Zombies, Run!

Zombies Run logo

I have loved Zombies, Run! almost as I have never loved any other piece of storytelling. And it’s the most immersive experience I’ve ever had with a story. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but sometimes it’s felt like it’s come quite close.

I’ve given myself away already by describing Zombies, Run as a story. Actually, it’s a fitness game in app form. The basic premise is you are a runner during the zombie apocalypse. I first downloaded it in the Australian spring of 2015. I wanted to start running again (and I did, briefly) and I listened to it from my first run. It begins with you surviving a helicopter crash. You were on your way to Abel Township, a group of people banding together on what was a farm before the apocalypse. Your helicopter didn’t just crash by itself, it was shot down by a rocket launcher. Why? Who did it? And are you really who you say you are? Actually, you can’t talk so you don’t say that you’re anybody but the assumption amongst those in Abel is that you were in that helicopter because you were part of a supply run. And there *were* some supplies on board. But the pilot told you that you were actually coming in for a mission called Project Greenshoot, though you hadn’t been briefed on it yet. Someone was going to do that when you landed. And then that person doesn’t reveal themselves straight away because they’re suspicious of you. So what are you doing there? You don’t know. But you’re put to work straight away as a runner and as you’re an upright sort of person, bit by bit you gain everyone’s trust and you become one of the main people at Abel. And your designation, Runner Five, becomes your name. Five. It’s who you are.

The app works along with your own music. It fades the music down when there’s more of the story and then turns it back up after you’ve just been urged to Run! There’s always an urgent need to run. Either away from zombies or towards a person who needs saving or a target that needs protecting from your enemies. And there are enemies aside from the zombies. Human enemies. There is a whole world in Zombies, Run. I remember being delighted after that very first run I did. I’d finished and was doing my stretches on the stairs, still listening to my music (The Julie Ruin album Run Fast). I hadn’t turned the app off and Radio Abel started. Radio Abel was Jack and Eugene telling silly jokes and reading out public service announcements. Actually, I never really liked Jack and Eugene (though I think I’m in the minority there). Their jokes weren’t my kind of silly. But I liked the fact that this world contained them. That somebody had had the idea, let’s have a radio station at the end of the world. And it’s not even part of the main story. You only hear it if you keep going after your run.

But, as it goes, that short period of running was for me, quite short. I stopped running and forgot about the app for a long time. Then, on the 2nd January this year, I was at an airport very early in the morning and saw a tweet from one of the app’s creators, Naomi Alderman. They were looking for new writers. There was a brief and the major part of it was to write a page of dialogue for Phil and Zoe. (You also had to create a game. But I already had a game.) The deadline was the end of that month. I had no idea who Phil and Zoe were but I figured I would find out. So I started listening to the app again from the very beginning. I was not running at all. But I was walking a lot. Every day. So I would go out in the evenings (I was in Brisbane then so the daytimes were quite hot) and I would walk and I would listen. After some frantic research, I discovered that Phil and Zoe appear in season two as the hosts of Radio New Tomorrow, the radio station of New Canton (the neighbouring township to Abel). I still had all of season one to get through. How to get through it faster than the pace of the app, which doled out story segments to me based on my distance covered? I tried all kinds of tricks, including listening to it on a bus so that I got through the kilometres quickly and the story kept going with no break. Then I discovered I could get the app to measure the gaps between story segments in time rather than distance and that gave me more story more quickly during my walks. But the end of January was looming. I was onto season two but only hearing Phil and Zoe at the ends of episodes of the main story. I needed to hear more of them if they were the characters I was writing for. Then I discovered that their radio segments were available as a separate download. (Yes, it would have been better if I’d worked all this out at the beginning, rather than as a series of haphazard discoveries as time grew short.) I put aside the main story and started listening solely to them. By now I was mainlining the game, listening as I did the dishes and walked around doing bits and pieces in my daily life.

I finally had enough to go on. I wrote and rewrote my dialogue. The writing came easily, especially Zoe’s voice, which is very distinctive. I could hear her saying the lines I’d written. I sent my application off in time for the deadline. And then I went to New York. I lived there for some of 2001 and it was my first trip back since. It was a big deal to me. I spent my time looking for echoes of the places we used to love and not finding anything because too many years had gone by. On my last day, as I was sitting at the airport waiting to leave, I discovered I had a Zombies, Run rejection email.

I left the New York winter behind and returned to the Sydney summer. And I kept listening to the game. I may have been out of the running to be a writer but I still wanted to know what happened. By accident, one day I turned a mission off when I was half-way through it. I’d reached the end of a story segment and when I turned it back on, I discovered I’d made the app skip over the enforced break. Too late, I had discovered how to (very inelegantly) make the app go faster. But now there really was no stopping me, I would listen to two or three episodes during a walk. I had picked up the main season two story again and it ended so climactically and left me both so shocked and so gripped, I knew I was in for life.

That was the point at which this app became all about storytelling to me. Great storytelling that grabbed me and pulled me along. I could easily write now about character arcs and backstories and plot lines, all of which are so rich in Zombies, Run. But I’m going to focus on what made it exceptional, to me. Major spoilers ahead. In the game it was season three. In my real world, it was a few days before Easter. I was in Brisbane, walking along Southbank on my way to meet a friend in the City for dinner. It was a balmy autumn evening. I think there were people swimming as I went by the beach. I was listening to Zombies, Run as I walked and I got mind controlled. By Moonchild, the hippy, evil genius scientist. Moonchild believed that if people didn’t think so much and worry so much everyone would be happy. Her solution was mind control and once she worked out how to do it, she took to it enthusiastically.

For me as my character, the whole experience was very bad – Moonchild made me do some terrible things. But for me experiencing the game, it was great. Especially the moments as I was becoming mind controlled and had no idea of what was going on and the game played with that. And also in the first mission afterwards, when I had become immune to Moonchild but my mind was struggling to grasp reality and accept what I had done. The game placed me in a sanatorium with characters I believed (knew) to be dead. All of that was done so well. But what it led to was even better.

In season four, Moonchild, though dead by now and though I was also immune to her, started to talk to me at moments when I was really up against it (her words). She was a voice in my head and she would ask was she real or was I imagining her and I’d be wondering the same thing. She’d give me vital pieces of information and she’d question if she was telling me something I already knew (something I’d heard when I was mind controlled perhaps) or if it was new information. The questions seemed leading but actually neither of us knew the answers. Once, she tried to get me to shoot a gun but I wouldn’t so she didn’t have control over me. Her help *was* helpful though. By the end of season four she had decided she was a voice in my head triggered by stressful situations and I tended to agree.

I was in awe of the writers. They had given me something in the game that belonged to me and me alone. It’s both a great freedom and an intense limitation of the game that I can’t say anything. Mostly it’s not an issue. I don’t tend to disagree with the decisions of the other characters but sometimes I do get annoyed with situations I’m put in. And being told to ‘Run!’ all the time can get a little grating (especially if it’s Veronica, an intense young scientist, saying it). But now here was something I knew about that the other characters didn’t. And it often got us out of scrapes. Very big scrapes sometimes. And for me, having a secret that was just mine gave me space in the game that belonged to me. It made my character more real. It made an already immersive experience better and stronger. By the end of season four, when the Minister was spreading propaganda against Abel and successfully turning most of the post-apocalyptic world against us I was living that grief and disbelief with the other characters. When we had a message from Bernard from New Canton that they would stand with us I was overcome by relief and happiness.

Season five was also very strong. The Minister had taken over Abel and put the journalist Ian Golightly in charge. Ian turned out to be a very small person and a very powerful bully. He was killed in the last story mission of that season. He had to die. But there was no triumph and no gloating at his death. We got Abel back, but everybody lost. Throughout the season, Moonchild had continued to talk to me at life-and-death moments. And also to be the part of my mind that points out things to me. Good things and bad things. Things I need to pay attention to.

I started season six with trepidation. It was June and I had been living the game quite intensely since January. At one stage, I’d had multiple seasons and hundreds of missions lying ahead of me. Now I was caught up to the current season. Two missions were being released a week. I was about to come level with the current reality of the game. After that I would have to wait for missions to be released.

Having said that, all was well until the third mission. That had involved me going with a few others into an old pub in Hoxton, which in post-apocalyptic London currently lies in the neutral zone, an area between the Minister’s territory and ours. The Minister was previously using the pub as a prison for those who were mentally ill and had kept at least one person in there who apparently had Moonchild Syndrome. Specifically, they had drawn pictures on their cell wall of Moonchild and written about having Moonchild *in* them. At this point Moonchild started talking to me, ‘What has she done to my people?’ she said. ‘They were waiting here for me to save them.”

Ok, I was thinking to myself. It’s not just me then. I’m not the only one you talk to. Moonchild appeared to already know about this, but I thought it could just be her adapting to a situation that looked like it was in her favour. I was also thinking that at some point I would have to confess to the others that I had something like that too and I was wondering how I would be able to do that within the limits of the game. But I didn’t need to. Two of my colleagues, Sam and Jody, were on comms and Jody casually mentioned it. She said to me that she didn’t realise that there was a name for it – Moonchild Syndrome. And then she told me that everybody knew I had it. Apparently they’d all worked it out in the previous season. Even Jamie, one of the people I was with who we’d just rescued from the Minister and hadn’t been with us for a couple of seasons, knew about it. He told me he was sorry I had it and that he was sorry that the Minister was looking for people like me. What I wanted him to do was apologise for having spoken about me behind my back. For months. But that wasn’t reasonable, he’d been locked up, he wasn’t one of the people who’d been talking about me. So one of the others then, any of the others, I was waiting for an apology. Instead, what I got was Sam giving a speech about how hard everything is right now but we’ll prevail. Good will win against evil. Etc. He went on and on. I wanted him to shut up. I wanted to shout at him. I’d never felt like that before. I like Sam a lot, he’s always had my back. I couldn’t believe the game would be so tone deaf towards me. Had the writers never thought about how *I* felt, what *I* would like, as Runner Five? Fair enough if Moonchild talking in your head is now a major plot point, I can work with that. But to take this thing away from me so casually and so thoughtlessly. I had thought the writers were so genius to give me this gift, but after that I lost a lot of faith that they knew what they were doing either when they gave it to me or when they took it away.

And then it just got worse. Some missions later I was in a house that zombies were breaking into just as scans were being done on my brain to understand more about Moonchild Syndrome. As the zombie threat grew, Moonchild took control of me and made me jump off a treadmill, run down a corridor and activate the AI that presides over the house. ‘I’d never usually do this’, she said, meaning take over my behaviour. Yes, I thought to myself. That’s because you couldn’t. But now the writers have decided that you can. And by the end of that episode it was discovered that Moonchild was a brain within my brain. A physical phenomenon. Something real.

So, for something that I have loved so much, this is not a great ending because shortly afterwards I drew level with the game and I don’t yet know how the Moonchild storyline plays out and how it all affects me. Half the season’s missions have been released and the game is on a hiatus after which we’ll get the rest of them. While I’m unhappy with my own narrative, I do love Janine’s storyline. She is our leader at Abel but was not present for quite a lot of this season so far. When she returned she was Emma Peel crossed with a riot grrrl. She probably always had been, but we were able to see that so much more clearly outside the confines of Abel. She was running a team of female assassins and she was undercover as a chef. I kind of really want to be her. The last story mission left me in a very bad situation with the Minister and on a massive cliffhanger. No matter what, I am definitely looking forward to finding out what happens next. I’m still with this game for life.

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