Manipulation and Evocation: Exploring The Dead Island Trailer

I’ll give you a moment to recover from the gut punch. I know how they can wind you.

Better? Ok.

That was yesterday. Since then, this trailer has gone viral. It’s ballooned, popped, and carried on being filled with air, despite having no more rubber to expand. It’s been a phenomenon. I’m sure the guys at Techland (developing Dead Island) are celebrating like motherfuckers, because pretty much everyone just saw a trailer for a game they probably hadn’t heard of, or at the very least thought was cancelled, and everyone’s talking about it. Regardless of the game itself, that kind of interest is undoubtedly going to pay off.

It’s not been universal praise though. Not even close. Despite a huge amount of people praising it as the best trailer ever, there’s been others decrying it as a vile manipulation that’s plucking heart strings with no purpose other than to get you interested in the game, and suck you into the narrative of the trailer. A trailer that could, as far as we know, be nothing like the game. In fact, there’s every chance that the only thing that the trailer and the game have in common is zombies. Which raises the question: why bother?

Well, that’s an easy one. Just look at the past 24 hours. Tuesday, Dead Island didn’t mean anything. Today, Dead Island means that trailer. Pretty good, right?

The morality of it all, of a trailer so woefully unrepresentative of the final product, is the more interesting thing to look at. What that boils down to, after you’ve stripped away the zombies, removed the stirring music, the slow rewind telling a story in reverse, and the family photos, is the dead child at the center of it all. For some people, that’s a step too far. If you look at games in general, the only relatively big game that I can think of that even approaches children in danger, or child death, is Pathalogic, and even that had to pretend they were midgets to get under the rating boards. More than sex, more than blasphemy, the issue of child peril in games is completely and utterly taboo.

It’s not even particularly clear why that is. Bioshock notoriously backed out of showing you harvesting Adam from the Little Sisters, which took all the impact out of the act. It just became an binary choice between harvesting now or harvesting later. There was no involvement, no real gutwrenching moment when you made the choice on whether to harvest or not because you were thinking about how the experience itself would affect you, rather than whether you wanted to wait for the big Adam payout later on, or the little one now. Imagine that; a game making you make a real, personal, moral choice, rather than something from a mechanical perspective.

I guess it’s RPGs that run into the issue more than others. Fallout had Little Lamplight, known for the fact that all its denizens were strangely invulnerable. Of course they were; Bethesda couldn’t get allowing child killing through the publishers. Maybe they didn’t even try. That so many people actually tried to kill them might be a little worrying, though.

GTAIV’s streets are devoid of anyone under the age of 20. So many places in gaming where you’d expect to see children, there are none. It’s jarring, at first, but it’s becoming a gamer’s reflex, now; there’s just a blank spot in our heads when we play games, the question ‘where are the kids?’ just isn’t asked any more. It’s an accepted norm. Maybe that’s one of the reasons this trailer is so divisive and shocking.

There’s a pretty major exception to all this, though. Heavy Rain’s entire plot revolves around a father losing a son, and having his other boy kidnapped, only to be forced into a series of increasingly sadistic puzzles to get him back. Say what you like about the writing, the plot itself, or the handling of the characters, the game itself treats the relationship with the father and son respectfully, and, perhaps more importantly, puts the responsibility for saving him in your hands. (Not to mention there’s only one ending where Sean dies, and about 15 where he survives. It’s really, really hard to screw this one up.)

Maybe it’s a case that we’re just not ready for something this powerful. When you’ve got player autonomy, and most of that autonomy is dealing with where to point and shoot, placing children into the mix is a recipe for disaster. The director of a film can make sure that children are safe, that when they are placed in danger, that danger is handled with respect and aplomb. A game designer? They can either include children and have them invulnerable, or leave them there, hoping that the player doesn’t do the same thing to these digital representations of kids that they do to a stranger in Halo.

That’s probably why using a child in your game trailer is a bad move. They’re probably not going to make it to the game, so why put one in a trailer? What point are you trying to make? There’s plenty already written about the Dead Island trailer that decries it’s use of the little girl. It isn’t, however, something without precedent, at least outside of games. Just keeping to zombie horror, both the recent Dawn of the Dead remake and The Walking Dead introduce zombified children pretty early on, using them to create a confliction within the characters as they defend themselves, and also to make the audience empathise with the villain of the film. Let’s not forget that there’s a reason that zombies are so incredibly popular at the moment.

It’s because of a few things. Firstly, they’re a great situation to explore. Alone, they’re almost comical, bumbling around and slow, easily avoided. But they’re infectious, and there’s a lot of them, and so they create an atmosphere of constant danger, manageable so long as you keep your guard up, but as soon as you relax, you’re screwed. It means that relationships are strained between friends, people are forced together, from all ideologies and backgrounds, and you get a sort of pressure cooker situation where the bigger threat isn’t so much the undead as other people. You’ve got a bunch of desperate, armed, tired, hungry people stuck in a small space together. Drama is conflict, after all.

They’re also empathetic. They were people, not so long ago, and they still look like people. The trailer would be undoubtedly less upsetting were the little girl to suddenly transform into some monster, instead of merely become reanimated. And, when defending against them, it’s impossible not to think ‘I’m hacking up the busboy’, or ‘I just saw her the other day’. It’s distressing. Genuinely so. That’s part of it.

At the heart of all this is the relationship between father and daughter, though. The trailer is interspersed with flashes of prelude to the rewind, of the little girl fleeing the undead. She’s running for her parent’s room, only to fall short and get bitten. We, as the audience, know that’s a death sentence, that she’s worse than gone; that she’s coming back. But they pull her inside, because that’s what parents do, and try to defend.

It’s what happens next, the reanimation and attack of the girl against the father, that really hits you hard. Fundamentally, he’s powerless; he can’t hurt her, because that’s his daughter on his back, biting at him. But she’s on his back, biting him, and so she’s inadvertently flung out of the window, to her second death. He did that. It doesn’t matter what happens after that in the room, because she’s the focus, right here, falling a dozen storeys.

The main issue raised with all this is that the use of the girl is unnecessary, that she doesn’t add anything beyond a shock factor to the trailer. I’m inclined to agree, but only to the extent that she could have been replaced with a wife, or a husband, or an adult who was similarly close to the father in the trailer. That relationship needed to be there for the trailer to work, because otherwise it doesn’t have the impact. The reason it’s so effective is because it taps into our empathy; we all have a relationship, someone close that we can substitute into the daughter’s place, and so we can feel a little of what the father is going through. Obviously those with children empathise more, and the strongest negative reactions I’ve seen seem to be coming from those people.

So, in a way, perhaps it would’ve been a wiser choice to pick the wife. Maybe that way they’d have tapped into a larger nerve and gained a stronger reaction. Objectively, sure, that makes sense. But it wouldn’t have. Because the relationship between husband and wife isn’t the same as between father and daughter. It’s not even close. Your wife is an adult, your daughter is vulnerable, she’s your responsibility, you’re the one who’s supposed to take care of her. She dies, and you’ve failed, you’ve failed and you’ve lost a child. That’s why it was used, that’s why it’s got such a strong reaction from people, even those without children. But we’ve got that fortuitous buffer, that wall that is ignorance; we don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, and so we’re shielded from the worst of it.

The trailer doesn’t matter, not on its own. At the moment it’s pretty much the only knowledge we have on the game, beyond a sterile feature list and some knowledge of the developer’s previous work. Right now, all it is is a Damaclean presence, ready to serve as vanguard for a truly remarkable game, or something that lifted hopes and cheaply manipulated people to gain interest in something purely pedestrian. That’s the crux of it. That’s why people are really getting pissed off at the trailer, because they’re using their considerable past experience of hyperbolic game trailers and over the top CGI demonstrations to fill in the blanks themselves. When has a game really lived up to the impressive displays of graphical wizardry? When has a game even approached its own cutscenes? The reason they’re used is because the games themselves have such a limited interaction. That’s the worry here, that’s why it’s such a grand, frail thing. It’s undoubtedly powerful, but if it’s completely irrelevant because the game is nothing like that trailer, what on earth is the point of it existing apart from to be a cynical marketing stunt?

But, and that’s one of those hundred foot tall, muscle-bound don’t-fuck-with-me-or-I’ll-eat-your-conjunctives Buts, if it does pull of the mood of that trailer, if it can actually evoke such a powerful emotion by creating flawed, strong, believable characters and having their morality down to you and your actions, relying on you to succeed and not fuck up, then this trailer will really be something impressive. It’s not enough to be a great trailer; you have to have a great game to trail, and, more than film, we’ve been betrayed by marketing again and again. We had no Mad World moment in Gears of War. We’ll probably not have a moment remotely like the Mass Effect 2 trailer. Dragon Age certainly didn’t have a This is the New Shit moment. It’s probably telling that I can’t think of any other good trailers.

Techland have a lot to live up to. They’ve set their own bar way high, and now they’ve got to clear it. Anything less and they’re going to be the guys who did that trailer and didn’t make the game of that trailer. They don’t even need children in the game, although that would be a bold step. They just need to evoke that sense of loss and vulnerability, of the responsibility of someone who has power to protect those who doesn’t. And that doesn’t just mean some crappy escort missions. They need to be looking at the likes of Far Cry 2, because that’s the only game I can think of that made me care for the characters in that way, put their vulnerability in my hands, had my mistakes impact them. Do that? Do that and they’re golden.

About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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9 Responses to Manipulation and Evocation: Exploring The Dead Island Trailer

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  3. Brian says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with the relationship between the father & daughter being the crux of why the trailer works.

    I don’t think it’s being a parent per se that creates the negative reaction you site though. I think it’s being a non gamer parent.

    I’m a gamer with kids and for me the whole point and impact of the trailer was the loss of the daughter. This is every patents worse nightmare (sans zombies of course) and to see this realized in my favorite entertainment medium had real impact. My overall impression was “is this it? Are games finally growing up?” I had much the same impression from heavy rain as you say, but to a lesser extent.

    The real question as you say is can the final game deliver on this premise? If so – fantastic, if not, at least it’s ignited some proper discussion on the subject and may influence someone with a grander vision of game design in the future.

    Here’s hoping.

  4. StinkyPickle says:

    I see what you’re saying about re-producing the dramatic effects of a trailer in a game, but I just don’t think that’s what trailers or games are for.

    You say there was no ‘Mad World’ moment in Gears, but maybe there was to someone? Not necessarily a set-piece that played through a similar scene, but a moment of play that evoked the same kind of dramatic tension. I would say that the playing of a game is a very subjective experience and it’s up to the player to respond to the action to generate these emotions. Of course, that doesn’t let the game off the hook, it still needs to be produced with these possible outcomes in mind, but I don’t think mimicking the trailer should be a priority. If anything, I prefer these kind of trailers, the ones that stir something up inside you and get you excited about the game – that’s what they’re for. If you want to get a good idea of the actual game then read a review, play a demo or watch a gameplay trailer.

    If you see one of those over the top perfume ads on TV, do you go out and buy it and then complain that you’re not on a red carpet swooshing your lovely dress around, or whatever?

  5. Insectecutor says:

    I disagree on Bioshock. They didn’t show you ripping children apart because that would’ve been tasteless and unnecessary. They show you a black screen and use audio to get the message across, and let your imagination do the rest. I found those scenes disturbing because of the implication of what was going on, an explicit portrayal would have probably had less impact on me and would have become tiresome.

    The real issue with Bioshock was that harvesting was systematised to the point emotional bankruptcy. It’s only shocking the first time, after which you realise it’s just a simple game mechanic. Perhaps this is a problem endemic in games that attempt to apply a layer of emotional resonance on top of a rigid mechanical framework. If the framework is too basic it quickly becomes easy to ignore a repetitive emotional dressing.

    Dragon Age handled this by adding obfuscation to the system. It was somewhat difficult to predict how each party member would react to your decisions, and this added a layer of ambiguity and heightened investment in both the characters in your party and the choices you were making. Dragon Age recognised that the interesting aspect of moral decisions is the conflict and self examination required to choose the “least bad” option.

    I have no interest in this Dead Island trailer, the reasons for its success appear utterly transparent to me. The issue I have is similar to yours, that it appears to be promising a level of emotional understanding that is relatively easy to pull off in a snazzy trailer, but extremely difficult to pull off in a game about zombies. I don’t hold out much hope for the game.

  6. sebmojo says:

    Really nice, thoughtful piece. As a dad of a 2.5 year old, I discovered a new place an inch below my belly button where stuff like this hits. It’s a fascinating change.

  7. Miles says:

    But what if the game doesn’t matter? Of course the game has to matter, but you first must gauge its interaction with the trailer, and its virulant popularity.

    The Dead Island already has a theme.

    Everyone who buys the game has already developed their own spirited views of the trailer, but even if the game never plumbs those controversial depths morality, the fiction already has. The character has already died inside, and you are left to personally gather the pieces. Like images colour the world of a text based adventure game, the trailer may be what holds this game together, or at least the attention of the public for a while longer.

  8. Chansu says:

    The Dead Island trailer felt sort of…honest, to me. Not honest about what the game experience will ultimately be like, nobody knows yet, but honest about exploring the implications of a zombie outbreak at the personal level.

    We would not make chainsaw-paddles and cheerily slay them in hundreds, we would not form a hard-boiled band of heavily armed comrades and endlessly run-shoot-run. We would grab the fire axe and try, probably in vain, to defend our families in a hotel room last stand.

    And you forgot the Star Wars: Old Republic trailers. They are great little action shorts, and are as far away from actual MMORPG gameplay as it is possible to be.

    I found the Deus Ex: Human Revolution CG trailers memorable too, though I suspect they will have an easier time living up to those (at least in theme if not in eye-splendor) given the type of game it is.

  9. After watching this trailer the first time i knew people where not going to like it. I myself loved it, its what games need to be. Games need to be more then just a game, they need to pull you into the story or at least get you involved with the characters in a way where you would replace that character with yourself or someone you know. The more realistic something is the easier it is to get immersed in the game, and I’m sure if zombies popped up in real life they wouldn’t spare the children.

    People that can’t handle trailers like this should grow up. Then again if this happened in real life they would be the first to die, cause if they cant handle it happening in a video about a video game then they could never handle it real life they would completely go insane.

    I really hope this game delivers on what a real zombie outbreak would theoretically be like. I hope it has you fighting for the survival of you and your friends. (ether real friends through co-op, or npc friends.) Also if this video had a wife/husband it would have had nowhere near the impact of the daughter and her father. Without the daughter this trailer wouldn’t have been all that great its the link between a child and their parent that made this video so gripping, so heart wrenching, and so amazingly eye catching. It placed you the watcher in the position of the father as was said above, and i almost guarantee you wouldn’t think about your child being a zombie and you would have done the exact same thing they did. I know i would have. (though i would have got my wife to tie her down with something that wouldn’t hurt her.)

    Saying that if this game can immerse me in the character or make me lose myself while i play it and make me feel like I’m in the game, fighting for my life, fighting for my friends lives then this game will be the best zombie game I have seen since House of The Dead.

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