Twitter users who pay attention to the social network's trending topics list may have found themselves watching an ad for a previously little known survival horror game called Dead Island this past week. Much of the action in this grisly but visually arresting trailer plays out in reverse, gradually revealing the events that lead up to a girl's fall from the third story of a tropical hotel infested by zombies. A gentle piano score stands in stark contrast to the gory imagery.
It became an instant web sensation, and stoked a bit of controversy along the way. MCV writer Ben Parfitt outlined his issues with the ad in an opinion piece in which he states, "There's nothing to learn from watching it. It's not designed to make you think or to explore a point of debate. It's a video that uses an image of a dead girl and images of her dying to create an emotional bond with a product."
I'm not sure I completely agree with Mr. Parfitt's argument, but I do concur that the ad elicits a powerful emotional response from the viewer. That's why it has such a marked impact on its audience--we don't expect a game commercial to stir us in any significant way.
That got me thinking about how game ads have changed over the years. After watching the Dead Island trailer I found myself spending hours searching for and watching game industry commercials from the past and present. I marvelled at how far they've come. Indeed, the evolution of game commercials is almost as amazing as the evolution of games themselves. The days of live action Mario ads and awkward raps about Legend of Zelda are long gone. Instead we have special effects-driven ads that feel like trailers for Hollywood blockbusters, legitimately funny commercials designed to appeal to the cynical generation, and clever teasers in which products aren't even named, much less shown.
I thought I'd share some of my favourites below.
Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2
This clever series of ads shows the reactions of unsuspecting moms being subjected to some of the most graphic scenes from Electronic Arts' recent survival horror game. It's clear from the outset that the women aren't actors but in fact real moms who are legitimately shocked and appalled. Of course, that's the point. As the tag says, a mom's revulsion has always been a good indicator as to what's cool.
Gears of War - Mad World
Soundtracks for action game commercials are supposed to feature blaring guitars, deafening explosions, and cacophonous guns, right? Wrong. This chilling trailer, which features Gears of War's Marcus Fenix moving through a war-torn city, is set to nothing but the soft, haunting melody of Gary Jules and Michael Andrews' "Mad World." By going against the grain it ended up becoming one of the most well known video game ads of all time.
The Kevin Butler PlayStation ads
Kevin Butler, Sony's fictitious Vice President of First Person Shooter Relations (and many other imaginary departments) is the best thing to happen to PlayStation advertising in years. Whether he's mocking "Canadese" for once having had a bird for a president (?) or living with a family for a month to study their use of PlayStation Move, his ads never fail to elicit a few laughs.
Halo 3 - Believe
Bungie and Microsoft have come up with a lot of memorable trailers for the Halo franchise, but this one for Halo 3 is my favourite. It's a series of dramatic close-ups of an incredibly detailed diorama of an enormous battle between the UNSC and the Covenant. The solemn piano, which makes the viewer feel like s/he is respectfully appreciating a recreation of an historic battle rather than watching an ad for a sensational sci-fi video game, strikes the perfect chord.
DC Universe Online - Cinematic Trailer
More a short film than a commercial (thank the web for making long-form video advertisements possible), this spectacular trailer for Warner Bros. and Sony Online Entertainment's MMORPG is a comic lover's dream. It shows many of DC's best loved personalities as we'd always imagined them; powerful, heroic, and larger than life. The only problem: There's no way the game could possibly have lived up to what players saw here. And, according to most reviewers, it didn't.
Microsoft's supposedly banned "Standoff" ad
Contrary to popular rumours, this ad depicting average people in a public space suddenly stopping in their tracks and pretending to shoot each other with their fingers was never banned. Microsoft simply decided not to air it. A pity, since it's a terrific example of how a live-action commercial can convey the imaginative fun of games without even showing or naming one.
Star Wars: The Old Republic - Cinematic Trailer
Another trailer from the short film school of advertising, this gorgeous, six-minute cinematic ad for BioWare's upcoming MMORPG can't help but make a Star Wars fan wish that the Edmonton-based developer's animators were working on a feature length CGI Star Wars film. They clearly understand what the franchise's grown-up fans want.
Call of Duty: Black Ops - There's a Soldier In All of Us
I enjoyed this ad so much that I discussed it in a lede for a feature I wrote last year. It shares the same themes as Microsoft's "banned" Xbox 360 ad, showing the average people who play Activision's blockbuster military shooters wielding actual weapons in the real world. It's a celebration of the joy of fantasy.
Fallout 3 - Vault-Tec Trailer
The first half of this trailer is what sells it. A faux live-action ad for apocalypse-proof vaults, it perfectly captures the retro vibe for which the franchise is famous while at the same time ensuring long-time fans that Fallout's unique essence wasn't going to be lost under the stewardship of its new developer, Bethesda Softworks.
World of Warcraft - Night Elf Mohawk
World of Warcraft's celebrity ads, which endeavoured to convince us that everyone from Mini-Me to Ozzy Osbourne was playing Blizzard's ludicrously popular MMORPG, were never any better than this one starring Mr. T, who apparently happens to be a brilliant hacker capable of creating his own Mohawk class of character.