Instant nostalgia

GeekPop!
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photo / Ka Rasmuson Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 The Second Life I am Legend game 

I wrote as a movie critic when I was college. It’s a sweet gig, obviously, but my favorite part was getting to see a movie before I’d been bombarded with hype.

That doesn’t happen very often anymore. Instead, whenever I’m stuck at a desk during the day, I almost always seek out trailers. The upside of the change is that I consume hype on my own terms. The downside is that by the time Dark Knight finally comes out, I’ll have spent longer watching the trailer out of boredom than actually watching the movie.

Everyone knows the problems with this approach. The best moments are wasted in a highly compressed version of the movie and twists are telegraphed half a year before the film even comes out. Trailers, newspaper ads, and 7-11 Slurpee tie-ins don’t add anything to the experience. They just wear you down.

Enter the pre-movie universe build-up.

I’ve just watched I am Legend, but I already feel like it’s welcoming me home. While most movies come with hype, I am Legend came packaged with instant nostalgia. I don’t mean nostalgia for the book (I never read it) or the earlier film versions (I fell asleep the first time I watched The Omega Man). No, I was experiencing nostalgia for the I am Legend concept: the Survival game and the series of comics-turned-animations by the Broken Saints team.

The movie took me back all the way to October. Those were the good old days when I first tried out the Survival game inside of Second Life. The game runs inside the existing virtual world, but it feels like a fully polished massively multiplayer online game of its own. Plenty of movies come out with Flash-based browser games to build excitement or run contests across the Web that feel like watered down alternate reality games, but Survival worked as an experience on its own.

In the game, players work as either humans, Darkseekers, or dogs of both sets across 60 acres of a virtual New York City, collecting salvage for new tools and fighting off zombie vampires or uninfected humans. That’s about it, but because the game was set inside of Second Life, every other player was controlled by a human, and the city decayed over time as a build up to the movie itself. It was a fair success with both Second Lifers, who are notoriously resistant to marketers, and gamers, who are notoriously resistant to Second Life.

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I am Legend 

By the time I am Legend was out, I’d already spent hours roaming around New York as an infected dog. I couldn’t quite root for Will Smith in the movie, but Warner Brothers already had my money in its pocket. The film wasn’t a story on its own. It was just a sequel to an experience that I’d already created.

Warner Brothers had given me a first taste for free, but it took me $6.50 to get back inside.

The difference between something like the I am Legend projects and the host of options available at AlvinAndTheChipmunksMovie.com is that the former expands on the concept of the movie with a deep, interactive experience. The latter just offers shitty mini-games, the inexplicable ability to “get munked,” and an incredibly infectious cover of “Funky Town.” Really.

What’s odd is that while other movies like The Matrix and games like Halo have done this sort of creative pre-show ramp up, kid’s properties (excepting the admittedly outdated Chipmunks) are seizing the idea. That’s why the holidays saw a boom in mainstream media coverage surrounding the Webkinz phenomenon.

Webkinz themselves are yesterday’s news, but almost every new toy that comes out has an online tie-in. Mattel, one of the old stalwarts, took Barbie online. MGA Entertainment looks at an online expansion for pretty much every toy line it rolls out. Cookie Jar Entertainment, distributor for what seems like every anime-inspired cartoon in the C.W.’s Saturday lineup, says it no longer looks at its online games as a way to drive audiences to its shows or its shows as a way to move toys. They’re all part of one plan designed to sell the idea.

As our media gets richer and less static (i.e., fewer commercials with more interactivity), our advertising has to keep up. It’s no longer effective to whip up a 30-second spot and run it for two months before Christmas. Marketers have to find ways to make their audiences want to be advertised to. The advertising becomes a storytelling process of its own, funding projects like the quality I am Legend comic books and games for free distribution instead of looking at them as a cheap knockoff to make money from afterwards.

By the time the narrative is over, you’re not looking forward to the movie – you’re reminiscing about the hype.