We talked to Jonathan Sims, writer of our five-part horror New Adventure The Graveyard Route, about the evolution of the horror genre, historical influences, and the unique challenges of writing for fitness!
What do you particularly like about the horror genre?
It’s always been a genre that has compelled me. Some of my earliest favourite stories were from a ratty old copy of MR James’ tales. In my teens I graduated to classic gothic horror, then to the movies of the 80s and 90s as I went to university. Online creepypasta came into its own as I was starting my own writing, and recently the rise of unfiction and YouTube horror has been fascinating to watch. It’s a genre that continually finds new ways to intrigue me and scare me out of my wits. I also find it a wonderful genre to explore darker and more complex themes – plus it’s just great fun to write!
How is writing for the Zombies, Run! format different to writing regular audio drama? Did you enjoy the gaming aspect?
I’ve always been a big fan of Zombies, Run! and used it myself while doing a couch to 5k a few years ago. It’s a really interesting challenge to write for as well, especially the shorter and quite rigid scene lengths, and the fact that you always have to keep in mind the presence of the player as an active, silent, presence. The series I wrote doesn’t interact with the gaming side of Zombies, Run! directly, but the requirement to keep the listener active and “playing” adds a really lovely momentum to the writing.
The Graveyard Route is a horror anthology, like some of your previous work, including The Magnus Archives podcast and your novel Thirteen Storeys. What do you like about this format?
Horror is an interesting genre, in that to be effective the rhythm of it is just as important as character or plot, arguably more so. The atmosphere and dread need to build up to a crescendo point, then (ideally) land on a terrifying moment or dreadful piece of imagery. Because of this, it excels in short form, as the story doesn’t need to outstay that climax too long (and the protagonists don’t need to survive!). This does mean it sometimes struggles in longer form, as the scares can feel drawn out or inert. Linked anthologies are in some ways the best of both worlds, as it allows the gradual development of a longer narrative without having to sacrifice the bite-sized format that serves it so well.
How did you go about creating the different ghost characters?
They all started with the graveyard itself. Pittford Cemetery was maybe the first character I sat down and properly thought out: its atmosphere, its location and, most importantly, its history. What was its relationship to the surrounding lands and communities across the different eras of English history? Once I had that, the ghosts very much leapt out at me, three different ways of relating to the graveyard and the area around it: the local craftswoman, the heir to the estate, the woman of faith. Then it was simply a matter of figuring out their tales and the awful things that had happened to each of them, ideas that tend to come easily if you’ve been writing horror stories for a while.
The Graveyard Route mentions the Picts. Can you talk about the historical influences on the story?
I was very keen to tie English history and that sense of the past into the story, and while the ghosts themselves are all from comparatively recent centuries, I wanted to draw in some older influences. The early eras of the British Isles are fascinating to me, as they’re often reduced to simple terms (Roman, Early Medieval, Norman, etc.), but have always in actuality been a complex network of tribes and cultures and civilisations, most of which get elided or shuffled together in the historical imagination. The Picts are such group, and tend to be a bit side-lined in favour of the better-remembered Celts or Saxons, so I decided to dive into a bit of research. Plus, I wanted a bit of mystical flavour, and Latin felt a bit trite, so I thought some Pictish symbol stones might be fun – and might encourage people to look up image of Pictish symbol stones, because they’re really cool!
Is there any horror you’d like to recommend – books, films, games etc?
My list is always a bit too long for this question, so I try to tailor my recommendations to the work itself. For this one, I’d probably go with a bit of a meta-recommendation: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a documentary about Folk Horror currently showing on Shudder. It’s a pretty solid documentary, but more importantly, it’s a really great to-watch list of excellent Folk Horror movies, many of which were very present in my mind while working on this series. I’ll also give a shout-out to The Excavation of Hobb’s Barrow, a point-and-click video game I’ve just started playing that so far has some really good vibes comparable to The Graveyard Route.
Yep, you read that right: from today to the end of November, we’re knocking a colossal 40% off our VIP and Abel Runner’s Club gift memberships! It’s the perfect gift for the potential Runners Five amongst your friends and family – or for treating yourself.
With Abel’s Runner’s Club, you’ll receive instant access to over 600 missions, and you’ll unlock our Zombies, Run! 5K Training app and The Walk, a walking spy thriller. You’ll also get access to awesome ZR features like custom zombie chases, Interval Training, and Airdrop Mode.
And if you get tired of running from zombies (is it possible?) you’ll have unlimited access to our latest New Adventures including The Graveyard Route, a five-part series from writer Jonathan Sims (The Magnus Archives) and The Brain, a scientific 10K run through your grey matter, developed in partnership with the boffins at the University of Reading.
Our best-ever package, VIP membership, gets you access to all this PLUS all 14 Virtual Races, plus two upcoming races in the next year! Every race comes with a bonanza of bonus material, from secret websites, to puzzles, minigames, and access to our private forum, ROFFLENET.
Hello horror fans and welcome to our very special five-part Halloween New Adventure, The Graveyard Route!
A podcast tour of the picturesque Pittford Cemetery seems like the perfect way to spend an evening. But as the night draws in, there are voices in the shadows and a dark past that should not be forgotten. You have the Sight, and the inhabitants of the cemetery are grateful to tell you the tales of woe and misfortune which brought them to rest here. A poor woman whose foresight made her a pariah. A wealthy heir whose unsavoury pastimes led to ruin. A pious nun whose visions heralded terrible tragedy.
Are you able to help them, or will your Sight bring just as much ruin to you?
It’s written by Jonathan Sims, writer and lead actor of hit horror podcast The Magnus Archives, and author of Thirteen Stories and the brand new Family Business.
Episode 1 launches on Tuesday October 25th!
How to get The Graveyard Route
The Graveyard Route is completely free, and exclusively available in the Zombies, Run! app on Android and iPhone. You can download Zombies, Run! for free from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store, select an episode, and join the tour!
You won’t be surprised to hear that Zombies, Run! is designed around running. That’s how our main story works – you run in the real world accompanied by a thrilling zombie apocalypse audio adventure, and when you get chased by zombies, you have to speed up! The Graveyard Route is also designed to be listened to while you walk, jog, or run – and even better, our wide range of tracking settings mean this story is accessible for almost everyone.
Whether you feel like running or not, you can choose the distance or length of time you’d like each episode to last for. If you are running, choose our GPS and Step Counting options; and if you aren’t, just choose “Simulate running”. There’s no speed requirement, and you’ll never be penalised for not being fast enough. And if you pick a music playlist, we’ll fill the time between story clips with your creepiest tunes!
Live Twitch Event!
To celebrate this special set of missions, you can join us for a conversation between director, Ella Watts, creative lead Matt Wieteska, and Jonathan Sims himself. Catch it over on our Twitch channel on October 26th 8pm, just after the release of Episode 1!
If you like The Magnus Archives then…
We’re incredibly excited to bring you The Graveyard Route, but while you wait, why not check out some of our other stories which are sure to give devoted horror fans a chill, and it goes far beyond zombies!
In Between the Lines, take a run with the thrilling audiobook ‘Never Alone’. A man with mysterious motives, a long abandoned house, and a secret that bled into the ground itself. Are you ready, rabbitfoot?
In Little Red, you’re a mercenary hired to escort a girl to her grandmother’s house. It should be an easy task. But are there worse things in the woods than big bad wolves?
In The 13th Runner, set out on a running route which has become near mythical. Twelve people have attempted it, but no-one has completed it. Is it just a tough challenge, or are you being trolled?
In Lost in the Corn, a summer picnic with your best friends takes a turn for the horrifying. Is it all a practical joke, or is something lurking between the rows of corn?
In Godmaker, a five-part New Adventure by award-winning writer Mur Lafferty, become an apprentice to the Godmaker as you learn to craft idols for the people of the Necropolis. But war is breaking out, something is hiding in the ossuaries, and the idols are awakening!
In White Out, travel to the far North as you train with your dog sled. but there’s a musher missing, and something strange in the old trapper cabin. Will you survive the winter?
Run, don’t walk: ZR11 is out now! It’s been a year in the making, but it’s finally here, and it’s packed with amazing improvements.
Introducing Season 1: Redesigned
Season 1 has a new sound – literally! It’s a complete redesign with brand new sound effects for a more immersive and higher quality experience. Technology (and our editing know-how) has come a long way since 2011, when we recorded Season 1 in a makeshift bedroom studio.
It’s been a thrilling ride raising Season 1 to the standard of our current stories with more professional equipment. We truly hope you enjoy the new sound as much as we do! And don’t worry: all the original performances will remain exactly the same, so you can be just as motivated, thrilled and entertained by our amazing cast as you ever have been.
The new Season 1 audio will be available to all ZR11 players in the coming weeks – just update your app and download the Season 1 missions!
Share your thoughts on the new audio with us on social media, and check out this quick preview!
Four New Languages, Out Now!
ZR11 is also bringing four new languages to Zombies, Run! We’ve localised all of Season 1, plus Supply Missions and Radio Mode. And we didn’t stop there… We’ve also overhauled the entire app so that we can bring the entire interface to users in their chosen language.
So if you or any friends speak French, Spanish, Korean, or Japanese, this is for you! And if you’re learning a new language, there’s not much to beat hearing Sam in French. Welcome to the Abel Township Community!
This has taken a whole year of serious production and engineering work behind the scenes, both on the app and online, and it’s laid the groundwork for improvements and new features for all players. We’re incredibly excited to be able to launch this and hope to add more languages in the future!
Again, these four new languages are available to all ZR11 players – just update your app, select your language, and experience the story anew!
Thank you, Runners, for your continued support! We can’t do this without you and hope to continue to be a part of such an amazing community!
We’re looking for a small group of players who can help us test in these languages! If you’re fluent or highly proficient in French, Spanish, Korean, or Japanese, we’d love you to help us check if we’ve got everything right, and fix any problems before they go out to the wider public.
Interested? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “ZR Testing” and the language you speak in the subject (so if you speak Spanish, your subject line would be “ZR Testing – Spanish”)
I’ll be honest – I knew we had an incredible idea in Zombies, Run!, a running game and audio adventure that would make exercise more exciting – but I never imagined it would last for ten years. iPhone and Android apps had only been around for a few years: who knew what we’d all be doing in 2022?
But that idea, and the story of Abel Township’s brave survivors (crafted by Naomi Alderman, the game’s co-creator and lead writer), was more tenacious than I thought. It wasn’t just a fun distraction. It became a way for millions of people to motivate themselves to run just one more kilometre, to get going on a rainy Sunday morning to find out what happens next, and to make friends with fellow players around the world. It mattered in a way that I never imagined was possible.
Ten years ago on March 10th y’all saved my life. Thank you.
It was only thanks to our enormously talented cast and crew that this happened. Zombies, Run! is a team effort, which is why it’s persisted for a decade and counting.
In this retrospective, I want to skip the usual stats and look at some of our most memorable moments and lessons learned. If you want to know “how we did it” and what mistakes we made, you’ve come to the right place.
– Adrian Hon, co-creator and lead designer of Zombies, Run!, and CEO of Six to Start
At Six to Start, we take it for granted that storytelling, alongside gameplay, is one of the most powerful ways to motivate people. Everyone’s different, but we all enjoy a great book or movie or TV show. So why shouldn’t exercise also involve storytelling?
One obvious problem is that good storytelling is incredibly hard. A less obvious problem is how you integrate it with an activity like running, where you can’t look at the screen or press buttons as you move. Our solution was to use first person audio storytelling to immerse players into our world, and to mix it with the player’s own music for the perfect balance of intensity.
It’s surprising how few other companies have been able to pull this off successfully. I think a lot of people still can’t believe it actually works, and even if they do, they see “zombies” and imagine it’s just an app where you hear zombies growl at you occasionally, and you’re instructed to run here or there for supplies. Anyone who’s played even a single mission knows it’s much more special than that – more akin to the very best TV shows or novels than just a novelty.
It’s hard to talk about how the story of Zombies, Run! has evolved and grown over the last decade without massive spoilers, but it’s safe to say that Naomi and her team of incredible writers have managed to create an epic, thrilling, and emotional tale serialised across hundreds of missions. We’ve gone from a crumbling township in the UK to a globe-trotting adventure with a cast of dozens – and with stakes as high as, well, the zombie apocalypse, as intimate as love and betrayal, and as hilarious as chasing after an escaped chicken.
That’s why ten million people have downloaded Zombies, Run!, and why we’ve regularly had hundreds of thousands of active players and tens of thousands of subscribers. The greatest compliment I can pay to Naomi’s team is that they make it look easy!
For many players, the audio story is our main attraction, and so we’ve made it central to our production and development. We’re unusual among audio drama companies for the sheer time and effort we pour into making the best stories we can, and practically unique in how our technology – both in the app and behind the scenes – is tailored to support that process.
The Abel Township Community
The moment I realised that we were responsible for a community and not just a game was in April 2013, just after Zombies, Run! 2 had launched. We were incredibly proud of the massive, across-the-board upgrades we’d made to the app, and none moreso than the Base Builder. In ZR1, you couldn’t move or customise buildings, which meant that everyone had the same base. Other than the neat detail that you upgraded buildings by assigning specific supplies to them (e.g. first aid kits for the hospital), it was pretty unsatisfying.
So for ZR2, we wanted to create a more complex and interesting tile-based base builder in which players could choose exactly which buildings they wanted in their base and where to place them. There’d be more interactions between buildings, more requirements, add-ons and levelling, new buildings unlocked based on your story progress – the works.
But when we released the app, not everyone was happy: we’d just wiped out their base. We might not have thought much of it from a game design perspective, but thousands of players had put countless hours of sweat and tears into rebuilding it. To us at Six to Start, it was old and busted. To players, it was their base. And even though the replacement was “better”, even though you could still see a snapshot of your old base online, it wasn’t the same.
It’s obvious now, but we’d been deeply inconsiderate. There are better ways we could have handled the change, and we’ve been much more respectful since then. Sometimes we make changes that aren’t universally popular, but it’s not because we haven’t thought them through carefully!
Milestones, Not Achievements
One of the greatest things about Zombies, Run! isn’t what it has but what it lacks: achievements. True, we added some achievements in mid-2013 after a lot of requests, but it’s not something we foreground in the app. We spend far more time on our milestone emails, which players receive after completing certain missions or hitting key running or game targets.
Milestone emails are different because they’re so tightly tied to what makes Zombies, Run! unique. Instead of a generic achievement that could’ve come from a million other gamified apps, you get a message from an in-game character you care about – a message that could’ve only come from Zombies, Run! These take us far longer to write and illustrate, but that’s what makes them more meaningful.
That’s why you don’t see much traditional gamification in Zombies, Run! It’s not stuffed with experience points or levels or leaderboards. We’re focused on what makes running more exciting and satisfying in the moment – and in the long term.
Back in 2015, we kept hearing about this strange thing called a “virtual race”. Apparently people were paying to receive a medal for saying they’d run a 5K or 10K distance – and they wanted Zombies, Run! to do the same.
The idea of essentially selling a medal for $30 didn’t seem right to us, but creating a paid worldwide event where all our players ran the same missions during the same fortnight was exciting. Even more exciting was the idea to include new ways to deepen the story in the real world, through physical artefacts in our virtual race pack, like a certificate from our characters and a special multi-use tea towel:
Our first race, in the fall of 2015, was a huge hit, and in the following years they’d get bigger and better every time, including ARG-style websites, puzzle books, ID cards, phone numbers, and even entire online games. Last year, Matt Wieteska’s Jack & Eugene’s World Tour was over three times longer than our usual race, with six separate training missions, three races, and an hour-long “ambient” mission to chill out to! And this month brings us to thirteen virtual races over seven years…
Shipping tens of thousands of virtual race packs was no mean feat. We converted half of our London office into a mini-warehouse and shipping area, and became experts in figuring out how best to label and package items for Royal Mail, not to mention sourcing quality merch and dealing with international logistics. Not bad for a small indie game developer.
The pandemic and ensuing shipping problems have made it hard to offer the same kind of race packs in the past year, along with Six to Start becoming a fully-remote company. But we’re always looking for smart ways to make our virtual races the best and most immersive in the world, and you can be sure we have plenty of ideas…
The first season of Zombies, Run! was recorded with bedsheets to muffle noise, and with frequent pauses whenever a noisy bus passed by our makeshift recording studio. While we might not have been recording at Abbey Road, our actors and Audio Director Matt Wieteska made up for it with immense gusto – if you’ve listened to A Voice in the Darkor Horde, chances are you won’t mind the bedsheets.
Over the years, the bedsheets were replaced by a custom “recording tent” in office, and then by a fully-fledged soundbooth shipped from the US, which was perfect other than its tendency to overheat in the summer. When we went fully-remote, we finally began hiring a dedicated recording studio in London, and since 2020, all of our recording has been online.
Some things have stayed the same. Unlike other games companies, we’ve always tried to record with as many cast members as possible at the same time, because we know that performances are better when actors can react to each other – and when they can take their time. But as the diversity of our characters have changed, so too has our casting process. Now that we record online, we’ve been able to cast from almost anywhere, which has been both essential and rewarding for literal round-the-world stories like Jessica Wright Buha’s Nellie Bly, not to mention Avin Shah’s The Signals Warand our upcoming All Hands To Freedom by Jess Erion.
Reliability and Sustainability
It doesn’t matter if you have the world’s greatest game if it keeps crashing. If you want to make something that lasts for ten years, you have to care about something that you can’t show on any screenshot: reliability.
That goes doubly for fitness apps, where a crash during a run could mean an hour’s effort lost and a bug means an extra minute spent fiddling with your phone out in the cold. While there have been times when Zombies, Run!’s crash rate hasn’t been great, in recent years we’ve driven it down incredibly low. This isn’t always easy given how much Zombies, Run! does – audio, music, gameplay, GPS tracking, network syncing – all while the phone’s screen is off, but it’s key to what we do.
Anyone who’s made even the simplest of apps will know how tricky it is to keep it maintained year after year, as new iOS and Android capabilities are introduced and old ones are deprecated. Sometimes it can feel like you’re treading water rather than getting anywhere useful. And it’s hard to know when you should be adding new features or refactoring old code. Amid a sea of buggy and abandoned apps, I’m so proud of how solid Zombies, Run! is, and it’s all thanks to our developers and QA team – truly the best in the business.
Ten More Years
In 2032, will we all be wearing augmented reality displays and running from 3D zombies? I’ve been doing this for long enough to know better than to make predictions. What I do know is that for as long as people want to keep getting fit, there’ll be a place for Zombies, Run!
We’ll supply the motivation. All you need is to do is pull on your trainers.
This summer, we’re incredibly excited to be bringing Zombies, Run! to four new languages! We’re starting with the core Zombies, Run! experience, including all of Season 1 (plus Abel and New Canton races), Supply Missions and Radio Mode.
The entire audio for all those missions has been completely translated and redesigned for French, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish, and we’re incredibly pleased by the quality of the work by our partners at TransPerfect. Just check out this trailer!
But that’s not all. This is a full localisation of the Zombies, Run! app, which means the entire user interface, from the mission titles to the Codex to the Base Builder has been translated. This has required almost a year of serious production and engineering work behind the scenes, both on the app and online, and it’s laid the groundwork for improvements and new features for all players.
Ever since we launched Zombies, Run! ten years ago, we’ve had thousands of emails from players asking us to translate the app into other languages. We’ve always wanted to do the best job possible, though, which is why we’ve waited until we had the resources and talent required to do the game and story justice.
We’ll have more to share about our launch in French, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish in the coming months but just remember: as long as you can move faster than a slow shamble, Abel Township needs you – wherever you are.
On February 27th, your favourite running app will be marking its ten-year anniversary! That’s ten years of zombie chases, ten years of raising gates, and ten years of voices in the dark. We couldn’t be more proud to have spent a decade right alongside you, Runner Five.
We couldn’t let this occasion pass without some serious celebration, so here’s a sneak peek at what we have planned. Our plans extend throughout the summer, so keep your eyes on our Twitter and Facebook pages for the latest info & extra details as we announce them!
27/02/22: Zombies, Run! Tenth Birthday – we’ll be celebrating with a special message on our brand-new TikTok account, so make sure to follow us before the big day!
March: Livestream Recording Session – step behind the scenes as we gather our old friends together for a live re-recording of some of your favourite Abel Township moments
March: A look back at 10 years of Zombies, Run! – keep your eyes on our blog as Zombies, Run! co-creator explores a decade(!) of Zombies, Run! highlights
April: Exclusive 10th Anniversary Merch – brand new designs just for the fans, celebrating our favourite Zombies, Run! memories
Spring:Zombies, Run! Season 9 Part 2 – we won’t keep you waiting any longer! The return of the Zombies, Run! main storyline brings new revelations, new drama, and even more reasons to love your favourite characters.
Spring: 10th Anniversary Base Building – bring the party into the post-apocalypse, as Abel Township itself celebrates 10 years of survival.
Spring: Top Secret Content Release – we’ve got something very exciting in the works that we can’t wait to share with you all! Rest assured – it’s a great way to celebrate 10 years since we first raised those gates!
Summer: Summer Run Celebration – we’ll be spreading the love as the sun returns with this charity-focused birthday celebration!
Year-Round:New Adventures, New Storylines – we’re giving you even more reasons to run this year as we continue to expand our New Adventures catalog, including some returning favourites, exciting special guest writers, and even some brand-new zombie-centric storylines…
It’s a big, exciting year for us here at Six to Start – with the 10-year anniversary, our growing catalogue of incredible New Adventures, and more (extremely exciting) projects still to be announced. We can’t wait to share it all with you!
When adventure calls, heroes answer. When old evils return, legends rise. The Grail Quest comes to Abel, and dragon-fire and darkness await…
Take up your sword and save the realm in our upcoming Spring 2022 Virtual Race, Runners of the Round Table!
Our latest race brings us back to Abel! Join Sam and Maxine on the hunt for vital melee weapons – and the fabled Demons and Darkness module Excalibur Rising – from a zombie-infested convention. But when strange events follow you beyond the gaming tables, could the legends be real? Find out this March…
It’s easy to enter – just upgrade to a VIP membership in the app! Not only will you get access to this race, but you’ll also have instant access our 12 past virtual races. You can also buy a gift membership for yourself or friends from just $49.99 USD!
The adventure of a lifetime is not one to be forgotten: immerse yourself in the world of “Excalibur Rising” with our gorgeous cotton shirt, hoodie, tote, mug, and poster! Even better: VIP members get a 20% discount code off all merch.
We’re getting ready to roll out our latest iOS update to ZR, and we’d like your help make as it good as it can be by joining our beta testing group. It’s easy and fun and you get to check out all the latest features early – although because these are pre-release versions, there is a chance the app could be a little less stable than usual!