Sunday, 22 May 2016

Zombies, Run - A review? Maybe a story? @ZombiesRunGame

Before we go any further I should make it clear that I don't run. I can walk 30K in a day when I'm by myself, my pedometer knows this, and I do walk pretty fast. But I never run. Well for more than the 10m it takes to get to the bus.

There is a lot of fuss at the moment about VR headsets (that make you motion-sick and cook your face) and Augmented Reality (where you use your phone instead of your eyes) but I want to talk today about something I kind of bumped into that isn't really a game.  Well, in the same way that walking simulators are not games I guess.

I hadn't been feeling great for a while, but had changed my diet radically and cut out a lot of processed food and sugar and really reduced meat. Then one weekend while out working for a festival my body started to fight back. I just couldn't move my right shoulder at all without great pain. I presumed I'd dislocated it in my sleep so we went to the A&E tent.  They advised basic painkillers and rest. Luckily I'd worked all my shifts.  I put it down to the diet and switched back to calorific junk.

[Picked up a box of pain-killers]

Only this one requires real walking, preferably at speed.

My feet began to hurt. It wasn't a normal kind of ache from doing too much - or so I thought - because I'd not done much. Two consecutive weekends of standing on gates for Oxfam with a bit of walking in-between was fairly lightweight for me. Granted I wasn't wearing the best boots but it shouldn't have caused this.  Some days I could barely walk to the bus stop to work. I was rationing the trips away from my desk at work. Something was wrong.

[Picked up a mobile phone]

I first saw the Zombies, Run app ages ago.  The basic premise is you go for a run and the zombies chase you. I think it showed up when I was looking for something else and it was either free or cheap (it's free to start now) and it got buried on one of the many screens my phone has cluttered up with nonsense. Either way I downloaded it, signed up in July 2015, then completely forgot I had it. Interestingly as part of the activation process I'd given out my e-mail (which is why I know the date I signed up) and they'd send me a message every couple of months. I also joined their Twitter.

I got a stomach bug that took me off my feet for two days. My feet, glad of the rest, got better. It was like my healing abilities had been turned way, way down and I'd not spotted that - probably because everything else was too busy. Everything still ached, shoulders feet and now wrists, but I could walk again and this cheered me up a lot.

[picked up a pair of running shoes]

I'd wanted something to keep me a bit fit after I'd had to stop Wrestling Training (another long story) and had grabbed a few different motivational things to use as commitment bundling, mostly to go with the expensive running shoes I'd bought to train in as running barefoot in the wrestling dojo hurt my knees.  I started non of them past a cursory glance.

The word run in this app name put me off.  I wasn't fit enough to run - that's for well people without medical issues.  So it didn't get used.  I'll save it for when I'm well.

Everything got worse. I went for initial blood tests. These allowed me to go for the proper blood tests. These blood tests came back with results so off the chart that all the scientists in my lab were worryingly nice to me. The GP referred me to the clinic for people with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I'm 36. 

[Picked up Rheumatoid Arthritis]

Following the Zombies, Run Twitter account literally changed my life.  One day in December they sent out a tweet about a virtual race.  This was a 5K run - something that is way beyond anything I'd ever attempted. But there was loot.  Oh boy was there loot - zombie tops, promise of a medal - and nobody would know if I didn't actually do the run!

So I thought about it for a few weeks and signed up on Jan 4th (you know - when everyone thinks about making resolutions and commitments). Having never once used the app. Commitment bundling in action - "I can have this nice thing because I'm going to do something to earn it".  One of the things that inspired me to do this was a guy called Derek Mitchell who is a guy who struggles with his weight that so far this year has done 15 5K runs.  I've procrastinated writing this up for so long that he keeps adding more to the total.  He's going for 30 in the year.  Anyone can move 5k if you aren't worried about other peoples times, right?

The app was still sitting there and totally free. So the following day Jan 5th, on the way home from work, I thought I'd better have a go.

Here is how the first session with the app went.  I started it while I was still in the building (a large hospital) and was immediately treated to some story .  I hadn't expected this, I didn't know there were people to care about and reasons to want to keep going.  We were barely introduced to the world before my music kicked back in (you point it at a playlist on your phone).  Rufus Wainwright started to sing about love, and then the Zombies got me.

[Dropped a Bottle of Water]

I know this because the app keeps all the details.  It's like it knows that I'm a bit geeky.  What happened was this.  As you leave the site you have to cross two roads right next to each other.  Your pace is measured by the app, when the zombies attack you have to increase your pace to avoid them. The attack happened in between these crossings and I just couldn't run. If this was Dark Souls everything would be over - but the character dropped some items to distract the zombies. Rufus continued to serenade the horde, and I crossed the road and kept walking.  There is even a map of my route - I know I didn't go through the park and when I got home instead of walking straight home I looped round the block in the hope of finishing the story.  It didn't work.  It took 27:41 to do 3.31 Km and it still hadn't ended.

My feet still hurt from doing too much walking but their seems to be a 48 hr lag between over exertion and the pain.  I have to get to work somehow and I have a mission to finish. I want to know what happens next.

The following morning I decided to take a leisurely walk to work through the park.  I know this because the app knows this. I didn't start the app until I'd crossed all the roads and was ready.  1 min in the zombies caught me because I stopped and retied my laces. I did pause it (34 seconds) but I guess not soon enough due to fumbling my phone out of my pocket The arthritis is really affecting my hands now and I'd forgotten to double knot. Always double knot in a zombie apocalypse situation.

I reached the mission goal 6 mins in. This means at a slowish pace a mission would be doable with a detour home.  Nicely there are DJ skits for after you complete the run so you still feel like you are in the world of the game.

On the way you pick up [items] for an idle game, like a really simple city builder.  You run, you get supplies, you add to the town. In isolation it's just a distraction.  If you look at the above screen grab again you'll see how mundane these items are. I guess in an apocalypse an extra pair of shorts or any batteries at all would be a help. Occasionally you'll evade the zombies and it will say [picked up some clean underwear] - it's as if it knows...

One thing I'd need to fix was that I couldn't really hear the story over my rubbish free-with-the-iPhone headphones and that the songs on my phone (just the last few CDs I added to my computer) would need revising. It was all comedy songs by Mal Webb and really quiet stuff. Just not appropriate.

At first it's really jarring when the story butts in - you're off thinking of stuff and then Sam comes on the radio to tell Runner 5 about the world and send them into some danger.  It soon becomes second nature, flitting between rock music, thoughts about life and then the story about a small town besieged by zombies.

I officially started my RA treatment on 1st March 2016 - the tablets take 12 weeks to kick in meaning that my appointment this Tuesday 24th May is the point at which we should know if its working.  This feels like forever.

That said it was March 9th before I attempted mission 2. I was walking normally. I'd figured out a smart route home and I'd invested some HMV vouchers in some headphones that were amazing. Even better I discovered I could pause the app with the in-line controls. I would be unstoppable.  I've not been caught since! I did the 4km in 38m finishing the story in 33 mins and spending the rest of the time listening to the radio chatter.

My goodness I really needed to fix the music playlist though.  I set this up and resolved to wait a few weeks and go again.

Then something odd happened.

I was invited to come and spectate my partner's family on sports relief day  - in the UK this is a big charity thing where you walk a mile and get sponsored.  I hate sponsorship but agreed to show my support by watching.  It was far too early in the morning and it was really cloudy. I get cold really quickly at the moment and the prospect of standing around for two hours was miserable.  I already ached just getting there. I hit upon a great idea.  The set up was for 1 mile, 3 miles (what the family had been training for) and 5 miles.  3 miles is about 5K and out of the question.  If I walked a mile I'd go four times round the track, I'd warm up, I'd be *participating* and it would encourage the other family spectators we took to join in too.  After all - I'd already taken 4 painkillers that morning anyway.  At the table it was £7 to join in - all going to charity and the price didn't matter what distance you signed up to do.  I figured I'd sign up for the 5k and walk and drop out when the family finished.  I'd save my real 5k for the proper zombie run.

Abel Township however had other ideas.  As part of the Zombie Virtual Race package there were three missions.  Two 5k training missions and the race itself.  The first of these had become available about the time i did my last walk. I decided to play Race mission 1 and to just stop it when I stopped (the same as I'd done with the first normal mission) and then use the rest after I'd recovered.

The warm up turned out to be walking around the track twice - infuriating as this was half my distance, but doubly so as the 5 mile people started to right away after this, and we started a little later, cold again warm up negated.  Also everyone else had come dressed for the part - i was wearing my jeans and coat.  I took the coat and stashed it in my rucksack inside the track by the medical teams. I gravitated towards the back behind all the lycra and sports gear and began the countdown on the app after they all started.

I'd positioned myself right at the back expecting to be the slowest there. Everyone gradually started to walk.  I needed to loosen up, to relax and to get past the large clump of people who I'd let start in front of me. Most of all I just couldn't get warm with a gentle walk.  Unless I ran at least the first half a lap, just to clear a space and to get warm. And then I kept going.

I ran the first 6 laps.
I felt normal. 
I ran 2k. 
In 10:31.

Flow is very important. Sometimes the thing you are doing right now just feels right.  Running at a moderate pace felt right so I kept doing it.  I got a bit warm so undid my jacket and took off my gloves.  Oh yeah - I was also the only person wearing gloves.  Jeans did mean that I had space for my huge phone in my pocket though and the story and tunes were much more appropriate. Motivating but not pushing me too hard.

I'd lapped my friends by this point, but was sure that I'd burn out before they did - I wasn't too far off.

[Picked up a knee injury]

...I don't think my left knee liked all the turns...

It was a gradual shooting pain that started at about lap 5 and caused me to adjust my gait. I knew enough about movement to slow up a little and to stretch it out.  To be honest though I found it amusing.  It wasn't one of the normal daily pains and it was refreshing to hurt somewhere different.  My condition doesn't cause knee pain usually so I figured I'd just overdone it.  I resolved to walk for a lap (at usual turbo walking speeds) and my friends untapped themselves.

Then the panic came.  It wasn't an 'attack' in the game, but the story made sure I knew I had to run. Haim came on and played some breezy summer pop so I ran. Then I walked. Then I ran. I followed someone whose pace was similar to mine when I did the running at the start and made sure I stayed a similar distance to them, gradually catching them if anything. I finished the 5K in 28 mins. Beating the family members who had been training by a lap and a half, and deciding consciously not to sprint finish due to knee and not wanting to overtake the pace setter I'd credited for a lot of my success. 

[Picked up a medal and a bottle of water]

After the race my knee got worse.  The adrenalin had taken care of the excess pain but it was becoming very stiff and unmanageable.  The other family members walked causally up the steps to the car. I had to take each step one at a time with my full weight on the bannister.  I probably said a lot of swears.  I avoided getting up once in the pub, and really struggled for the rest of the day with basic movement tasks.

It took about a week to walk without any pain.  In that same week I did three more missions taking the total to 5.

I paid a year's subscription to the app before I did this allowing me to change the duration of the missions making them just a little shorter - 3km - and allowing me to use them to get home and still be able to pop into the shop [picked up a bottle of milk].  There is no limit to the number of [items] you can pick up on the paid version so the town evolves a lot faster.

The town became my town.  The runs became a reason to get items, and a reason to move the story forwards. The items became a reason to make the runs longer, and to not worry about the times.

I am Runner 5, and this is where I run/walk/run. It's a railway that is turned into a walkway for people and cyclists that connects two local areas and goes close enough to my house to be perfect.  I only found this due to a local walking scheme one year and I love it.

I happened to spend the weekend somewhere I had access to rough farmland/undergrowth and decided it would be perfect to do the 2nd 5k.  There was no way I could match a track based time when climbing fences - and as it turns out jumping puddles.  It is fairly apocalyptic, that's a single daffodil.  My jeans soaked up an awful lot of the morning's rain.

There were also real world pick up items. due to the neighbouring golf course

[Picked up 27 golf balls]

and more importantly I'd [picked up my zombie survival kit] in the post that week.

I completed the distance in 48 mins.  I had to dry my shoes out for three hours before I could go home on the bus.  I loved every minute - it was like being a kid again and having a reason to mess about in the fields.

I had 7 days left from that Monday to recover and run the real 5k.  I had settled on the running track next to where I first did my wrestling training and fantasised about various ways I could sneak in and use it, but it turns out you can just give them a fiver if you time it so there aren't any Sunday league matches on.

The footballers from the morning session were walking out as I lined up for the most appropriate lane which I kept for all of the run (except the bit where I had to shed layers).  I ran for the third 5K in a row in my jeans because it was now a tradition.

I probably started too fast again, but I was having fun, it was a nice day and the general wasn't going to get his way if I had anything to say about it!

I ran the wrong way around the track, putting the corner pressure on my right knee instead and it worked.  Whether it was all psychological or not it still worked.  I was not only able to walk home afterwards, but I suffered no ill effects.  I even managed some stairs.

My leaderboard time was in the top 10% (I think it was about 300 out of 3,600 in the end) and I didn't injure myself - win!

[Picked up a second medal]

Zombies, Run! is a very hard piece of software to review.  It's like a radio play box set that only makes sense when you are moving. And you really don't have to move that far or fast to take advantage of it.  Instead of setting the distance for a mission you can just set a time (on the paid version). A year of the app is £12.99 which is a lot less than most gyms charge for 1 month.

To me it's the birth of a new genre - games that take place in real space, but absolutely any real space.  You don't have to have a £700 VR set up - just a smart-phone and headphones.  If it could mark out objectives based on previous routes and get a bit smarter it'd be amazing - for instance it could spot that my road route and my forest route link up and tell me that the zombies were in the way and I'd have to go around instead of direct.  I know that wouldn't be beyond the realms of the technology, but in some ways I think that would ruin the simple meditative purity so it'd be a hard call to make.

It's helped make a time in my life when it's been very hard to look positive that little bit easier and it's given me motivation to do exercise and to get better. Today is the first day that I haven't taken painkillers in the morning in a long, long time.  It aches to type and it'll ache a lot more to type tomorrow, but I needed to document these things that are for me intrinsically linked. (note: I've since gone back to single pain killers morning and night instead of 4 at each). As mentioned this Tuesday is the date at which the meds officially take over, and they are certainly helping.  I get really tired, really easily but it's been a lot worse than this and it's easy to believe it'll be a lot better.

Some graffiti appeared in one of the tunnels on my walk home recently.  It cheers me up to see it as it marks the end of the woodland path and the ramp back up to the roads and normality.  Whether it's a zombie horde or a hidden illness that's getting you down there is always hope.

We can all be our own Runner 5.

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