Monday, January 5, 2009

The Commercial Was Better.

McCann-Erickson didn’t raise the bar for videogame advertising so much as they hung it from the ceiling, far above our heads. Microsoft tapped the international advertising firm for a sixty-second TV spot to promote a game called Gears of War. What resulted was a one-minute drama: After brooding over his reflection in a puddle of dirty water, a soldier flees an advancing enemy, dodging from cover to cover until he’s finally trapped in a warehouse by a fang-mouthed monster, whose many limbs converge on his puny body and plunge the screen into blackness. Gary Jules’s dirge-like cover of “Mad World” with its refrain of “No tomorrow, no tomorrow” made the already black mood several shades darker. The spot didn’t tell the viewer why they should buy Gears of War – in fact, it didn’t tell them anything. It provided an experience.

McCann-Erickson’s “Mad World” ad was so effective that Microsoft hired them to produce the spot for Gears of War 2. The result is the “Last Day” trailer, set to DeVotchka’s “How it Ends,” which should be familiar to fans of “Little Miss Sunshine.” McCann-Erickson’s second effort is arguably better than the first, chinning that lofty bar with an effortless smirk. Its emotional pitch is so sophisticated, in fact, that it completely overshadows anything the actual product serves up. For the first time, I find myself saying: the commercial was better.

“How it Ends” is a deceptively chipper ditty – snare rolls and strings are layered over an optimistic electric organ eighth-note backbone, while a distant voice wails “There is no escape / from the slave catchers’ songs / …you already know / how this will end.” In the “Last Day” ad, the happy organ conveys an ironic pastoral complacency to the shots of soldiers lounging against trees, gazing skyward, or peering at flowers through telescopic sights. The soldiers then haul each other atop massive drilling rigs, squeeze into iron coffins and shoot into the earth, boring through the crust until they crash-land in the middle of the locust’s subterranean lair. They unlock the doors and step off to certain death. They know how this will end.

The noble goal of advertising is to make people buy things they don’t need. Gears of War 2 is a game everyone has played before, and McCann-Erickson needed to convince us to spend $60 for more of the same – within 60 seconds. If the GoW2 TV spot pummeled me with clips of bisected locusts, exploding heads and unshaven men in two tons of armor (set, of course, to the grinding sound of chainsaw meeting bone), I would have changed the channel. Instead, they gave me something that provoked me intellectually and emotionally. I wanted to be among those men marching off on their last-ditch frontal assault. I wanted their gleeful doom.

McCann-Erickson succeeded because they didn’t tell me what I would get with Gears of War 2 – they told me what I would feel. And like all successful advertising firms, they lied.

Gears of War 2 was fun. It wasn’t broke, Epic didn’t fix it, and once more, I had a blast chainsawing my way through the Locust horde. I was amped on the blood, guts and rock-n-roll of the game. When I achieved a perfect reload, Marcus Fenix growled “Nice.” It was boneheaded mayhem, with an occasionally thought-provoking interlude. But when it got serious, I almost laughed. Dom, our hero’s tough-guy sidekick, spends the game looking for Maria, his beloved. When he finds her bound up inside a Locust torture casket, she falls into his arms and ages decades in seconds, morphing into a dry, barely-living husk of a human being. What magic is this? Who knows. Who cares? This was the point in the game where we feel sad for Dom. The grand tragedy of a hopeless offensive is ditched for a first-grade version of Romeo and Juliet.

If the “Last Day” hadn’t prepared us for a more sophisticated emotion, maybe Dom’s empurpled lament wouldn’t strike us as blasé – but it does. Sorrow by itself is uninteresting. Sorrow cut with bravery, desperation, valor and naivety, buttered up by a golden sunset and set to a cheery death march – that’s the kind of nuance that we can sink $60 into.

I don’t blame Epic for failing to strum my heartstrings – they got my blood going, that's enough. But they were outdone by an advertising agency, and for that, I’ll smirk as I return my borrowed copy of Gears of War.