DEAD ISLAND Trailer Selling You A Zombie Game That Makes You Sad. Or Something

Sad piano music and slomo backwards computer people set the internet crying.

I think the trailer for the game Dead Island is a massive failure, both as a commercial and as art. I’ll tell you why:

1) As a commercial: What is this trailer selling? It’s not selling you a game, that’s for sure. What you’re seeing is not gameplay, and while the trailer may get you interested in checking out a future gameplay video I guarantee that seeing the actual game in action will turn you off from it. The elements that people are responding to - the hack, trite emotions (See point 2 below) are simply not going to be in this game. Or if they are they’ll be in tedious cut scenes akin to every JRPG ever. So yeah, the trailer raised awareness for the game, but  it will not impact sales of the game itself. Again, because it’s just not selling you the game.

2) As art: Could this be any hackier and more trite? The trend in video game commercials is to make them ‘arty’ or ‘important’ or ‘emotional.’ This feeds into a couple of things - the people now making hacky short films and commercials grew up on video games, so they want to bring their hacky skills to that; also, video game players really want their hobby to be important. They want it to be meaningful and artistic, and not just a way to kill some time while killing some things. Thus slomo machinimas set to sad pop songs or plaintive piano chords.

Why is this trite and hacky exactly? Because it’s all signifiers with no meat. The slomo backwards stuff says ‘art’ to us as modern media consumers without actually being artistic. It’s the equivalent of using a blood-dripping font on a horror movie poster; you’re signifying things without actually creating any meaning in them.

The slomo backwards stuff might actually work if the trailer’s creators didn’t go with the occasional forward motion stuff; that has no meaning in the piece and seems to come only from someone in a meeting saying ‘Hey, let’s do it like NON-LINEAR!’ The backwards and forwards stuff don’t complement each other or even really remark on each other, making it just a stylistic flourish.

But the really egregious hackiness of the trailer is the emotional component. The trailer creates no characters or meanings, again going for trite signifier. A cute girl and, we assume, her parents (I like to imagine the zombie apocalypse struck in the middle of a field trip for the Hansel & Gretel perverts in Running Scared) are presented in cliche moments of holiday snap posing. This doesn’t speak to anything happening to the characters or in the story, but only serves - in conjunction with the heavy handed music - to strike a familiar chord that’s been implanted in us by years of greeting cards, smarmy commercials and cheap cinema. These are all recycled ideas whose meanings we bring to the trailer.

To me this is the difference between porn and erotica. Anybody can show you a tit and give you a hard-on, but well-done erotica seduces you not just into the sex but the characters. Porn is useful when you want to pop off quickly, but it’s the artistic equivalent of a hand job in a bus station bathroom. Erotica will have meaning as well as stimulation, and it’s a deeper, more artful experience.

This trailer is emotional pornography. The people who tear up at the trailer aren’t tearing up for the girl or the situation or anything meaningful because there’s nothing meaningful there. There is, however, a Pavlovian series of responses to simple cues just as there’s a physical reaction to seeing cheap on-screen sex. It’s decontextualized manipulation - you’re not having an emotion, the cues are reminding you of an emotion you once had.

There’s nothing wrong with manipulation, per se. All art is, in some way, a manipulation. All good artists are trying to get some kind of reaction from the audience. But the difference between Gallons of Cum #27 and Last Tango In Paris is obvious, and it’s the same difference between the Dead Island trailer and real emotional art.

Before you tear into me in the comments below for cynically not getting into an advertisement, please think about what you’re defending - the art of the piece or your reaction to it.