The effects of malaria are horrifying. Half the world's population is at risk and over a million people die a year. The majority of those who die are children under five in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, for people with little to no risk of exposure—like pretty much everyone in North America—it’s difficult to understand just how bad the deadly the mosquito-borne disease really is. Or how it can be cheaply and simply prevented with a $3 insecticidal net.
A new spot and mobile game for the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) aims to change that. "Nightmare: Malaria" is a 90-second animated film created by animation studio Psyop that begins as a sweet bedtime story before quickly devolving into a hallucinatory trip that paints a picture of how the disease affects a body. Symptoms such as high fever, violent convulsions, vicious sickness, and attacks on the liver and brain are rendered with psychotic energy befitting a Hunter S. Thompson tale. Narrated with equal parts delicacy and force by Susan Sarandon (who agreed to participate after Psyop’s repeated pleas finally coincided with an opening in her schedule), the moral of the fable is that such suffering and fear can be avoided with a simple bed net. An 18-level mobile game, in which players avoid killer mosquitoes and collect teddy bear tokens amid fever-dream visuals, further impresses how diabolical malaria can be.
While the project was created by Psyop, a top animation studio, "Nightmare: Malaria" is actually the first client project from the company’s training program, The Establishment for the Greater Good (EGG), and was created by eight students over one summer internship. The purpose of the program is to create an opportunity for students to produce work in a real-world setting, and to offer services to nonprofits that would never have the funds to commission such work.
In choosing AMF as the charity partner for this year’s EGG assignment, producer and EGG co-founder Ave Carrillo says the decision came down to finding a nonprofit they loved, but one that was also effective in its efforts.
"There’s this effective altruism movement, which is the theory that we have a responsibility to help people but in the most effective way possible," says Carrillo, explaining that unlike businesses, charities rarely measure how effective they are. "Effective altruism supports charities that do that follow up." Carrillo says AMF—having distributed over five million nets to people in need, most of them children—was ranked the most effective organization by GiveWell.org, and 100% of donations go to the cause. "They save the most amount of lives with the least amount of money. That might sound cold-hearted but we wanted to affect real change and this organization does it the best possible way and they actually do save lives."
To spread the word about the efforts of AMF, Psyop created a brief with a basic story arc that was then handed over to the eight EGG interns (Viraj Ajmeri, Michael Altman, Minsuk Choi, June Hong, Pedro Lavin, Stephanie Lin, Garrett O'Neal and Anne Yang), who were chosen for their multi-disciplinary skills from 80 applicants. From there, students were given control of how to bring the brief to life—from story development to design direction—with mentoring from senior Psyop artists. "Essentially what we do is give them a brief and they storyboard it and contribute to the story. Everyone is expected to wear a few hats and see the production through from start to finish," says Carrillo. "In school they have this artificial experience. They don’t work in teams; they’re expected to do a thesis on their own and they don’t work together towards a singular goal. This is more like real life. Suddenly they’re working really collaboratively in a way they don’t get to do at school."
Creating a game was not a part of the original brief, and was certainly not part of the scope of the EGG program, but Carrillo says the story lent itself well to a multi-leveled interpretation of it. Plus, it was a great opportunity for the company’s new Psyop Games division, led by former Muse Games co-founder Brian Kehrer, to release its first project. "We wanted to do a spot and we knew this year we wanted to do something "digital" with it. "This was an excuse to do our first game, thought we didn’t think it would be this epic." The game, while an interpretation of the PSA’s story borrows the visual language of the spot created by the students. In all, the spot took three months to create, and the game an additional three months.
The final result is nothing short of impressive considering control of the project was handed to a group of untested students, and the game was effectively the company’s pilot project. Audiences seem to agree: In its first week, the game was downloaded to iOS and Adroid devices over 130,000 times, and the hope of those involved, of course, is that such interest will in turn contribute to the number of lives spared from malaria. While early reviews of the game are critiquing it for being difficult (something Psyop is addressing by adding three new, simpler levels), Carrillo says that "Nightmare: Malaria" has already resulted in 42,000 visits to the AMF donate page. Which should translate nicely into a lot of nets.
See the making of the game below