Dead Island: The untold story of its shocking trailer
15th May 2011 | 11:30
The notion of 'overnight success' used to be an exaggeration. Now it's an understatement, as the world discovered on February 16 when a largely ignored zombie game, Dead Island, was thrust, within hours, to every corner of the internet. Its CG trailer, by Scotland's Axis Animation, touched an emotional nerve like no other ever has.
In three minutes it shows, largely in reverse and slow-motion, why a small girl has gone crashing from a hotel window to a grisly death.
Dovetailed with full-speed clips of her failing to beat an army of zombies to the arms of her waiting dad, this elegant rewind puts the pieces of the jigsaw back together, creating a picture of a futile struggle that's heartbreaking and haunting, and helped to no end by a soundtrack that channels the more emotive parts of Lost.
BELIEVE THE HYPE
Barely a week after its release, publisher Deep Silver was celebrating over 100,000 fans on the game's Facebook page, over 2.7million views on YouTube, 3.2million tweets and mainstream media coverage.
"It's well thought out and smartly executed," notes Rob Troy, creative director at Hollywood ad agency The Ant Farm, famous for its work with Call Of Duty. "They're obviously drawing on ideas from a number of sources - the Max Brooks Zombie Survival Guide comes to mind.
Having two plots going on at different speeds, starting at two different points, is an interesting approach and very difficult to convey. That's the thing that catches people off-guard."
It all began with an outline brief and example script describing the game's essence - Axis working some filmic magic to create a companion piece featuring a 'turned' mother being discovered by her husband.
Though the daughter was in there, Deep Silver wanted a stronger concept and a greater focus on family. They wanted an external aspect, too - much of the game itself is outdoors - and so the opening 'window shot' was born.
The finishing touch, once the forward/reverse structure was decided, was to hire Glasgow's sound post-production experts Savalas to add the melancholic piano soundtrack.
So the trailer ends up less about zombies than families becoming decimated; children ripped from their parents' arms; a monstrous force laying siege to a tourist paradise: all caught on hundreds of hours of intimate home video, cut together by filmmakers with the blissful scenes shot just moments before - the waving from sundecks and hotel room rituals.
All of which seems somewhat inconvenient for Dead Island the game, which until now has happily portrayed itself as a first-person slasher about burying various objects into zombies skulls.
More recent impressions suggest a cross between Dead Rising and Left4Dead where you dash between safehouses, hoping zany weapons, such as an electric machete, don't break. Deep Silver insists, though, that there will be more to it than that.
"There's a storyline behind the trailer, emotions behind it, which we think is something we should follow," says Georg Larch, Deep Silver's marketing director. "And it fits nicely into the idea of what we're doing with the game. We want to present people who are struck by the zombie outbreak and how they react to it.
There are comparisons [in the trailer] to characters in the game, but it was an idea that was created for the trailer. That family is now being put together for the game as well."
It raises all kinds of issues far more interesting than a brief controversy (manufactured by journalists) over gore and airborne kids. Is it the case that developer Techland is, to some degree, making a movie adaptation of its game's own trailer? And if the game is to be a hack-and-slash that speaks in gaming's usual clumsy terms, not the trailer's CG poetry, where do you draw the line when it comes to being honest with your consumers?
"I've much less of an issue if the trailer's quite obviously a supporting piece of artwork, describing aspects of the game without pretending that it's you playing," says trailer director and Axis cofounder Stuart Aitken.
"I thought where DS wanted to go with the trailer was fantastic, and I think one of the reasons for that is because it's a self-contained thing in its own right. I'm much happier with that than the opposite. But there's a fine line: CGs are generally going to look better no matter how great a game engine is."
And in fairness, the game does look good. It's an open-world, first-person adventure set on a tropical island. Even better, it boasts four-player co-op, (think Left4Dead with palm trees) and weaponry you can gussy up at workbenches.
You play one of four characters - Sam B the hip-hop star, Purna the bodyguard, Logan the surfer, or Xian Mei the hot hotel worker - charged with completing missions to survive, and maybe finding out what caused the undead outbreak.
The tasks we've seen are basic, though - like fighting to a set location to protect a survivor. Each has their own special skills, like Sam B's fetish for hardcore melee weapons.
But those weapons are scarce, so if you want to slay the undead you'll need to get creative. Attach charges to a machete for electrified decapitation, or build sticky bombs. It's a tribute to the best zombie games and films, shipped to a super sunny location and turned up to 11.
Teaser vs trailer, CG vs real-time, cinema vs game. These distinctions are important, and while there's no controversy in making a stunning piece of game-related art - "it's not about whether it's a frickin' game," says Troy, "promote it as a piece of entertainment that people are going to be a part of" - it does leave viewers scratching their heads.
Comments for the teaser on YouTube cough up platitudes such as 'Day 1!', even though the trailer gives no meaningful impression of gameplay. We point out that Axis wasn't even allowed to associate itself with the trailer until shortly after release, and ask if there's an element of lying by omission there.
A deliberate attempt to confuse Techland's and Axis' talent and ideas? No, believes Troy. "It's quite typical for agencies to be embargoed for an indefinite period of time simply because the publisher or developer doesn't want you competing against the buzz and what the trailer's all about."
"There are eyeballs on it and they're getting attention. That's the goal at this point. They achieved it in spades," states Ant Farm director Lisa Riznikove.
"Especially at a time when it's really hard to break out. Whether it works as a marketing campaign remains to be seen; it could become another Snakes On A Plane [big hype, not-so-big box office].
To be honest, to sell lots of games you gotta have two things: good marketing and a good game." First one ticked, then. Now it's down to you, Techland.