Mur Lafferty on the storytelling-power of Runner Five
I ran track in high school. Hated it. Was terrible at it.
Started running as an adult. Never got deep into it. Hated it. Was terrible at it.
Then came Zombies, Run!
On the surface, this is a smartphone app that’s a narrative game you play when you go for a run. (It can easily be played while walking too). It’s the zombie apocalypse and you’re a runner who has to go out and do missions for the township you live in, since they have to hoard precious fuel. Zombies chase you. People talk in your ears about your mission and zombies and, sometimes, marmite and role playing games. It’s a surprising incentive, and I supported it via Kickstarter the first I heard of it.
It got me running. Regularly. And liking it.
But it’s beyond fun and incentivizing. Creator Naomi Alderman has made a narrative that people get heavily involved in. You have a radio operator, Sam, in your ears, guiding you and watching you via camera when he can. You get to hear the township leader, the doctor, and others argue with him. You sometimes run with other runners, who contribute to the plot of who is behind the zombie outbreak, who might be a traitor in your camp, etc. You start to CARE.
It’s written with the utmost care to never place a gender or sexuality on you, Runner 5, so women, men, and non-binary can all picture themselves as Runner 5.
It was hard to choose my favorite episode. Some of the episodes are amazingly tense and have brought runners to tears (not me, but apparently I’m dead inside). One had me nearly injure myself laughing when a famous author loaned her voice to play herself (no spoilers). But the one I want to talk about is the one where I started to really care about this world in my earbuds.
Your operator is Sam Yao, an uncertain but energetic geeky young man. He does his best to guide you, but stumbles occasionally. In Episode 6, you fall into a trap and are almost captured, and the only way to get out is to run in a direction Sam can’t track you. Episode 7, A Voice in the Dark, has Sam talking to you. He can’t see you, can’t track you, has no idea if you’re even alive. But he talks to you because he can’t bear the thought of leaving you running alone, in the dark, with zombies around you. It’s a heartfelt, loney, wrenching episode where he tries to fill the silence with stories about himself, life before the apocalypse, awkward jokes, and his attempts to find you.
It’s beautifully written and acted. Having a voice in your ears is ultimately intimate, and while you’re running, even if, in reality, you’re not alone in the dark and in danger, it makes you feel like there’s another person out there, desperate to find out whether you’re alive or not. You feel like someone cares. You want to finish the run to assure Sam that you are OK.
After this episode I was hooked, I cared, I wanted to keep going in the story. They’re on Season 3 right now and working on Season 4.
Caveat: one of my biggest thrills this year was writing a guest standalone episode of Zombies, Run! I don’t know when it will be released, but it was on my writer’s bucket list.
Check it out:
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Originally published at blog.serialbox.com on September 28, 2015.