I was quite surprised yesterday when my colleague Ann Christine Diaz told me about a story she was working on—Jason Rohrer, renowned champion of the indie videogame movement, signed to be repped by a commercial production company.
In this case, Rohrer’s one of three big new hires by Tool of North America, which traditionally represents TV commercial directors, but is making a foray, along with most anyone in the space concerned with keeping the doors open, into digital creation.
Rohrer’s a very interesting guy, who’s cited by many as one of the top game developers working today, especially among the indie/artsy set (he was also honored as part of this year’s Creativity 50–and that’s no small beer). Esquire magazine had a great story recently about his commitment to craft as well as honorable ideals concerning our relationship with nature and the advancement of an equitable and responsible society. (To be succinct, he’s something of an ascetic who fought to preserve his family’s yard as a meadow, eats vegan food and doesn’t refrigerate anything.) He’s got the values I wouldn’t have thought to be attracted to working in advertising.
‘Ho ho,’ you say, ‘This is interesting, another artist brought under the spell of the wicked advertising industry. How soon we’ll be seeing him leave, jaded, when his true genius is squandered.’ And you’re right to think that way–it’s a bit like Thoreau writing Quaker Oats spots for Wilford Brimley.
Allow me to argue, though, the two disciplines, advertising and videogaming, are closer than ever before, and the time may be right to truly elevate new ideas in entertainment and connection (like Rohrer’s).
I was visiting with Kevin Slavin, MD at Area/Code the other day, to shoot a promo video for our upcoming CaT conference. After we were done, we talked a bit, and one of the conclusions we reached was that often the most sublime parts of games were the difficult parts. The secrets, or things you had to spend time with the game to discover, the power-ups that weren’t totally explicit, the cracks in the rocks in Legend of Zelda you have to figure out to bomb, whatever. The parts that aren’t totally obvious. If they are, it’s less fun.
But this is seemingly contrary to the purpose of advertising communication–no one wants a poster where you have to do some thinking to figure out it’s for a brand, or stare at it for 10 minutes to figure out there’s now chipotle-flavored Sprite. Clients often don’t want games to be harder, they want them to be simple. So it can make it difficult to do a game for a brand.
Passage, arguably Rohrer’s most successful game, flies in the face of our Zelda example. It’s not difficult, at least in the sense of complexity. It’s probably the easiest game you’ll ever play, and takes no special skills–fitting considering the theme. If you haven’t played it yet, go do it now. It’ll take you under 15 minutes to install and complete, and will show you the power of simplicity better than anything going.
The more I thought about Rohrer-Tool announcement, the more sense it made to me. Simple games carrying great irrational themes is a smart tack for brands. I know this doesn’t really address the issue of Rohrer’s ideals, and whether working in advertising will constrain or sully his artistic progress, but it coincides sharply with another nugget that showed up in my pan today, a new commercial for Rhapsody featuring Green Day from the fine folks at Droga5.
I noticed via Uncle Grambo the point of the video is to find multiple Green Day references hidden inside; part videogaming Easter Egg, part doctor’s waiting room Highlights magazine puzzle. Graham got a list going, and between him and his readers they probably watched the video 30 times to get as many as they could–and can engagement statements get better than “it took me back through the 16 + years spent loving this band”?
So, we have complex, deep ads and simple, meaningful games, playing together, in the strange ecosystem known as commercial culture. Smart companies are finding ways to communicate that stretch the traditional boundaries of mediums and producing meaningful entertainment while the way we think of the mediums is changing.