Commentary

Draw Me A Story

Even as wireless carriers and content providers warm up the tubes on the mobile TV platform this season, I am struck by how little creative work has been done with the technology we already have. We pay lip service to making content fit the format and usage patterns of mobilistas. But a lot of mobo-media, from ad campaigns to game and WAP design, seems to push against the format as if wanting it to be larger, faster, more flexible than it is. I say this after spending a weekend with some thoroughly compelling, decidedly low-res mobile apps that leverage the handset form factor brilliantly: comic books.

Ordinarily, I dislike mobile games that struggle to translate franchises from other, more powerful hardware, but Capcom's Verizon-exclusive "Phoenix Wright" is a surprising exception. This anime-based cartoon game ports an amazing Nintendo DS title to the phone seamlessly. You play a new lawyer who must gather and present evidence to beat a friend's murder wrap. It is a text-heavy affair that is minimally animated, and yet "Phoenix Wright" works better than any recent wireless game I've seen. I look forward to cracking the phone open and playing a few more moments of the unfolding story. It is all about artful storytelling. The game has quirky characters and a dramatic situation that grab you within the first few frames of action. You start as a neophyte in the courtroom who makes mistakes and gets scolded easily by the presiding judge. The game seems to understand that attention spans are slight on this platform and that the best way to engage us quickly is to make the consequences of your first actions as personal and intimate as the device it uses. The stakes are high: self-esteem.

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"Phoenix Wright" also leverages the screen itself, which after all is shaped much like a frame or a panel in a graphic novel. The designers know their handheld formats from developing on the DS. They actually make the screen feel larger than it is rather than smaller, which is the case with many other games. Large planes of color and oversized character faces fill the display. The text is manageable perhaps because it, too, is oversized and conversational.

Another example of this economical visual storytelling approach comes to us from the related world of Japanese manga. TokyoPop distributes many of the graphic novels in this genre here in the U.S., and it recently issued a mobile manga reader available on several carriers. While many of the stories in this series do not fit the handheld as seamlessly as Phoenix Wright, the engine demonstrates how simple tricks like a well-placed pan and scan of a panel or the way in which a dialogue balloon slips into a frame are capable of communicating volumes about a scene. Again, the sheer economy of these stories impresses me in a way that other mobile media do not. I can only wonder what content providers and mobile marketers might do with these approaches in a WAP presentation or a series of MMS pushes.

I have to admit that I am far from cracking this nut of mobile storytelling, but it seems to me that Phoenix Wright and Mobile Manga come much closer to it than the "mobisodes" I have seen -- and closer than any SMS campaign. Almost every made-for-mobile video series I try to watch seems cluttered and hurried, with too many characters and too many edits.

As I said earlier, it's as if the makers are just uncomfortable with the format and desperately want to stuff the essentials of another medium into this modest frame. The disciplines of graphical storytelling in comic formats require the broad visual brushstrokes that work in a miniature display and let the viewer rather than the technology fill in the gaps between frames. It is so much easier to communicate character and situation, tension and consequence, on this scale than in live-action video, which resolves poorly even on the best phone.

Before rushing in to pricey pre-roll creative, perhaps marketers should consider the more evocative and flexible formats. Mobile is a visual medium, but it is also a miniature medium that works within a static, postage stamp frame that doesn't register movement very well. It works best at resolving thicker, broader images. Its static nature makes any semblance of movement seem more dramatic. It communicates character and drama efficiently when the creative is smart enough to lets users color the open spaces between lines and between frames with their own emotions and identification. Gee, where have we seen those aesthetic parameters before? Ask a 10-year-old at the comic book rack.

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