Commentary

Wait For The SMS Version

My daughter is going to hate me for this. I really, really didn't like her favorite film of the summer.

Blockbuster filmmaking is at such a low state in this nation, the birthplace of vapid movie epics, that the SMS marketing campaign for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" is actually more interesting than the film itself. Truly, we are at a frightening point in the decline and fall of American tripe when a skazillian dollar, two-and-a-half-hour, star-studded family adventure from the supposed masters of the genre is more tedious and less satisfying than text messaging.

I whisked my Johnny-Depp-adoring 14-year-old off to the film the afternoon it opened. Let's not go into the critical details, but shortly after the funny parts ended in "Pirates 2" (about 30 minutes in) I started weighing the pros and cons of putting my own eyes out right then and there. At various points in the movie, characters struggle to explain to one another what they are after at this juncture and why, only to receive puzzled looks in return. My guess is that the smartest scriptwriter on the film realized at some point late in the production that the film was a pointless mess and decided that a touch of post-modernism would salvage things. Make the film's central weakness, its incomprehensibility, a running gag in the film itself and somehow all will be forgiven.

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Okay, so I didn't put my eye out. Someone had to drive my 14-year-old home from this dream date with Johnny Depp. Instead, I sat quietly and pined nostalgically for the days of retarded purple dinosaurs and terribly animated Pokemon films--kid culture that actually had coherent storylines.

In comparison to the film, the SMS adventure game from Verizon Wireless and Disney is a model of clarity and deft dramatic structure. Texting the message "dead" to short code 3323 on a Verizon phone initiates a series of up to 300 SMS exchanges with the program's producer, Vibes Media. Much like the old PC text adventure games Zork, the Pirates adventure is a branching system. One message sets a scene and invites you to choose a path (unlock the door, slip through the window, fight with sword, etc) which puts you on a different path. The familiar characters and settings from the film are all here. The experience is punctuated by mini-games, like Black Jack and the film's Liar's Dice, and by winning downloadable assets like wallpapers from the film. Users are compelled to try the next message by the plot itself, the prospect of getting free stuff, and their entry into a contest for free Caribbean trips.

The campaign is a genuine milestone in mobile marketing because it demonstrates the benefits of deep integration with a property and the value of a longer creative process. Verizon Wireless signed on over a year ago as a major sponsor for the film, and so Vibes Media got involved as the film itself was taking shape.

The script has 562 unique messages with over 20,000 possible paths, says Vibes co-founder Alex Campbell. "The fastest way through is 138 messages, and the longest is 300 messages." Writing the script was a lengthy process of weaving existing characters and side stories into a world with five different islands to battle and nine characters. The film's script team reviewed the game narrative, and there are the occasional side trips into unexplored sidelines in the plot.

I was dazzled more by the scope and ambition of this project, surely the most involved SMS campaign yet. It served both masters very well. Disney had a way to get people back into the "Pirates" plotline before seeing the sequel, and Verizon Wireless got users to send and receive boatloads of messages. The possibilities of running branded experiences and stories in this format are pretty much endless.

My daughter, on the other hand, was more critical of the text adventure than she was of the film (which she loved and saw twice). By the time we hit about 100 messages sent or received, she was exasperated by what she considered filler--too many ephemeral exchanges that just seemed to pile up the message count. "Verizon must love this," she muttered cannily.

Don't play this game unless you have a liberal data plan. I was disappointed with the unevenness of the creative. There were long stretches of leaden prose advancing the plot between short bursts of character and humor (well, that pretty much describes the film, too). It could have been more engaging.

Yes, there is work to be done on this format, but there is just as much promise here. Imagine letting communities of users create and swap their stories or fan fiction spin-offs of a property. Imagine a tag team of collaborative fiction-making via text. In keeping with the personal nature of the phone itself, I like the idea of somehow singling out a character from a film or TV show and following his enhanced, personalized path through a story by phone. Project Runway is following this idea by letting viewers adopt a cast member and get asides sent via SMS from them during the show.

The next installment of "Pirates" hits next summer, and I plan to let Mom take our daughter to that one. I'll wait for the SMS version.

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