Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dead Island Trailer – Zombies, Fanboys, and Aspirations

dead-islandTrailers are unavoidable. To market something, you must boil it down to a few minutes of footage, slap a memorable song on it, and upload it to every site that will have you (or the one site to which you signed an exclusive deal).

Games are no exception.

For some games, the mere existence of a trailer suffices. Hundreds or thousands of gamers at a convention will hear a familiar melody or see an iconic font and start screaming about the next game in their favorite franchise. The trailer validates those fans’ particular fanaticism. They’ve trolled message boards comparing their game favorably to others. They’ve inferred titles from domain name registrations. Now a man in a suit (or perhaps a hoodie with a blazer) is showing them a thirty-second movie which makes all that waiting worth it.

After the initial launch, trailers often take on the role of Feature Announcer. For example, fighting games live and die by their character roster. Leading up to the recent launch of Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds, Capcom released several trailers, adding one or two new characters each time. The gaming press wasn’t just saying, “Here’s another trailer for this fun-looking game!” Each headline ran more along the lines of “MvC2 to include [new character that maybe you’re excited about]!”

Announcements and features lists aren’t always enough. Publishers looking to pierce through the blogroll din and perhaps even score some time on television aim a bit higher.

The recent trailer for Dead Island aims quite high. Let’s take a look. (Be forewarned, as it’s a game with zombies and there are children involved, some readers may find the imagery disturbing.)*

Two things stand out upon my now third viewing: the music and the structure. By now, zombies are fairly run into the ground – like, we-smushed-them-into-the-soil-with-our-John-Deere-tractors run into the ground. So to stave off our malaise, the studio behind the trailer (Axis Animations, according to Develop) juxtaposed the nearly-clichéd action with somber, heart-melting music. Also, they focused the action on the death and afterlife of a young girl – a choice bound to resonate with and/or upset viewers.

The action unfolds on two timelines, converging at the emotional pinnacle of the narrative: a father saving his daughter. Of course, there are other ways to tell this story. We could follow the little girl from when she first encounters the zombies and end on the suspense of her father maybe rescuing her. We could focus on the man, watch him search for his daughter and then come to grips with her zombification. Instead, we’re given a story bisected then injected with gravitas by home movies of happy people.

Twitter, or at least the gaming subcontinent of Twitter populated by press and enthusiasts, exploded. IGN let the trailer loose and the masses began slathering like, well, a horde of zombies. Gaming darling Felicia Day claimed that she “teared up.” Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica tweeted that he’d “never seen this level [of] credulity from so many people.” Friend of the site Nina Holmberg called the trailer “So sad! Almost too sad. But does bring in a Walking Dead-element that bodes well for story.”

the-walking-dead-posterHolmberg hit the nail on the head with the Walking Dead reference. AMC’s show, and the graphic novel it’s based on, aim for a characters-first approach to the zombie apocalypse. This trailer implies Dead Island may be going the same route. It’s also worth noting that the show had its main character shoot a zombie girl in the face within the first five minutes. How’s that for punch-you-in-the-gut-and-crotch-and-heart storytelling?

Not everyone’s onboard the Dead Island train, however. Ben Parfitt of MCV, in response to the short’s instant acclaim, wrote:

“With regard to Dead Island, though, there's nothing to learn from watching it. It's not designed to make you think or to explore a point of debate. It's a video that uses an image of a dead girl and images of her dying to create an emotional bond with a product.”

Parfitt’s opinion, while cynical, is not wholly inaccurate. Wired’s Chris Kohler dubbed the trailer “a short film that takes place in the world of Dead Island,” and representatives from the game’s publisher Deep Silver told Kohler that it “is meant to be illustrative of a scenario that might befall a typical vacationing family on the island.” They are trying to make us feel feelings about a game we currently know nothing about. That’s Marketing 101, and if Twitter’s any indication, it’s working.

But what do we know about Dead Island? The game’s Wikipedia page says it is a first-person open-world game with survival horror elements. It runs in developer Techland’s Chrome Engine 4, which has been praised in titles such as Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood and Sniper: Ghost Warrior (though the games themselves reportedly left much to be desired). How will Dead Island unpack the tightly wound Left 4 Dead formula for open-world gameplay? How will the melee-focused gameplay control? Will you play as that Bradley Cooper-ish fellow? No one knows, and that’s the point.

Dead Island is not the first trailer to place emotional impact above actual information on its list of priorities. Gears of War trailers (“Last Day,” “Mad World”) consistently possess a depth of feeling sorely lacking in that thick-necked universe. Halo 3’sBelieve” campaign instilled the franchise’s epic conflict with pathos by showing us veterans of a fictional war. Team Ico’s trailer for The Last Guardian (see below) grabs the I-once-had-a-dog part of my inner child’s heart and squeezes until he cries.

All of these short films – and that’s what they are, let’s face it – use potent pairings of music and imagery to convey a general mood. A sense that these games will be more than button presses and cutscenes. And – let’s face this, too – that’s why the gaming community is rallying around this trailer. We’re tired of zombies (so we claim). We’re jaded by the endless grind of the release calendar with its hackneyed budget games and stale sequels. We say we’re tired of mindless violence and want more “artistic” games. So when someone puts time, effort, and craft into a idealized representation of a game’s potential, we go absolutely ballistic.

If I were Techland, I would release this game tomorrow. Because the more we know about Dead Island, the less we’ll believe it can live up to this trailer.

* This article originally had no pre-jump disclaimer, but the Ben Parfitt piece I quoted made me think otherwise.