So this morning I went for a run, and this is how it went:
- Took a short ride in a helicopter and was shot down.
- Had to change my route because of a police blockade.
- A small army of zombies chased me. All the way to the end of a pier, and then down the beach.
- I scavenged my way through an abandoned hospital.
- I was forced to change my route again because of a flash flood alert.
- I ran through tall grass, and got mosquitoes in my eyes.
- A particularly fast zombie forced me to pick up the pace.
- I had to find shelter so the rain wouldn’t ruin my phone (it has a cracked shield).
Oh, and I tried a new “augmented reality” running app. It’s called Zombies, Run! (Perhaps I should have begun there…)
So here’s a challenge for you: can you guess which of these events happened in “real” reality, and which were “augmented”? (You can check your guesses at the end of this post.)
I have no ties with the producers of this app, but I think it deserves a shoutout for the good of all of those who, like me, do enjoy running once you’re there, but have the hardest time actually getting there. (Seriously, I could run a half-marathon in the time it takes me to convince myself to get out the door. That is, if I could actually run a half-marathon.)
So let me tell you how it works, and why I think it’s awesome. Now, if you already plan to try it out, you shouldn’t continue reading. There are some mild spoilers ahead, and it’s much more fun to find out by yourself. But if you are curious and want more information, then by all means…
Zombies, Run! immerses you in a zombie apocalypse adventure. While you run (actually run, like, with your feet, not with a gamepad), you listen to a story develop, with various characters talking to you, asking you to do specific tasks, warning you about a swarm of zombies right at your heels, and overall motivating you into running further, either because you hear the zombies approaching, or because you want to know how the story continues. (The app tracks your progress via GPS, and gives you a snippet of the story at a time).
The app is a breeze to install. It asks you to sign up, but then it only asks for an e-mail and a password, no other personal info required (that in itself made me start liking it). It’s basically free, though they’ll probably convince me to buy some add-ons at some point (I’ll get to that).
I found the controls are very simple (and I’m the guy who gets confused by Instagram). The first time you open it, it’ll ask you if you want to listen to your music while you run. You can choose not to, or use the music in your phone, or you can tell it you’ll use a third-party app (I tried it with Pandora). If you do the latter, you’ll need to open that app and get it going, and then press start on Zombies, Run! Zombies lowers the volume of the music whenever something is about to happen.
That’s nearly all the preparation you need, but you can also choose how long you want your run to be, how you want the distance tracked, and whether you want to add “chases,” moments in which you need to pick up speed. I chose 5k for a start, and used GPS.
And the fun starts right away. You are in a helicopter, and then you are on the ground, running to get away from a small army of zombies. The story is not told to you, but performed, with various characters encouraging you to survive, and asking you to do certain tasks. As far as I know, your character never talks. It’s a bit like playing Half Life in your head while running, but without a gun. Or a crowbar. Or everyone you meet telling you you’re the best thing that happened in their life. No, I’m guessing some of these characters would happily let you die if you don’t run fast enough.
To be clear, you are not asked, at any point, to change your route. You can run on a track, or a treadmill. Nor do you need to hit a specific speed – you can probably use this while walking, though I can’t imagine it would be as much fun. The detours – there are many, and they get scary when you’re getting tired – all happen in your imagination.
As you cover fractions of your total distance, two things happen: you “pick up” (that is, a voice tells you that you have) supplies that can be later used in a “build your base” minigame (got to do something with those collectibles…), and more importantly, a new segment of the narrative develops. If you chose “chases,” you may get a warning that zombies are closing in, and will have to pick a speed for a few seconds, and they start growling in your ears! If you fail, you lose some of your supplies (I don’t think you actually die). In-between, you listen to your music.
What took me by surprise, though, is how well done those bits of narrative are! It feels a bit cheesy at first, but then, every bit of narrative adds a small twist to the story. You think you’re getting to your destination, but in the next bit you’ll be told that the bridge is down or someone you know is trapped (these aren’t things that actually happened to me; I’m trying not to spoil it) and you need to run longer and faster than you expected — and you will, because you are that person, and you want to know what will happen next! In your first adventure, for example, you’ll be guided and encouraged by a nervous radio operator, who’s going through the grief of having lost a previous runner, who really struggles with giving you the bad news, and who sounds just like Simon Pegg!* What I mean to say is, they didn’t just come with a neat idea and phoned it in. The developers really put their heart into this.
(*He’s not. I’ll update when I find out his name.)
And this is why this idea works so well! Of course, I’m the kind of person that runs longer while listening to an audiobook than music, so it may not be everybody’s cup o’tea. But think about this: This was a morning in which it rained until about 11. It was stuffy and humid. I was in the middle of some very productive work. There was a chance it would continue raining, which wouldn’t fare well with my (slightly) cracked phone. Any one of these reasons would normally be enough for me not to go running. Take all four together, and I still went out, because I wanted to try out these new app. I didn’t even like it yet! So. It worked. It got me out and running. Which I think it’s the best that you can ask of an app of this kind.
And here’s a cheap tie-in with the running theme of my blog: It’s wonder that’ll keep me running. Because I can’t help but wonder what the next mission will bring. Yep, wonder does wonders…
A couple caveats. You may encounter some technical issues (it froze in my son’s Android). Second, you get four missions free, and then a free one every week, so if you run twice per week you’ll be faced with the choice of paying for some extras by the fourth week. And third, while I think the “chases” sections are a great idea, game-wise and training-wise (mustering the energy to sprint when you are really tired is a great skill to have in real-life situations, such as at the end of a soccer game, or during an actual zombie apocalypse), I can imagine a bunch of runners collapsing because they overexerted themselves, and showing up in the news. So: know your limits, see a doctor if you can afford one, and if you’re too tired just let the zombies have those supplies.
So which of the events above happened in augmented reality? The answer is: 1, 3, 4 and 7. The others were all real real. Yes, there was a flash-flood alert (and a kind lifeguard told me not to run by the lake shore), I had to run through tall grass, and there was a police blockade (this is Chicago, in case you were wondering). No, I did not stop to find out what the blockade was about. Being chased by a small army of zombies gives you a different perspective on what’s important.
And how was your morning?