Naomi Alderman interview: Zombies, Run!, crying, and music
We caught up with award-winning novelist Naomi Alderman to talk about the horror-themed running app she writes
What’s the most important thing you could do to prepare yourself for a zombie apocalypse? Okay, you could start stockpiling canned food and water; you could learn to shoot a gun; and you could watch Dawn of the Dead over and over until you can recite it by heart. But you’d still be missing something. To survive when the dead are walking the Earth, you’re gonna need to be able to run.
And if you fancy getting in some training now, Zombies, Run! might be the app for you. It’s an immersive running game which casts the player as a character – as Runner Five, you’ll be asked to collect both supplies and intelligence from the world beyond the walls of the tiny stronghold of survivors you’ve ended up in. While you run, you’ll hear story clips interspersed with songs from your own playlist. It’s a simple but devastatingly effective concept, and just about the only thing that’s persuaded me to go out running since compulsory PE lessons.
What makes Zombies, Run! work is the fact that it’s really, really well written. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, since its head writer is Naomi Alderman, an award-winning novelist and broadcaster who’s just been named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.
Following the release of Zombies, Run!’s second season, I caught up with Alderman to find out a bit more about the game…
Zombies, Run! is such a brilliant idea; both using the threat of zombies to encourage people to run, and creating an immersive storyline to keep them coming back for more. Where did the idea come from?
So my friend Adrian Hon and I had been thinking for a while that we should make something together. Adrian runs a games company, Six to Start, and he’s a keen runner, and was interested in making a running app, something that’d make running more fun. I’d just done a ‘beginning to run’ course. Right at the start, the organisers said “so, why do you want to run?” and someone answered “to outrun the zombie horde” which made everyone laugh. So when we sat down to chat through app ideas, and Adrian said “a running app?”, I said “how about something where you’re outrunning the zombie horde?!” and that’s where it all started.
The game was initially funded through Kickstarter, and was massively successful. Were you surprised by the level of demand? Why do you think zombie stories are still so popular?
I was surprised, though I think Adrian was a bit less so? It was just a funny idea we came up with one afternoon to me, I didn’t necessarily think it, ahem, had legs. But obviously it did!
As to the popularity… now that I’ve got interested in zombies (I’d never even seen Night of the Living Dead before Zombies, Run! got funded) I think I can see it. There are lots of things about them – in fact I’ve written a whole essay for Granta on zombies – but one key one is that they’re parodies of human beings. They’re both frightening, horrifying and funny.
What’s the writing process like? It seems very structured, in terms of how many clips there are in each mission and how long they go on for. And then there are other limits, like leaving space for the player to feel like a character in the game. How do you balance all those considerations when writing the story?
Interesting. So I’ve felt my way as I go – but it feels very natural to me to write like this, mostly because I’m the one who came up with the idea of how the story could fit into the gameplay so of course it feels natural to me! I wanted to do it in a way that’d feel like a US TV show, structured around “ad breaks” (music) and with good cliff-hangers at the end of every section to keep you coming back after the ads (in our case, keep you running). Fortunately for me, there’s a lot of literature out there about how to do that – I read a lot of Buffy scripts, I read what Sorkin says about how to do it.
As to making the player feel part of the game – one thing is that we always make Runner Five do what’s reasonable. We never put Five into a situation where the player’s going “that’s just stupid, I’d never do that” – because then the player will be dragged out of the narrative. Which takes some thought.
You also can’t underestimate the immersiveness of actually doing what your character in the game is doing. Waving a Wiimote around doesn’t count – imagine if you played Zelda by using actual boomerangs and sparring with your friend with a sword. The immersion would get pretty intense pretty quickly!
I remember you saying something on Twitter a while ago about how exercising affects how a story works – it seems to heighten emotions, somehow? How do you take that into account when writing? Season 1 mission 9 was when I knew you’d got me, when I wanted to go faster to get ‘home’ even though the logical part of my brain knew it made no sense, because the mission was timed, and it didn’t really matter how fast I went… but I still sped up!
Heh, people seem to love that mission 9! I do think that exercising makes you feel things more strongly. I remember when I was grieving for a family member a few years ago, I’d cry every time I went to the gym. It’s just hormonal, a release of the control we usually have, and probably something about how exercise feels quite extreme for your body anyway? And when I did that running course, I cried while running quite often – mostly remembering horrible school gym lessons and going through some of those feelings. So I’m happy to be able to pass the experience of crying-while-running on to a few hundred thousand other people!
How far in advance do you plan out the plotlines? It’s well into its second season now, did you always know that’d happen?
I hoped it would, and I planned with that in mind. In fact we sat down before I wrote season one, and worked out the basic “what’s really going on?” for enough story to last us at least three seasons. So I still have a lot of it in my head.
Having said that, sometimes you sit down and you find a great idea in the writing. I wrote a tiny bit of the Doctor’s girlfriend Paula because I wanted her to give us a vital clue, and then liked the character so much I just wanted to keep writing her…
The voice acting is fantastic. How involved were you in casting the voice actors?
It is, isn’t it?! I was involved in casting decisions for all our main characters for Season 1, less involved in Season 2 because of timing – and because our sound director Matt Wieteska has it well in hand.
My proudest moments are that Phil Nightingale who plays Sam came in to read for a different role and I listened with my eyes shut and said “hmm. Can you wait here, we might want you to read for something else.” He sounded like a Sam, that combination of nervousness and humour. And when Victoria Grove came to read, we didn’t have a part for her, but I loved her voice so much I wrote a little something inspired by her.
Are you involved with the actual recording of the game?
I love sitting in on the recordings. Sometimes I’m helpful to explain a line or give a note, mostly it’s just really useful for me to hear what the actors’ ranges are, where they’re really great at funny, for example, so it’s a good idea for me to give them more of that. I didn’t know how I wanted them to sound before we cast, but now I’ve got the cast I like to write to their talents.
Margaret Atwood is a character in season 2, how did that come about?
She is mentoring me this year as part of the Rolex Mentor/Protegee Arts Initiative. I think the second time we met I said “do you fancy being in Zombies, Run!?” and she said “OK”, with a gleam in her eye. The silliness is all a part of the delight of working with her.
Will there be more celebrity voice cameos in future?
I really hope we do get more voice cameos! I’ll have to get on that…
There’s a lot of fanfiction and fanart out there, how does it feel seeing that? You’ve even hired a fanfic writer to write some season 2 missions…
Oh it’s amazing. Wonderful! I love seeing the fan creations.
As to Andrea, who’s written for the game, basically Matt and I both loved her fan fiction writing – and she had the characters’ voices pitch perfect. So after thinking for a couple of weeks “wouldn’t it be cool if we got a fanfic writer to write for the game, but I guess that’s not allowed” I suddenly realised that I am the co-creator and lead writer and if I say it’s allowed, it’s allowed!
She’s so versatile as a writer, and loves and knows the game better than I do – I really don’t understand why more creators don’t reach out to their fan community stars for writing. I think there are people writing Community fanfic, for example, which is better than what they’re currently doing with Community.
Speaking of fan reactions – did you always know everyone would fall madly in love with Sam, the radio operator? It seems kind of unavoidable sometimes…
I did not. I certainly didn’t fall in love with him while writing him, I think it’s all in Phil’s performance. But I guess, he’s a man who’s always on your side, never doubts you, thinks what you do is super-cool, tells you what he’s feeling without being prompted… yes, he’s a female fantasy man. We do need a few more of those in our culture.
One of my favourite things about the game is that it works with your own playlist, and sometimes the songs that pop up on shuffle seem almost too fitting. I’ve had some fun ones recently, like Bastille’s Things We Lost In The Fire during part of season 1 mission 14, for example. Can you recommend any particular songs for players to listen to while running?
Heh, I love that too. It’s like my story is randomised a bit every time someone plays it, because music has so much to do with mood. I listen to terrible music when exercising. I mean like, early Madonna, Boney M, the Fratellis, Shakira… I can’t claim interesting musical taste. But in fact most of the Season 2 missions are named for songs on my workout playlist so you can get a sense from that.
Naomi Alderman, thank you very much!
The Zombies, Run! app is available for iOS and Android devices; get more info and download it from www.zombiesrungame.com.
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