Dead Island and the Language of Film

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The reactions to the teaser trailer for zombie shooter Dead Island have been mixed, and by “mixed” I mean they have run the gamut. On one side you have rabid gamers waxing poetic about how the title itself will revolutionize the market. On the other are gaming parents uncomfortable with the manner in which said trailer seemingly uses of the death of a child as a go-to plot device.

Still, these are fringe elements, and I find myself unaligned with either camp. My reaction is much more measured, much more centrist.

It’s important to note first and foremost that what we are observing is a trailer in the broadest sense of the word. It is a CG conceptualization of a video game that is utterly devoid of in-engine footage or anything more than serviceable nods to the game’s mechanics. Instead what greets the eager consumer on IGN’s YouTube channel is a film-style trailer that oozes atmosphere but doesn’t necessarily convey anything at all about what will ultimately be the playable experience.

That being said, what the Dead Island trailer does right is leverage the trappings of the classic Hollywood teaser in an astounding manner. It’s a triumph of cinematography with its reversed chronology, its nigh stream-of-consciousness jumble of scenes and images and its implementation of delicate yet heavily moody music. The same can be said of its use of the tragic demise of a seemingly normal Western family as its primary set piece.

Even as a father of two young children, I wasn’t overly put off by the unfortunate death/undeath/redeath of a vulnerable pre-adolescent as featured in the trailer. I didn’t find it particularly emotionally wrenching because of its cleverly calculated shock appeal, nor did I find it the hollow promise of emotional context within a game that could easily prove just another zombie-zapping romp. Taken at face value I simply found it the central element of what was truly a brilliantly executed trailer.

I see the Dead Island teaser as another example of gaming – or at least game marketing – attempting to paint itself with the same set of artistic strokes as other media. Is the use of well-worn narrative tropes like in medias res storytelling and non-sequential scene structure a shortcut to capture viewer attention? Certainly, but these are useful tools in visual storytelling. Just as a cover system or avatar customization is an expected element within a game, these are accepted components of the language of film. If they are overused it is only because they are overly useful.

Likewise, could the death of a child be seen as an emotional cheap shot employed to make the brief narrative feel somehow weightier, more relevant in a sea of hackneyed game plots and rehashed archetypes? Of course, but no more so than the murders of Roy “Arsenal” Harper‘s daughter Lian by the villain Electrocutioner or Maximus’s wife and son by the order of Commodus.

Whether Dead Island the game lives up to the pre-release hype provided by its current marketing push remains to be seen, but despite what could be considered a number of easy shortcuts its trailer is, in itself, a masterpiece. It is visual flash fiction that shocks, and therefore satisfies, by design. It pulls the viewer in with a relentless visual assault, not unlike the Gears of WarMad World” trailer, and likewise makes an impression by implying that there are important things at stake within the game world. But the hype is only half the story. The other half is a valid attempt, misguided or otherwise, by gaming to mine the same emotion-laden content as other media.

If events like the Hot Coffee controversy have taught those of us in the gaming public anything, it’s that adult content doesn’t always equate an adult gaming experience. Consequently, in the end Dead Island may well employ the slaughter of the innocent as yet another toothless cash-in. Yet the trailer still manages impeccable visual artistry, and as we strive to have games seen as a form of artistic expression it only seems logical that the marketing of such titles also approach weighty subjects in a compelling manner. This, at least, seems a step in the right direction.

[Editor’s Note: Check out Andy Robertson’s article on Dead Island from yesterday.]

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