At the Austin Convention Center the first weekend of July, you could have been convinced that Austin-based independent Web video production company Rooster Teeth was Disney and Warner Bros. rolled into one. That was the weekend of RTX, the company's fan expo, and if you looked at the number of badge-wearing die-hards who packed the cavernous Convention Center ballrooms for panels and screenings of the new seasons of old favorites like Red vs. Blue and premieres of new series like RWBY (pronounced "Ruby"), you'd be forgiven if you thought it was South by Southwest.
And if RTX is SXSW, then Rooster Teeth founder Burnie Burns is Bruce Springsteen. And if Burns is the Boss, that makes RWBY creator Monty Oum Kanye West.
A comparison to Kanye West is something that Oum, whose humility instinctively leads him to deflect compliments on the content of RWBY to his team of collaborators, would probably avoid. But at RTX, it's hard to argue with that comparison for a few reasons – not the least of which is that the animator is dressed in a platinum wig, a black vest with rubber flowers molded onto its lapel, a white tunic, and stark black cargo pants, with a feathery white earring dangling from his right ear. He may be humble, but he's got swag.
At the premiere screening and Q&A panel for RWBY, the at-capacity crowd received Oum with a thunderous standing ovation. In that moment, it seemed as if Oum was a million miles away from where he started, uploading fan videos to websites like GameTrailers.com.
Oum's first break came in 2007, when he created a video called "Haloid," which featured animated models of the hero from Microsoft's Halo franchise in wordless combat with and alongside that of Nintendo's Metroid. "Haloid" runs nine minutes and features impressive computer animation – the pair battle dozens of enemies at a time – and a surprisingly deft hand for storytelling. While the thrill of seeing the two worlds collide will be lost on viewers without an emotional attachment to the franchises, it's a well-structured piece of narrative animation with dramatically satisfying reveals and fun character moments, despite the lack of dialogue. (Spoiler alert: In the end, the two heroes fall in love.)
"Haloid" made Oum a hot commodity: Several game companies reached out to him, including Rooster Teeth's Burnie Burns, before he opted to take a position with the now-defunct Midway Games. "After 'Haloid,' I was contacted by a few different game companies who were like, 'Our games should play like that,'" Oum recalls.
Oum soon found himself living what one might expect to be the dream of someone who made animated games-based videos in his bedroom for fun: In 2008, he was hired as a combat designer and animator by Namco Bandai Games, and got the opportunity to work on the high-profile game Afro Samurai, based on the Adult Swim series of the same name. But for Oum, the taste of that lifestyle was enough for him to realize that making games didn't appeal to him as much as he thought it might.
"My notion was that if you do it well enough, it will be good and people will like it, and they will want more," Oum explains. "What essentially happened was, we delivered our game, and as much as we tried, and as hard as we worked on it – and there were a lot of long nights of pretty much living in the office – that wasn't the case. We made our game, we tried very hard on it, and the sequel was not approved. I kinda got the picture then."
Oum left video games to focus on filmmaking in 2010, after reconnecting with Burns at the San Diego Comic Con. He signed on to be the lead animator on Rooster Teeth's flagship science-fiction series, Red vs. Blue, for the series' eighth season.
"I've worked in technology for a long time," Burns, a veteran of the dot-com era, says, "And for a lot of young people, when they're first starting out and a big company takes an interest in them, that's very enticing. But after a few years, it's like, 'Wow – I want something different.' And we were fortunate enough to catch Monty when he wanted something different."
It all worked out well enough for Oum, Burns, and Rooster Teeth. The three seasons of Red vs. Blue that Oum oversaw as lead animator were hugely successful – Elijah Wood joined the voice cast in the third year – and if the reception at RTX is any indication, RWBY is likely to follow suit. But the notion that a storyteller might be happier as a filmmaker than working in games is one that might raise eyebrows around the sort of people who care deeply about games as a medium – that is to say, the sort of people who go to RTX.
Video games, after all, are supposed to be the limitlessly creative narrative medium of the 21st century. So it's a bit surprising to see a forward-thinking talent like Monty Oum walk away from games in 2010 – the year headlines around the world proclaimed that games were now more successful than movies – and retreat to a noninteractive, 20th century model.
RWBY premiered at RTX with the series' first two episodes, which introduce the series' protagonist Ruby Rose – a young woman equipped with special monster-killing weapons in a world full of monsters – and her supporting cast, including her older sister, classmates, and teachers at the Hogwarts-style school that she attends. The two episodes combine to run only about 15 minutes, but the world draws from elements of both Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is good company to be keeping.
The show certainly looked to be a hit at RTX, anyway: In addition to the roaring ovation, the line for questions during the Q&A stretched dozens deep, and there were already cosplayers there dressed as Ruby Rose, complete with custom-made replica weapons. No one outside the Rooster Teeth offices had seen the show before that screening; it only premiered on RoosterTeeth.com today.
But that sort of anticipation follows creators who chase their own muse. Outside of the one weekend a year when the Rooster Teeth faithful converge in Austin, Monty Oum may not be Kanye West, but like Yeezy, he does talk about his work with the sort of openness and honesty that people appreciate from artists who defy conventional thought in the pursuit of creating something that they're inspired by. In Oum's case, that's making a Web series whose characters, storytelling narrative, and devices are clearly inspired by video games (Ruby's weapon of choice, a combination scythe/sniper rifle, would be a blast to swing around in a God of War-style adventure game) – three years after he left the games industry.
In some ways, Oum's decision to leave video games was prescient. Studios lay off developers as a matter of routine, and the sunny, circa-2010 headlines about how video games are the world's most financially successful entertainment media have been replaced by ones from outlets like The New York Times declaring, "Gaming Faces Its Archenemy: Financial Reality." Namco Bandai, where Oum worked before joining Rooster Teeth, laid off 90 of its U.S. employees 10 months after Oum left the company, and even major Austin-based gaming companies, from BioWare to Zynga, have laid off staff in the past year.
All of that is part of a story that's not uncommon: When the high-minded ideals of artists who've staked a claim on the creative potential of a new medium butt up against the economic demands of a business model that is constantly seeking new ways to grow the bottom line, there are frequently growing pains. And for Oum – and, presumably, for others who've looked to games as their ideal creative medium – the tension between art and commerce that exists as a result has yet to properly resolve itself.
So it's no surprise that when he talks about the creative potential of games as a medium, Oum still speaks with some degree of hope, but he's also circumspect. He says the things that a person who cares about video games and interactive narratives is supposed to say: "I feel like games have the potential to be a greater medium than anything else, given the interactivity," or gushing about the possibilities of independent games. But he also explains why he sees a lot of that potential go unrealized.
"It's limited by many, many things," Oum says. "The industry, and honestly, the culture, too, sometimes. All games have to be absolutely perfect, or they're not worth your time. Working in games back then, I had so much hope for the type of storytelling I could do. Even if it wasn't narrative – even if it was just combat storytelling. The hard lesson that I learned, and that many people are learning these days, is that because games are so critical, and they're so expensive to make, the creative freedom often gets very stunted."
Oum, of course, found another outlet that provides him the creative freedom he craves. But when people who want the chance to tell their stories effectively choose to leave, that probably says something about the potential of games as a storytelling medium that people who want to have that conversation will be frustrated to hear.
"I joined Red vs. Blue four years ago," Oum says. "I had the choice of working on the new Tomb Raider, which just came out, or Red vs. Blue. I've released three seasons of Red vs. Blue, and have been able to tell a decent story that people seem to enjoy. Meanwhile, Tomb Raider just came out – and it's a phenomenal game – but it just came out. I can't imagine having worked for four years on one thing that may or may not be good. If I have a choice, I'll start with the smaller, more frequent stories. You get more chances."
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