The Blog: Inventing a Wheel – My Interview with Naomi Alderman

Here is the complete transcript of the interview I conducted with Naomi Alderman, co-creator and writer of Sixtostart‘s Zombies Run!  If you want to listen to the show in which it featured, listen to Digital Wanderlust: Dead On My Feet

Kris: What was the inspiration for the creation of Zombies Run!?

Naomi: Me and Adrian (he runs Six to Start, which is the games company that makes the game and I write the game), so me and Adrian have been friends for quite a while and we’ve worked together before, and we’ve kept saying that we ought to find a new project to work on together. He is a very keen runner and had been interested for a while in making a game which would make running more fun. I had just taken a ‘beginning to run’ course and in the first session, the instructor said to us: ‘so why do you want to learn how to run?’ And people said ‘oh I want to be fit’, ‘I want to be healthy’ or ‘it looks like fun’, whatever. And one woman said, ‘I want to be able to escape from the zombie hoard’. And it became like a little thing that we’d say to each other, ‘oh yeah we’re out-running the zombies’. So when Adrian and I sat down to chat, he said to me ‘I want to make something that makes running more fun’, I instantly said, ‘we should make something where you have to run away from the zombie hoard!’ And the whole idea came from there really, and in that first meeting we worked out that you should have a base that you would be upgrading, because you know going out to get supplies and that would be why you were running and that you would go out on missions, so really it came from that. But I often think actually, if I were a really enthusiastic runner, I would never have come up with this idea, because it’s really an idea that would be come up with by somebody who knows that they need more motivation to get out there than just ‘ooh yes I love to run’.

Kris: That kind of springs on to the next question I want to ask you which is where my point of interest comes into it, this sense of performativity. So I was going to ask, what for you are the benefits of having a narrative for the runner as an accompaniment to their exercise?

Naomi: I don’t think it’ll work for everyone. I just want to be very clear about that. I don’t feel like everyone needs or wants to have a story while they’re running. However, there are a few things. One is that it distracts you from the pain of exercise (the physical pain and also psychological pain, like making yourself do something). The second is that I think it reminds you of why it is you want to be fitter in the first place. In the modern world we don’t really need our fitness very much, we have motorised transport and we have escalators and ways to get places without having to use our fitness, but we all know that if things were to go horribly wrong, we’d suddenly need it. So it kind of puts you in that situation where (you know there aren’t any zombies obviously – hopefully not), but it puts you in that situation where your face-to-face with a life-or-death situation and that reminds you of why it is that you wanted this in the first place. I also think it’s funny. I think there’s a sort of brilliant thing that happens in your brain where the back of your brain, which is a kind of animal/lizard brain has all the instincts like running away from predators and the front of your brain knows that it’s all a lie. So when you hear growling behind you, the back of your brain’s going: RUN! RUN! RUN! and the front of your brain is laughing. That combination makes the experience of running more joyful.

Kris: I agree, and I think it’s because your moving at such a pace, it makes it easier for you to suspend your disbelief at these zombie hoards, which I find very interesting compared to walking.

Naomi: I would also say, as a storyteller I benefit from the exercise high. It doesn’t happen very often to a storyteller where they can benefit from hormonal changes in their audience whilst they tell you a story, to make it feel all more intense and more real.

Kris: That’s true actually in the sense that the age-old tropes of narrative construction – such as building to a climax – are here made physical, depending on the landscape you’re walking in; which brings me to my next question: when you were writing, how did you retain the integrity and quality of the drama whilst ensuring that it was a flexible enough tool for different runners in different locations?

Naomi: Interesting.

Kris: For example, I played the game in the countryside, but I know a number of people who have played it in the city and we’ve both had different experiences because of that fact.

Naomi: I definitely think – and I wouldn’t say that I did this consciously – but I had, whilst I was writing it, I had been going out on little runs in various places where I was and I travel around quite a lot, so I’d just go out wherever I was. So I definitely think that I had in mind all the time people would be using it in different environments. Also I think we benefit a lot from people’s ability to overlay a story onto the environment they’re in. It’s something that writers think about a lot actually, is how much your audience has to bring to the work, and how much of an audience’s experience of the work is dependent on what they bring to it actually, rather than what you give them. So we’ve left the descriptions of the geography – of where you are – really quite vague, and that’s on purpose, an occasionally people say ‘we should do a map’ and I just think we probably shouldn’t do a map, because once you do a map, then it takes away from people’s ability to imagine that they can instantly be in town the minute they’re out running. But also I think we tend to give quite vague descriptions of things, so we say ‘see the tall tower there with the red sign on it’, and this could be anything, from a three storey building to a skyscraper and people overlay that onto the landscape, because they want to see it. Basically we’re taking advantage of the fact that people want to see what they want to see.

Kris: For me it was a church in my village that was the tower.

Naomi: Excellent.

Kris: You just pounce on these things when you see them, just make a beeline straight for them. It’s a fantastic feeling when you get that.

Naomi: Excellent, excellent. I go out with it still, and there’s one where they’re talking about the old castle and a certain point I was running past an old castle and that was amazing. But also, you interpret any building more than fifty years old. You go ‘oh yeah that could be an old castle, they probably bashed it around a bit’, because you want it. I suppose it’s a kind of Derren Brown thing or cold reading, people want to be helpful. And so if you say to them: ‘Do you see the old castle?’ They will try and find an old castle.

Kris: They’ll fill in the gaps for you, almost like a choose-your-own-adventure story. We gravitate towards these gaps and try and fill them.

Naomi: Absolutely so.

Kris: An interesting thing I found was that, as I was running – I was running over winter actually, so it was quite cold out and hardly any people were out, so it was very bleak and almost apocalyptic – but if I did see people, I would almost turn my head and edit them out of my vision, almost as if I was filming.

Naomi: Amazing. But if you had been in a huge park, full of people, you might have interpreted them all as zombies.

Kris: Exactly, and I think that’s very interesting how we instantly try to deliberately keep ourselves in front of the curtain, looking through this frame.

Naomi: Yes, and as long as we don’t deliberately break it for you, and people say to us ‘oh but we’d love to have missions that we could run in my area, where it tells me to go to this supermarket’, and you really wouldn’t actually, you wouldn’t like it to be  that specific. You don’t want to have to go to an actual hospital, in order to pick up bandages. For one thing, this would make your runs terribly annoying, because who knows where the nearest hospital to you is, but for another thing, I think part of the enjoyment of it is being encouraged to do a little bit of imaginative projection.

Kris: Exactly, which comes back to this idea of running, and how that helps facilitate this ability for us to conjure up these imagined geographies. It is a radio play in some senses as well, which plays very heavily on our imagination. I think what’s quite interesting for me is that I’ve almost made is specialised to that particular geography myself. It has become personal to me, I can’t imagine playing that game in any other location than where I experienced it. It seems very strange to me, I’ve got it all mapped in my head, it’s all transposed onto the village, which I think is very interesting.

Naomi: That is great. People talk about location-based gaming as if that means site-specific, but actually they’re very different things. I think that exact thing is very enjoyable. Just to be encouraged to imagine, to be encouraged to do a little bit of make-believe and to be given the tools to do it with. 

Kris: I totally agree. In my area of research, performance studies, the term ‘site-specific’ is really contentious because you have to first define ‘site’ and then define how it is ‘specific’, and what you find out that everything is in a sense site-specific, you make it specific to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s got a GPS element to it or not, you can make it specific to your experience.

Naomi: That’s really interesting, because wherever you are you’re somewhere.

Kris: Exactly. And you’re also running, so you’re kind of suspended from place anyway, you’re kind of slightly detached from it.

Naomi: You can be on a treadmill and that’s a completely different kind of experience to have with the game, where you know you’re only in one place but at that point it’s as if you are watching a movie – which people do when they’re on the treadmill.

Kris: Exactly. I know a lot of people when they’re running they almost create a narrative about it to help them plough onwards, so all this game does really is act as a catalyst for something that is already inherent within us.

Naomi: It’s something that I’ve done many a time, at the gym being bored. Imagine myself as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You kind of get your adrenalin up, a little bit of being afraid, so I’ve really just done that for other people.

Kris: What sort of feedback have you received from people who have played the game and are they all from a similar demographic?

Naomi: This is interesting. We’ve had a lot of great feedback is the answer. The feedback has been amazing. Very rarely we’ll get somebody going ‘oh I didn’t like it’, but mostly we’ve had people dressing up in costume as Runner 5 – I just saw today someone trying to do a run with all the equipment that we had told them they had picked up on the run in an actual backpack, which is fantastic. We have, unusually for a videogame of any sort, equal players men and women. Which I put down partly to women interested in fitness things and partly because I am a bloody feminist. I write good female characters in it, and I don’t think that the female characters should just be the ones that are saved – and I’m going to carry on doing that forever. We’ve had great feedback from people getting really excited about the story, there’s a lot of fan-fiction which you might want to check out – maybe just go do a search for ‘Zombies Run! fanfiction’, you’ll find some. It’s really cool. So the demographic, it skews younger – and that’s partly because smartphone owners are younger – so it skews more to sort of 18-40, but actually we’ve got quite a good demographic in their forties and even older people, so we’re quite happy that we’re reaching quite a wide audience, a geeky audience. There are a lot of geeks out there.

Kris: I’m proud to call myself a member of that community.

Naomi: Hurrah! Me too.

Kris: Having written for a number of videogames, what for you is it about gaming that makes it an exciting territory to write within?

Naomi: For me, what’s exciting is that a lot of the big narrative problems are yet to be solved. This is not the case, for example, in theatre and novels. There are many new and exciting things being done in theatre and novels, but the problems have been solved. Big problems like, how do we communicate to the audience when they’re in the story and when they’re not in the story? We know how to break through the proscenium arch, we know about all those things. We know how to narrate a novel and how to communicate to the audience when the narrator changes. There are so many big problems in gaming which have yet to be solved, which means that it’s a space where you can consistently do something that nobody else has done yet. To me a fitness game with a story is kind of a no-brainer, except that people have pointed out to me that we are the first people ever to do it, which is ridiculous. That’s ridiculous that we can point at what we’ve done and go: yes this is the first ever fitness game with a proper story, or in fact with any story other than here’s a trainer, they’re going to train you. I love the idea of being a pioneer of that stuff. I love the idea (this is me being grandiose) that maybe in a hundred years time, when there’s a whole raft of fitness games with stories out there, somebody will be doing a PhD and go: ‘What was the first one?’ And they’ll go: ‘Oh it was probably Zombies Run!’ That I find really exciting, to be able to kind of pioneer stuff, and it does mean that you’ll do things that won’t necessarily work and you accept that some of your ideas will be failures, but I feel like it’s absolutely worth it. And there are not that many people who are really interested in writing who are working in this area, so I also feel like I have a good chance to make some things that nobody else has thought of.

Kris: It’s nice to actually be inventing a wheel, rather than feel like you are reinventing one.

Naomi: Exactly! So many things have not yet been done in games. Like I have another couple of good ideas which I’m not going to tell you. But there a lot of things, where nobody has ever put a proper story onto it. There are a lot of things where I think it’ll be really interesting to do that. Hopefully I’ll have a long and flourishing career doing that; just going: ‘How about we put a story over here?’

Kris: I wish you all the best for Zombies Run! 2, it sounds exciting and you’re working with the NHS now I believe on a project? 

Naomi: Yeah, we’re working with the NHS on a project, which will be more ambient movement than specifically ‘here’s your daily exercise’, but we have some cool ideas about how to do it.

Kris sig