Video game commercials have a long history of being trash. That trashness was buoyed by the prevalence of a “macho/just for boys” perception that was wholly incorrect, yet still egregiously lingers over their adverts like a Sunday morning hangover stench. This outdated machismo is the root of many large scale game releases creating atrocious television commercials. The other lies in the difficulty of marketing a product that relies on interaction rather than passivity, forcing them to get across how players will actually play this thing they just made. Moreover, few video game trailers encapsulate a game’s tone, and some even eschew the game’s actual interactions to portray a reality rooted in marketing demographics rather than developer intent. These claims are not true of all game trailers. But it is true of many. The latest Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare commercial is firmly the latter after watching it blasted onto my television with the grace of a nuclear explosion.
In it, a man (because men play COD, DUH), is glued to his phone as he traverses a city. Inundated with a glut of communication channels on his phone, city streets and even 90’s era televisions on electronic store windows, every newscast and headline highlights the despair of “the worst year”. Mock headlines like “Europe leaves E.U.”, “Canada builds a wall” and “a moderator punched a presidential candidate in the face” pummel this man’s psyche in a nod to some of 2016’s primary political discussion points. His response is blunt, “Screw it, let’s go to space.” Space is the setting for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. He zooms into space within a fighter jet that picks him up in the middle of the street. It is a silly commercial. Danny McBride is in it. Michael Phelps pretends to flap his arms like before a swim race, except this time his hands clasp firearms. Activision has produced this same tonal commercial for several years now in advance of their Call of Duty release. A live-action short featuring several movie stars. It’s a credit to its permanence within our culture that it warrants such a treatment. COD is the Marvel Movie franchise.
Its faux outrage at lampooned articles rooted in reality feels unsurprisingly, out of touch. Not to mention the fact these real issues are actually affecting people. Escapism has been video game’s calling card for ages, this is no exception. There’s a common dissonance with this scenario though. The last straw for this man before he rockets into the stratosphere is a female newscaster describing, “a moderator punching a presidential candidate in the face.” He leaves one world of political strife and violence to enter an entirely other world consumed by more grandiose, actual violence. Any chance Infinite Warfare had of wanting to present some sort of compelling yarn, never the series strong suit, exploded in that instant.
This is nothing new for video game commercials. Pandering to the lowest common denominator is a frequent occurrence. Watch Dogs 2 recently unveiled its launch commercial too. It represents a”mixed presentation” approach, one that complements CGI sequences with portions of the game in action. Hacking is a toy in this world, and they treat it as such. No longer some way to change the world, this trailer illustrates the “fun” you can have, throwing steel into buildings and electrocuting a group of baddies before showering them with a grenade launcher. The opening lines literally read like back of the box quotes. “I can fly, see through walls.” At least the marketing copy can be recycled elsewhere!
Any chance of permeating some prevailing tone is shattered immediately, replaced instead by the perceived necessity to describe a game entirely by the player’s interactions with the world. In many ways, that’s a pretty incredible level of transparency this medium has. It’s asinine that it’s necessary in many ways, but rather unprecedented in other mediums. Film trailers almost always embody the movie’s tone, but people have little to no idea if the plot bears out as described in the trailer. Still, even the worst film trailer usually captures some level of intrigue whether through a sense of mystery, evocative shots or striking an emotional tenor.
The conclusions for both film and game trailers are the same: a dichotomous decision. Yes or no. I’ll see that or I won’t. I’ll play that or nah. Game trailers on a large scale though rarely, if ever, imbibe tonal expression as movie trailers do. Indeed, it’s rather funny that the gaming industry’s loudest, most bombastic releases come in the winter, precisely when the film industry starts to release its “serious films” deemed Oscar contenders. I’m sure this contrast isn’t lost on arbiters of either medium.
Indeed, it’s rather funny that the gaming industry’s loudest, most bombastic releases come in the winter, precisely when the film industry starts to release its “serious films”…
Weighing the value of showcasing a player’s explosive arsenal versus imbuing a trailer with how interplanetary combat may have shaped this game world is a delicate balancing act. These disparate goals are part of why games release separate TV commercials from the glut of lengthy trailers and developer diaries for fans online. It’s savvy, but it shouldn’t let games off the hook for their sloppy mainstream portrayals. Part of the issue is that plenty of titles haven’t even decided the message they intend to send beyond their core loop, which is basically all they rely on in the marketing. Infinite Warfare is the umpteenth entry in the Call of Duty Series. The only message they have at this point beyond its usual gunplay is “it’s in space!” I guess that trailer did the trick in that respect. The core audience is mobilized; if it says Call of Duty, they’ll buy it. They could’ve called it “Call of Duty: In Space!” and it would’ve sold just as many copies. Hey, it worked for Power Rangers.
Look back at this Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trailer. It’s an incomprehensible mess, but in many ways that was a perfect reflection of that title. The story felt poorly cobbled together. The experience was a series of military vignettes punctuated by unsettling moments. Concluding with a foreign insurrectionist shooting you in the head is dumb. That’s a dumb way to say, “we’re serious.” But at least the thing revels in its chaotic tone. Not enough games encapsulate that in their commercials. Even when they do, they can get bogged down in trying to show the sheer breadth of the game that they fall apart into a muddled mess of nothingness. That COD trailer did that. Watch Dogs 2 fell prey to that. Continuing to produce such drivel will always hold the industry back, particularly from a mainstream sense. The smartest trailers nowadays are those produced on the small scale, unseen by most consumers.
That visibility issue isn’t as prevalent in theaters, where even the smallest film trailers may be shown before a film starts. People would assuredly object, but video games should consider having trailers shown before the start menu. A series of small clips, that could easily be skipped just like a DVD menu, would only help increase awareness of titles. Bigger publishers would get another platform to market their own stuff. Imagine booting up the latest Call of Duty, Final Fantasy or Dishonored and seeing a Firewatch trailer or Quadrilateral Cowboy trailer. That would almost assuredly require extensive funds though, unless they were under a larger indie publisher. Devolver Digital seems like a prime candidate, even to showcase the imprint’s own wealth of titles. Sure, it may be slightly redundant with Steam’s online storefront, but it’s hard enough to get featured there. Giving smaller titles the chance to rope someone in with a tonally resonant trailer seems like it would only help. The prevalence of trailers in movie theaters is a part of the industry’s self-feeding worm loop. Entering that world enters you in a contract where you’ll invariably be exposed to other titles that may warrant your dollars. It feels like games, particularly narrative-driven indie titles, would benefit from such a practice.
The fact that the most engaging trailers are made by indie developers is unsurprising. They’re taking far greater risks, and also recognize their audience will inevitably be more niche than large-scale releases. That affords them a level of artistic creativity mainstream publishers squash instantly for their touchstone titles. I mean, look at this pitch-perfect period Quadrilateral Cowboy trailer that meshes gameplay with footage in unique ways without feeling corny or insincere. The best example of AAA games using their well known commodity status was probably Halo 3’s Believe campaign ad. Experimentation at that point was a luxury, the audience knew the gist of Halo 3. This was a rare blockbuster release solely trying to encapsulate a game’s vibe. No need for graphics, CGI, or even lines of dialogue. The environment illuminated the distressful campaign to come, and using that imagery is something blockbuster games should aspire to more often in their trailers. Less bombast, more beauty.
Or keep shoveling this crap into our senses. Who am I to argue with the masses.