Meet the game that turns real 5K runs into zombie nightmares

This Saturday, I shall fulfill a personal dream by running in a 5k race. It’s a goal I’ve wanted to achieve for years, but there was always something in my way: namely, lots and lots of people. I never really thought about it until I showed up for my first 5k, but man, there is a whole lot of humanity at one of those things, and it really freaks me out. (Crowds, man. Crowds are tough.) I was resigned to running pseudo 5ks, dutifully marking off the mileage on my treadmill, until I received an invitation to participate in a virtual race. It’ll have just as many people (or more) taking part as a real-world race, but I won’t actually have to see any of them. Every participant gets a special racing bib and towel, and everyone will get a medal no matter how it takes them to finish, provided they weren’t caught by zombies along the way. Oh, yeah, right. Forgot to mention the zombies.

The race is being organized by the creators of Zombies, Run!, a fitness game that weaves a story about the zombie apocalypse into your workout routine. You’re cast as Runner 5, a member of Abel Township, who’s sent out on various missions that naturally require a fair amount of running, given the number of zombies shambling about the place. As you walk, jog, or run (inside or outside), you hear missions in your headphones as folks from Abel communicate with you, filling in the story as you go. You automatically pick up supplies, which you can use to build up your base, and Codex items, which flesh out the story even more. There’s even the option to turn on “Chases”, which happen at random intervals and force you to speed up for a brief burst so you can get away from the faster-than-walking dead. Mission: Race! will play out just like any other episode of the game, except given that it’s especially for Halloween, you’re running to fetch candy rather than medical supplies or fuel for the generators.

The original concept for Zombies, Run! was pretty straightforward: turn running into a fun, exciting game. Running can be a great way to stay healthy, but it can also be incredibly boring, especially if you’re inside on a treadmill or track. Adrian Hon of developer Six to Start wanted to improve the whole experience and joined up with writer Naomi Alderman who, like him, had also recently started a running regimen. Hon was reluctant to turn to zombies at first because, “even then, I thought there was too much zombie stuff in the world. But we realised that setting a running game in a zombie apocalypse worked really well. In what other situation do you need to run all the time? I mean, even Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt jump in cars most of the time.”

Though it waxes and wanes (probably in time with the tides or maybe bathing suit season), the current number of active Zombies, Run! users is around 300,000, though the app recently passed the two million downloads mark. It’s improved a lot since Season 1 first rolled out. At first it supplemented the story missions with supply missions, procedurally-generated runs that let you scoop up extra supplies for your base. But, as Hon explains, they weren’t “super-interesting, so in ZR2 and ZR3 we brought in Airdrop Mode, where you set a real-world location you want to run to, and we'll dynamically create a mission that adapts to that distance and duration.” More serious runners also appreciate Interval Training, “where you can create your own training plan and we'll wrap a story and audio prompts into that.”

Zombies, Run! already had a race mode, but Six to Start really wanted to have a proper race, with loads of people doing it at once. “I'm fascinated by why people race,” says Hon. “It's obviously not to 'win', or even to run along a scenic route, since you can do that for free. And while races are fun and social in that you see other runners alongside you, most racers don't talk while running - they just listen to music. So I've concluded it's a combination of a pre-commitment strategy (‘I've signed up to a 10k so now I've got to train for it’) and a pseudo-social event, in that it's fun to know other people are going through the same thing.”

I hadn’t actually thought about it until Hon brought it up, but that was exactly why I wanted to run in a 5k. Not to do the distance - I can do that anytime - but to feel like I was part of an event, something collective with a shared goal. The multiplayer version of running, if you will. I’ll be joining 2499 other people in Mission Race, and while we’ll run at different times and in different places, we’ll all be doing it together. When I finish, I’ll synchronize my app with ZombieLink to post my time on the leaderboard, and while it definitely won’t be one of the fastest, the fact that it’s there at all will be a major victory for me.

Hon sees the Zombies, Run! virtual 5k as a bit of an improvement on the real-world alternative. “It’s a great opportunity to replicate - and frankly, beat - the social experience of going to a real race.” Participants in the race have access to Rofflenet, a forum named after the bulletin board system used by survivors in the game. “People are exchanging running tips, speculating about the story, swapping music playlists, and organising over 200 real-world race-day meet-ups! So in reality I think our race will be much more social than a typical 10k where you get there, run for an hour, and then leave.”

If you missed out on the chance to take part in Mission: Race!, don’t feel too bad; Six to Start plans on releasing the mission to non-racers, and has tentative plans to do another virtual race in the Spring. In the meantime, if you’re still not quite convinced that Zombies, Run is the boost your workout needs, let the community of Runner 5s speak for itself.

Cosplay photos by Gabby Woo.