Selling the Zombie Apocalypse the Don Draper Way

The reviews are in for Techland's open-world zombie role-playing game Dead Island. Reviewers are talking about immersion and HUDs, PC bugs and control issues, and whether it is possible to love a game for the cool moments it provides while accepting that it has significant flaws. But from review to review, there is one constant: that damned trailer.

Produced by Axis Animation and released back in February, the Lost-tinged trailer received rave reviews. G4 called it "The best trailer I have seen in my life. The best video game trailer. The best movie trailer. The best anything trailer." MSNBC ran a piece entitled "The Dead Island Trailer Will Make You Cry." The ad even won an award at Cannes—not that Cannes, but an advertising festival held in the same location. Our own Mike Fahey was a bit more measured, calling it "The Most Heartbreaking Zombie Video Game Trailer You'll Ever See."

The trailer immediately sparked some debate: It was hard not to be roped in by the soft piano music and the slick intercutting, the final shot of the father holding his hand out to his doomed daughter. But there was a whiff of B.S. to the whole thing—after all, this was an advertisement we were watching. As Wired's Jason Schreier put it in a February op-ed, "If Dead Island's experience and emotional impact are anything close to this trailer, it could be a great game. But perhaps we should wait until we actually see the game itself before we start drawing those links."

In March, Brian Crecente interviewed the brand manager for Techland, who confirmed, more or less, that the family wouldn't be in the game. And now that the game has been released, there is no longer any ambiguity: the game is nothing like the trailer.

Here's Gamespot:

It's played in a first-person perspective and has shooting, but it's not a first-person shooter. And whatever that slow-motion trailer would have you believe, it's not a stirring emotional experience.

Destructoid:

With its debut trailer, Techland set itself the impossible goal of living up to self-generated hype on a massive scale. The video, which showed a family beset by zombies while a hauntingly beautiful refrain played, led one to believe that Dead Island would be an emotional roller coaster that touched on the human side of undead apocalypse.

Eurogamer:

Remember the Dead Island teaser trailer? Of course you do. It "went viral" as marketing people with spreadsheets like to say. That means everybody saw it, posted it on Facebook, emailed it to their friends and said, "Hey, what's this Dead Island game all about?"

3DJuegos.com:

Tras concretamente tres años sin dar señales de vida, el juego volvió de entre los muertos con su memorable tráiler cinemático que logró con apenas tres minutos de formidable CGI dejar impactado a aficionados y no aficionados, y comenzar a crear todas las expectativas que hasta entonces no había conseguido erigir.

and Gamestar.de:

In einem nahen Zimmer finden wir ein totes Paar (das wir schon aus dem eindrucksvollen, rückwärts ablaufenden Trailer von Dead Island kennen). Die zwei können uns nichts mehr erzählen.

Clearly, the trailer made enough of an impression that everyone felt obliged to address it in their review, often at the very top. The question is: Why did this ad, in particular, resonate like it did?

Selling the Zombie Apocalypse the Don Draper Way

Advertising is meant to inform, but also to persuade. All ads lie to us to some extent; they spruce up the reality of financing a car or buying toilet paper to make us feel excited about it, to capture the essence of the product and convince us to buy it. In theory, the Dead Island trailer was meant to stand apart from the game, to show us what happened on the day the zombies rose up. Even though the tone of the finished game would be totally different than the trailer, the two things provided different perspectives on a unified story.

I've knocked around for a few hours in Dead Island, and reconciling the trailer with the game is indeed a bit difficult. Despite the fact that you can find the corpses of the trailer's family in the opening hotel level, I'm finding that the game's not-insubstantial charms lie in progression and exploration, not in my engagement with the story or characters. Though it should be said that Dead Island is a serious game; far more so than Dead Rising or even Left 4 Dead. Many of the sidequests are personal and fraught with loss and drama—"Take my brother his insulin," "Find medicine for my dying wife," and while the execution is flat and the animations are stilted, the small stories are often quite powerful.

I don't generally care for CGI trailers; they are misleading at a fundamental level. The first half of the reveal trailer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a bunch of footage of renaissance-era scientists attaching wings to a man, who then flew into the sun like Icarus. Which stands as a perfectly fine metaphor for the finished game, but is a far cry from what the actual game entails. And while the closing moments with Adam Jensen do show a cinematic approximation of gameplay, they don't show the game itself in action.

Plenty of other game trailers bend the rules of reality a bit to show a stylized view of their product; the famous "Mad World" trailer for Gears of War has been copied and parodied countless times, and the "Believe" campaign for Halo 3 was goosebump-raising, but ultimately unrelated to the game itself.

I think the real reason for the trailer's impact was that it promised us something that, as it turned out, we wanted very badly.

But still, the Dead Island trailer stands apart. In part, it's because Dead Island was a mystery—everyone knew what Halo 3 was going to be all about, so their ad agency was able to take more liberties with the campaign. All we really knew about Dead Island was that back in 2007, the game had, in fact, been about a family struggling to survive on a zombie-infested island. It was much easier to believe that the trailer was something of an approximation of the final product.

When I first watched that trailer, my bullshit detector was going off like crazy, and as the months wore on, preview after preview of the game made it quite clear that the final experience would be significantly different from the trailer. And yet still we talked about it, in previews and then in reviews; and here I am now, talking about it still. So again I ask: why?

The trailer was well-made and engaging; it channeled a hugely popular TV series (Lost) and it showed a little girl getting brutally murdered as her mother looked on. But I think the real reason for the trailer's impact was that it promised us something that, as it turned out, we wanted very badly.

We may not have known it at the time, but I think we want a zombie game that is tragic and sad, action-packed and tense, full of loss and emotional catharsis. We want a game to make us tear up, to show us impossible loss, to make come to terms with the actual risks and small but human costs of a deadly viral outbreak. Brilliantly, manipulatively, the Dead Island trailer promised us that, and our desire to see our wish fulfilled outweighed our skepticism. It was fun to believe that maybe, just maybe, this game would be different from the others.

Selling the Zombie Apocalypse the Don Draper Way

And of course, now that the final game is out, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that as much as we might want the game promised by that trailer, we're not getting it. Yet, anyway. Upon rewatching the trailer, I was mostly unmoved… until that little postscript, home-camera footage of the happy family, a daughter running around on the beach, a father corralling his family for a posed photo. Dang. That is the sort of thing I very much want to see in a video game.

I'm reminded of the famous scene in the season one finale of Mad Men in which protagonist Don Draper is pitching an ad campaign for the new Kodak "Carousel" slide projector. "Technology is a glittering lure," Draper says. "But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged beyond flash, when they have a sentimental bond with the product."

The jury's out on Dead Island the game (Crecente will have his full review up this week). But whether its trailer was a misleading misstep or a brilliant piece of persuasion, it did something very important: it opened our eyes to something that we very much desire. By the time the trailer was made, Dead Island itself was most likely too far into development to be significantly changed. But even after the game's launch, the trailer's impact remains, as does the latent desire it illuminated. While Techland may not have made the game that their ad promised, perhaps another developer will.


You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at kirk@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.