Electron Dance
19Feb/11Off

A New Art Form

I've written about my irritation at the Bioshock trailers' propensity for fabricated gameplay and also how the too-polished quality of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution trailer made me look for other reasons to get excited about the game. But let's put all this moaning and groaning, this arthritic cynicism, to one side. Whilst I distrust trailers as faithful representations of games, they still appeal to me on another level.

I've featured some of my favourites on Electron Dance. Some very earlier STALKER videos promote a game which doesn't exist, but I still return to those trailers, with their foreboding techno track and off-kilter camera angles drifting across the body of The Zone. And there's the wonderful 4fourths music video, juiced with primary colours and exploding blocks. But in fact I have an enormous list of trailers that are close to my heart - take the vibrant and pleasant World of Goo trailer which does an amazing job of evoking the final product.

And then there's this. The trailer for zombie-themed Dead Island that everyone is talking about. Despite facing a public ready to cry "no more zombies", the trailer still managed to shake half of the gaming internet out of its post-zombie funk. Not once does a game appear in the trailer, yet this short CGI film throws a surprising emotional punch, more gripping than anything from the Left 4 Dead stable.

The trailer shows the final moments of an ordinary family on holiday, falling to a zombie attack for which they are ill-prepared. Its most powerful moment is the final slow motion shot in reverse time, where the father appears to be handing his daughter to the zombie horde. It's this haunting scene that really had me: giving her away because he can't protect her.

Let me be upfront about something. Being a parent, I find stories involving families affect me much more deeply than they did pre-parent. Hell, I was a total mess watching similarly emotive parts of Channel 4's adaptation of William Boyd's Any Human Heart while Mrs. HM and children were in Japan. Anything nasty involving children is suddenly much, much worse, as Geoff of Rooster "Red Vs Blue" Teeth would attest (cheers to Switchbreak for this one).

Maybe the game will be prime horse manure and have stones thrown at it for betraying the trailer's promise. Was it misguided to raise game expectations to breaking point? Maybe, but the trailer has been made now and will survive and endure even if the game does not. Of this, I am glad. I can't think of another trailer as affecting as this one.

Of course, there are the naysayers, the backlash brigadiers, about how the wool has been pulled over everyone's eyes AND YOU'LL BE SORRRRY. I was amused by Chad Morelock's "meh" over at BNB Gaming about the new Dead Island trailer. Amused because despite completely agreeing with his general sentiment about those lying trailers, I could not join his cadre for this one. He's not alone either. There are many brandishing the word pretentious along with the pitchforks and torches.

Trailers may not be able to tell us how a game feels and plays any more than a car advert can tell us how a car drives, but that doesn't make them automatically worthless.

They entertain to draw our attention. They work hard to make us watch so that in the watching we remember something is for sale. This is the beating heart of any viral marketing campaign whether it be radio-play-in-a-puzzle I Love Bees or cybersavvy Old Spice Man - they must retain interest somehow. Singularity didn't win awards in the FPS department or even the FPS basement, but you could still enjoy the Katorga-12 conspiracy regardless.

Much like advertising over the decades has been recognised as art in itself, the game trailer is also a worthy art form. Maybe it is time we admitted that.

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Comments (16) Trackbacks (0)
  1. The warm glow of vindication is a glorious thing, eh Joel?

  2. Yes. Wait. Who is vindicated?

    As I was writing this, I wondered if I changed my mind about certain things, but I don’t think so. The trailers I like, I like. The trailers I don’t, I don’t. I still resent the lies propagated by those early Bioshock trailers and also see little artistry in the later staccato-cut medley of violence. Deus Ex: Human Redundancy feels like its trying to be everything a good movie trailer is – as Laura chased on Second Person Shooter – and this rubs me up the wrong way.

    Dead Island, while not really telling us anything about the game, is a stunning little short film and no one should be fooled that this is what the gameplay will be like. It’s honest in its disingenuousness. WHAT A SENTENCE. But this short film wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t for Dead Island. It had to be a game trailer.

  3. I was speaking in reference to the fact that you’ve been on about this kind of thing for a while and more people are noticing it now. There are fake game trailers out there (though none come to mind at this hour, but Duty Calls should’ve been one instead of a bloated joke game) meaning the practice of creating trailers can stand alone.

    A company called ROBOT was credited with creating the prerendered cinematics in Capcom’s Onimusha series (which were ostensibly featured in the promotional materials). At first, I was oddly upset, thinking it dismissive of Capcom to farm out part of the work on their game to another company. Of course, I later realized that Capcom was not, in fact, farming out anything from their game, because those cinematics are just stylized bookends to the game.

    ROBOT made Onimusha: The Game: The Movie, pretty much. Maybe all game trailers should seek to be that if they don’t want to include any real footage. Bioshock’s trailer being in first person seemed to shy away from that and tried to go 50/50 in its game/cinema dichotomy and just ended up being weird short movies with a gamey aesthetic.

  4. Ah, I see! Your little story about Onimusha reminds me of the excellent Thief cinematics which were done by Rustmonkey, but Ion Storm Austin made a decision in Deadly Shadows to do some of the cutscenes in-engine and they looked appalling. Outsourcing is good =)

    I’m waking up to realise that I don’t mind a game trailer without real footage as long as it isn’t deceptive. So I wouldn’t rush in and attempt to extrapolate any knowledge of Dead Island the game from this trailer, but I fear the gaming public will.

  5. You can’t blame them. After all, The Force Unleashed II’s cinematic teaser correctly advertised that you’d have two lightsabers and plotholes to spare.

  6. That Dead Island trailer sure riled a lot of emotions. I watched it in its original format (backward), and pronounced it good; I watched the reverse version and pronounced it cinematic genius. The key there is “cinematic” – it’s important to appreciate trailers for what they are, because as Harbour Master states, assuming that a trailer is tantamount to the game experience is a risky move.

    Many game trailers come out each week; this one got attention for its production values and for the emotional core of its message. I sure hope the game delivers that kind of punch, but even on its own it was well worth the effort they put into it. One thing that’s notable is that while the trailer was surely pretty expensive to produce (even if its reused game assets, which it likely is), the buzz Techland got for it likely ensures a return on their investment… provided the game doesn’t tank in reviews.

    Though it really is time to put zombies and WWII to bed for a while, in exchange for, say, wolf men and the Falklands.

  7. It would be a real shame if, after the hubbub, Dead Island didn’t stand out in any way. As for your suggestion, Steerpike, I think it’s ace. Zombies + WWII + Bed = Sex Nazi Zombies. There’s more life in the walking dead that we thought.

    Incidentally, amidst the zombiemania that seems have been going on for some years now, I haven’t played a single zombie-themed game. I am pure and uninfected.

  8. And I just watched the reverse version on your suggestion. I’m surprised it works so well, having thought inverting time was critical to its success. The alternate ending is quite terrifying – like they’re set upon by a pack of wolves.

    Oh and the next (and most critical) part of NP diary will not be up today. I need to review this thing a bit more before unveiling it to the 50 readers on the internet who are waiting for it.

    EDIT: Changed my mind!

  9. Well put HM. To our experienced eyes it’s pretty damn clear that the trailer isn’t likely to be representative of the actual game but we can also tell that isn’t trying to be either. I think that’s a very important distinction you make because there are a whole boat load of trailers out there which set out to fool people into thinking that what they’re seeing is what the game will actually look like and that’s when I start screaming bullshit at the screen. There’s a place for these sorts of trailers/shorts but I’m not sure the same can be said about the fake/misleading ones out there.

  10. Hey. I’m the amusing writer from BnB Gaming.

    Considering Wired’s response to actual gameplay at GDC http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2011/03/dead-island-preview/#more-33354 , it seems to me that having an over-emotional trailer to what’s going to be a hack ’em up makes as much sense as making a trailer for Borderlands that humorlessly depicts the plight of a bandit.

    A good trailer should sell the style and spirit of the game. A Legend of Zelda ad should strike a mythic tone, a Gears of War ad should get the adrenaline going. I don’t see what personal tragedies have to do with a game where you chop through hordes of the undead.

  11. @Gregg – yeah the one that Chad actually included on his article at BNB was a pretty shitty example to be sure. That’s the kind of trailer we want to bury alive.

    @Chad – I’m wondering how you got through my defences. I am so sure I had anti-Chad barbed wire up all over the site links. The last Chad I used to be acquainted with left the country. So this does not bode well. =)

    I’m certainly with you up to a point Chad, I’m not totally dissing you considering how much I have dissed all over deceitful gameplay trailers in the past. Massive diss, everywhere.

    Here’s my paragraph of bullshit. There is something to be said for narrative counterpoint, where you play two scenes off against another with quite different emotional resonance: and the resulting contrast strengthens both. Having a trailer so [obviously] counter to the shape and feel of the game could be interpreted as adding something to the feel of the eventual game as opposed to contradicting it. Gears of War Mad World is similar, evoking a certain kind of loneliness and desperation, futility. (Having not played GoW like ever, I can only assume this popular FPS doesn’t offer anything of this sort.)

    Here’s my paragraph of not-so-much-bullshit. I really don’t understand how people could think Dead Island The Game would maintain the emotional power of the trailer – it’s a very specific, tailored scene. It’s an attention-grabbing teaser and the info of what the game would actually be like was no surprise to me. There is plenty of real world advertising which is all about getting the eyeballs on the logo rather than telling you anything substantial about the product. For me, this falls into that category and they’ve made something genuinely interesting and different in the game trailer space – rather than just flashing boobies at the screen for example. They didn’t waste my time with that trailer.

  12. I don’t know who said it but somebody somewhere said that it’s a bit like all those perfume and fragrance ads: walking through a pool of liquid gold or climbing a pile of apples has nothing to do with the product itself and clearly the creators didn’t intend for it to either. The ads run parallel with the product, framing the experience with glamour and romanticism. I think with the Dead Island trailer it’s framing the experience with tragedy and humanity. Perhaps the game will suck at these elements but the trailer almost becomes an extension of it rather than trying to be a representation of the game.

  13. I’ve learned something here – they’re not trying hard enough to disseminate their advertising. I’m playing and enjoying Singularity and have been interested in it since long before its release – yet I never encountered these Mir 12 videos! I feel like I’ve missed out terribly on the childish buzz of excitement.

    You are remiss, however, HarbourMaster, for not mentioning Alan Wake’s excellent Bright Falls series!

  14. @Gregg: My money is on the game sucking at those elements and I imagine we’ll get an actual gameplay trailer closer to the time.

    @Jakkar: Viral marketing doesn’t always work then! There was also a MIR 12 conspiracy site but that no longer exists. I never mentioned Bright Falls because I didn’t know anything about it – my interest for Alan Wake vanished after the PC version was dropped. Hearing the mention, though, I just went and spent half an hour in Bright Falls. Extremely well done. Of course you can see many echoes of Twin Peaks, but the quality was remarkable.

  15. I can kinda see where you’re coming from there, HM.

    I’ll say that a good portion of my own response was from the rather…overblown reactions I was seeing around the game on Twitter. I reacted against it because I thought statements like “omg I cried” were a little melodramatic. And while it’s not parody or satire- I stand by being bored to undeath with zombies- I did genuinely have a good time picking it apart.

    I can’t blame anyone for liking the trailer. it does have some artistic merit and is very well done. Doesn’t mean I liked it, but I can recognize that it was well-made and even well-thought out. :)

  16. But Chad! I did cry! Okay, no I didn’t =) But Mrs. HM found the trailer uncomfortable, for the same reason as Geoff from Rooster Teeth had a problem with it.

    And I can’t blame anyone for not liking the trailer. It does something which can be perceived – unfairly I’d say – as manipulative (children) and mixes in the most stale of stale genres (zombies) since World War II was officially declared “pretty darn old”.

    Still, the sad thing is, from a marketing perspective they may have shot themselves not just in the foot, but possibly in the ankle which is a lot more painful. I saw so much speculation on the interwebz about how Dead Island could be a real emotional investment that you can almost hear a global sighs of disappointment when the truth came out. Maybe the buzz they generated will be stick, maybe it will not.


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