be stories that happen back at base that you hear about over the radio, things that happen to you along the way, and the way you allot resources – or maybe how you respond to in-game found objects once you’re back home – will determine which stories open up for you to explore.

It’s a really exciting challenge and I’m already thrilled that it’s funded and so we know it’ll be made. I’m already brimming over with ideas and ready to get writing – if there’s interest I might even give some hints and thoughts here about how that process is going!

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