Trailers, tone, and expectations

Chances are good that you’ve seen the incredible Dead Island trailer that IGN posted this week. I had not heard of this game before, but apparently it’s been in development for several years. Really, all it took was that trailer, and the game was suddenly on my radar.

The first thing I thought of when I saw it was the Gears of War “Mad World” trailer, which also juxtaposed emotionally fragile music with scenes of intense action. I think that paid off in two ways for Gears — one, it got people’s attention by playing against type, and two, it actually did underscore the melodrama of the final game. In-between the monsters and gunfire, they really did talk about how the characters were reacting emotionally to the changes in their lives. Real reactions to unreal situations makes good drama, especially in sci-fi, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for Gears.

So…I wonder if Dead Island will deliver the same kind of parallel that “Mad World” did. Is the Dead Island trailer an excellent and affecting piece of machinima to be taken on its own, or is it intended to be representative of the gameplay? Gamers don’t seem to be able to distinguish between “this is a cool idea” and “this is a promise,” so I wonder if this could be a problem.

I am reminded of when Nintendo showed some test GameCube footage of a realistic-looking Link in 2000, and fans lost their minds over how much they wanted it. Then Shigeru Miyamoto said “Actually, the real game is called Wind Waker, and it’s cel-shaded.” Gamers were livid. I remember this vividly because I was answering the letter column at GamePro at the time, and…oh my god. The anger! The horror! The spelling errors!

Mind you, Nintendo never said the footage that they showed was gameplay — it was just test footage showing the potential applications of the new hardware and its processing power — but gamers wanted to believe this brief segment was a product announcement…so they did. And when they were given something else, they immediately and intensely hated it simply because it was not what they told themselves to expect. Of course, hearts and minds were changed once people took Wind Waker on its own merits, but it’s a classic example of gamer expectations not syncing up with gaming reality, and the temper tantrums that can result.

I don’t think there is a downside to the attention Dead Island has gotten — like I said, I’m suddenly aware and want to know more, and that’s what an announcement trailer is designed to do. And I don’t really care if that was in-game footage or not. I am far more interested to find out whether the game’s plot deals with the emotional toll of a zombie outbreak — does the game’s narrative pull the same strings that the trailer does? The preview suggests it’s a gritty zombie world but I guess we won’t really know how deep the wounds go until the game is ready.

I hope that whatever Dead Island’s goals turn out to be live up to the audience’s expectations…because I think expectations were just set.

UPDATE: The family in the trailer is not in the game. It was just one perspective of the events that happen the game, which is described as a gory zombie actioner. But it still sounds like the game will be adding its own emotional spin to the genre and trying to offer more narrative depth. I’m still interested.