Cinematic trailers impress us by playing their schlock material as drama, attempting to imbue B-movie alien invasion storylines like Gears of War with gravitas through solemn music, poetry readings, and cinematography. The marketing message is that the games they’re selling are not only fun, but somehow important. It’s a tactic designed to get around the defenses of a consumer block that is increasingly product savvy and unimpressed by visuals. But among game trailers, Dead Island is something completely new: A fully-formed story that emotionally blindsides us, jumping us from behind just like the undead girl it features. The trailer works because it subverts our expectations of the genre – we don’t expect to see genuine poignancy in a zombie game.
“We set on a pretty emotional story early on,” says Anton Borkel, Cinematic and Video Designer for Deep Silver. He’s talking about the dead girl, the one who flashed across fiber-optic networks worldwide as soon as the Dead Island trailer debuted. A family tragedy played in surreal reverse, the trailer was widely dubbed on Twitter as “the best videogame trailer ever,” a perfect marriage of mood, style, and relentless detail.
Everyone seems to agree that the trailer’s reverse order is central to its resonance. Inverting the story arc emphasizes the most powerful moment – when a father and daughter reach out, neither realizing that they’re about to destroy each other. “We wanted to have a realistic level of violence in the movie,” says Borkel, “but end on a high emotional note as well. By having the trailer play out backwards, we really could challenge the viewer, keep them interested. I remember talking about a ballet or dance of death to describe the mood we wanted.”
The astounding detail is another key to the experience. There is a moment during the closing home movie clips where we see the family checking into the hotel. The father drops an armload of suitcases, and we know just by looking at his face that his enthusiasm is dampened by jet lag. Traveling with kids is hell. He needs a nap. These pedestrian concerns make his coming tragedy almost unbearable.
Small touches like these are the work of Axis Animation, the Scottish studio Deep Silver hired to create the trailer. While Borkel and his team forged the concept of the film, the Axis team actually choreographed the “ballet of death” with such grace and poise. “Axis was very great on putting some details in there,” says Borkel, “which you only get from watching it multiple times.” Rather than the Hollywood blockbusters game ads usually try to mimic, Axis drew their inspiration from more eclectic sources, like music, short films, and classical Dutch painters. That varied influence shows through, and makes the trailer feel fundamentally unique.
“One of the goals with the trailer was to be very different from other competitors out there. We wanted a piece that could exist on its own, even if there were no Dead Island game,” explains Borkel.
And there’s the rub – the Dead Island announcement spot isn’t really a trailer – it’s a short film. Moreover, it’s a good short film. It wouldn’t look out of place at SXSW, Toronto, or Tribeca, screened as part of the “Midnight Shorts” programs that feature horror staples like serial killers, cannibals, and vampires. Unlike a traditional advertisement, the trailer doesn’t tout the game’s arsenal of weapons or its co-op capabilities; in fact, it never even mentions that Dead Island is a game. Instead, it tells you a story – one that grabs you by the liver and won’t let go.
For years, game developers have attempted to legitimize their craft as a narrative medium, rather than being seen as toymakers, and they’re gaining traction on the issue. Ten years ago, claiming to play games for the story was about as convincing as professing to read Playboy for the articles, but games are becoming mainstream with shocking speed and the perception of them as a storytelling tool is now common. In 2006, the BAFTAs recognized games as having equal status to films and television, and L.A. Noire was recently accepted for a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I would argue that one of the largest factors in the growing acceptance of the medium has actually been game advertising rather than the games themselves. Ads serve as ambassadors to non-gamers, forming opinions about a medium that viewers might not connect with, or even understand. The fact that game trailers regularly air on Monday Night Football and late night television means that they influence people outside their target demographic, and overall the industry has put its best foot forward in portraying itself as more than a venue for ventilating aliens with double-ought buck.
This positive influence is due to a specific marketing move by the games industry. Recently, game advertising has shifted from touting product features to putting the spotlight on a game’s narrative. These days, game footage is often cut together like a film trailer summarizing a game’s story or mood, which makes the medium more relatable to non-gamers, since they’re already acquainted with movie previews. In addition, story-driven advertising hooks game players into an ongoing narrative that will keep them coming back over multiple installments. Essentially, what these trailers do is sell a game’s experiential dimension, focusing more on how the game will make you feel rather than what it lets you do. That’s an important distinction in the ongoing argument about whether games are an art form.
Dead Island was not the first to make a short film. Bungie produced live action short films for Halo: Reach and ODST. The latter, depicting a young man’s journey from war orphan to scarred combat veteran, was particularly well done. However, the major innovator in the realm of narrative trailers has been Ubisoft, which crafted a full transmedia experience telling the story of Assassin’s Creed II across multiple platforms, including a three-episode webseries that set the stage for the game’s opening scenes. Ubisoft obviously considers the campaign successful, since it has announced that it’s developing a short film prequel to Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
Though Ubisoft’s marketing blitzkrieg is impressive, Dead Island is a completely different beast. Up until this point, game trailers have appealed to our fantasies. Instead, Dead Island appeals to our fears and sorrows. While other cinematic commercials tell you to buy a game because it makes you feel like a badass, Deep Silver hooks customers by making them empathize with the characters. It’s a videogame pitch made purely on pathos.
Deep Silver has accomplished this because they’ve done what the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror films always have: Connect with the audience through their material, rather than in spite of it. Ultimately, the themes of most games are not unique to their setting. The story of Assassin’s Creed II could easily be transferred to the French Revolution or the Depression-era Bronx without fundamentally changing its themes, and Halo: ODST would be much the same if it were about a scattered squad of paratroopers on D-Day.
The story of the dead girl, on the other hand, could not exist in any world but the one where it’s set. The elements are so deliberate and necessary, that to alter or delete a single one would diminish the impact. It had to be this girl, and this exhausted father, and the setting had to be a tropical resort where people go to escape the stresses of their suburban lives, and instead find its manicured landscape prowled by the feral dead. Most of all, it had to be zombies. No other creature, fact or figment, could instigate the cycle of death and rebirth that’s central to the plot.
In fact, the trailer may have been too successful. Deep Silver is already taking steps to cool the overheating hype engine. “The story focus for Dead Island is more on the bigger picture of the situation on Banoi and less on an individual tragedy,” insists Borkel. “Our emphasis for this game is on the gameplay, but the game story and struggle for survival by the players and survivors is an important aspect of that game.”
But with excitement about the Dead Island trailer spreading like the T-Virus, it’s important to gain some perspective. Even the best trailers are transitory things. Twenty years from now, a great game will still be remembered, but a great trailer will be a footnote. The Dead Island trailer may help us spread the word that games can carry emotional resonance and deal with serious issues, but ultimately it isn’t an innovation in videogame storytelling, it’s an innovation in videogame marketing.
Whether Deep Silver will cause a revolution in videogame narrative remains to be seen, but if they do, it will be through the game they sell, not how they sell the game.
Robert Rath (twitter: @robwritespulp) is a Hawaii-born novelist and freelance journalist headquartered in Austin, Texas. He would like to thank his friends at Blue Goggles Films for providing expert consultation on zombie-related issues.