Unlike many city-dwellers, I'm just not used to walking around in public with a big smartphone in my hand and earbuds in, blotting out the world. (I've also never been mugged. Coincidence?) But give me Six to Start's new fitness tracker game, The Walk (Android | iOS), and it's a different story.
Like Zombies, Run! and its accompanying 5k Training app, The Walk encourages you to leave the house by telling a story in a series of audio clips, with you as the main character. Guided by a far-off operative giving directions in your earpiece, you're tasked with carrying a very important technogadget southeast through Scotland, while being hunted by terrorists, wildlife, and anyone who thinks you're a terrorist. Like the poor chumps in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and "The 39 Steps," you're about to get a lot of exercise. But you'll probably have more fun doing it.
Made by the developer of the excellent Zombies, Run! duo, the app was awkward and confusing in its original form. Fortunately, an update on February 10 brought the big features The Walk needed. It's well worth the $3.99 you'll pay for a download.
Motivation: We have ways of making you walk
Naturally, The Walk is all about walking. You have to earn the story clips by walking for various lengths of time (you're on foot in the game because an EMP took out the lazier means of transportation). Your position is shown on a series of scrollable maps, and your icon advances down a set path based on how many minutes the app thinks you've walked. The maps have cute little animations like flying birds, falling snowflakes, and smoking campfires. (There's no soundtrack or connection to your phone's playlists, but you can listen to music in another app if you like.) When you reach a spot on the route where an incident in the story takes place, its number -- representing minutes until you reach it -- changes to a speaker icon, and you can play the associated clip to find out what's happening to you now.
Small empty white squares appear when you're near them on the map, and you can tap these to reveal the names of objects that would be found on the scene. If you don't tap them, they fade away again. That's the minigame part. Mostly these objects are just set dressing, though sometimes they can offer hints about what's going on. Occasionally a box will turn into a smaller version of the icon used for unlocked audio clips, which means it's an audio extra that gives you more background on the story. As the episodes go on I found they hold some of the most intriguing clips, so definitely don't skip these "extras."
If you choose the longer route when the path forks, you get to see "collectible items" such as newspaper clippings and handwritten notes that also shed a little extra light on the story, probably, eventually. (Make your choices early, because once you pass that place on the map, it's too late to go back.) If you discover all the objects and recordings on a map, you get your 100 percent completion badge for the day. You also get a badge for doing an entire episode in one day and another for doing it without taking longer than a 3-hour break.
The February 10 update added "Challenge" maps interspersed between the episode maps (I encountered the first one after episode 2), on which you draw your own path between points to determine which of three walk lengths you'll need to take before continuing the story. Trying to keep it as short as possible by connecting the dots efficiently is another bit of minigame. The Manual adds that on each of these special maps, three of the dots, called items, "unlock a Random Encounter..." What that means I can't tell you, since I didn't run across one.
The design is cute but not that intuitive: you don't have to make it from one end of the screen to the other, and the landscape features on the map don't block the line at all. After having spent weeks at the mercy of that little circle on the map, it did feel strangely empowering to watch my icon moving down a path drawn by my own shaky hands. It feels cynical to point out that adding these maps will extend how long it takes people to finish the first chapter of the app, buying Six to Start more time to finish Chapter 2.
Note that the app isn't tracking your actual position, just your number of steps. (And maybe not too closely. More on that later.) It doesn't matter which way you turn or how far you go, you're still moving forward in the game world. That means the app would work fine on a treadmill, for example. And once you've unlocked an audio clip it stays unlocked, so you can pause, replay, and cancel clips from any point in the story so far, which is great for reminding yourself who characters are, or for when a bus happens to go by in the middle. It's too bad there isn't a fast-forward, but the clips are rarely more than a minute or two long.
This system also means you could ignore the real-time map aspect entirely, go for a long walk, and then just listen to the clips all in a row while doing dishes if you wanted to. That reduces the sense of connection between exercise, map, and story, but it's a nice option to have.
Making that easier, each episode has an index page of audio clips, and if you select one, the rest of the unlocked ones for that episode will play in sequence. (Except for the audio extras, which you'll still need to hunt for on the map.) With a little extra swiping, you can quickly catch up on entire episodes that way while tracking steps on your current map. It's a bit fiddly, but I found that I could still get most of the boxes tapped if I didn't look at the map very often, and the less I looked at the screen the easier it was to enjoy the story. Swiping back to it through the lock screen of a sleeping phone was particularly annoying, and worked against any illusions I'd managed to build up about being a daring operative on the lam through the Cairngorms.
What's great is that the February 10 update added autoplay and audio-notification options for the clips. That means that you don't have to keep looking at your phone every few minutes to see if you've unlocked a new clip -- which was the biggest problem with the app when it was released. Between the risk of dropping it (coat pockets, heavy gloves) and the safety risk (waving around an expensive smartphone, not paying attention to your surroundings), and the general irritation of constantly fiddling with the UI, using the app was more of a struggle before. Now, with the clips on autoplay, you can just go for a walk and hear the story unfold in a natural way. And with notifications, you can choose to listen to them later if you're at a checkout counter or on a busy street.
You're not likely to get all the boxes tapped that way, but according to the FAQ, some of the maps are designed so you can't get 100 percent completion on the first try anyway. You'd have to replay them choosing the other fork in the road if you want that badge, despite the fact that there's almost no added value since the audio clips are the same unless you find an extra. And the episodes quickly get longer, up to 2 hours and more, so most people aren't likely to get the other two badges for sustained walking either. Basically, you have to view those three daily badges as an occasional treat rather than a daily goal. So, like the box-tapping minigame, the badge system can be motivating if you don't pay much attention to it; if you try to succeed, it'll only frustrate you. Sort of zen, really.
Lifestyle integration: Keep The Walk always running
You know how health organizations are always recommending that you park an extra block away from your destination, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on? Well, the Walk is designed to make that a little more rewarding. If you enable the option to track your activity all the time, not just during an episode, then a trip down the stairs to grab a cup of coffee counts toward your daily goal of 100 minutes walked (you don't get to set a different goal or have no goal; it's 100 minutes). And if you leave the current episode running, you'll find that you've advanced toward the next story clip just from walking to the bus stop or stepping out for lunch. That's pretty fun.
On the other hand, it does eat battery. I left an episode running overnight on a Galaxy S4 and only saw a 2 percent loss, but I found that if you do anything else (listen to music, IM with your auntie Morag) the battery level can drop alarmingly. If you want to use this app for all-day tracking plus do all your normal smartphone stuff, you may want to carry a charger.