The trailer's clearly trying to create an emotional connection with anyone who's ever been a parent.
In less than a week, it's already become one of the biggest videogame rubbernecking scenarios of 2011. Upwards of 3 million people have pointed their browsers toward YouTube (and elsewhere) to check out the image of a dead little girl lying face down in the grass, staring glassy-eyed as a figure in flames flails blurrily behind her.
Welcome to Dead Island -- or rather, the transcendent three-minute trailer for Dead Island, a game nobody even knew existed until about a week ago.
We sure do now. The trailer goes all Christopher Nolan on us, moving in reverse from the terrifying opening scene to the girl's fall from the glass window of a hotel building, to the terrifying hallway chase that led to her being bitten by a ravenous zombie, all the way back to the blissful beginning of what's about to become the Worst Family Vacation Ever.
As a piece of cinema and as a piece of marketing, the Dead Island trailer is unquestionably an absolute triumph: There isn't a game developer alive (or undead) who wouldn't be thrilled to have the world buzzing about their upcoming product half a year in advance of its release. Everyone's amazed, shocked, touched and frightened. Even some who don't normally pay attention to this kind of stuff.
Awesome. Applause all around. But here's my caveat: What happens if the actual game, supposedly slated for some time later this year, fails to be even half as compelling? I can't see any way in hell -- not even the hell that the island paradise has unexpectedly become for its unsuspecting tourists -- that the developer, Deep Silver, is going to be able to create an experience as compelling as what the polished trailer (put together by an outside company, by the way) shows us. As any politician or service-industry worker can tell you, overpromising and underdelivering ain't such a great long-term business strategy. Game-industry history is littered with the (un)reanimated corpses of developers whose trailer footage couldn't manage to outrun the hype tsunami. Even Square Enix, the still-undisputed kings of the two-minute cutscene, have been burned by this.
Deep Silver, Dead Island's developer, has a strong track record -- their S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, set in post-nuclear Russia, is always among the first games cited when folks start to talk about the wave of Eastern European talent that's been brewing over the last decade. But the crowded zombie-game genre, raised out of the quality graveyard by the Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising series, has already shown us plenty (speedy undead, random spawning events, even DIY weaponry). Giving us a game where powerful rocket launchers and crates of grenades aren't littered around the landscape like so many bottles of tourist-guzzled Corona, as Dead Island will purportedly do, might be more realistic and more pulse-pounding, but isn't any different than the better-use-your-bullets-carefully approach the Resident Evil series created long ago.
The bigger issue at play here, of course, is the fact that the trailer trades in the shock and awe of seeing an innocent child turned into a zombie and tossed out a skyscraper window. This approach isn't new, either, as anyone who's ever had to weigh killing a Little Sister for additional power in the Bioshock series can attest. Case Zero, last fall's prequel to Dead Rising 2, featured a father desperately trying to prevent his toddler daughter's transformation into a brain muncher. The difference is that neither of those games tried to make that juxtaposition a focal marketing point the way the Dead Island trailer does. Already, several gamer-parent/journalists have weighed in to talk about how troubled they are at seeing children and violence so boldly associated.
I don't get the sense that it's entirely about shock value -- the trailer's clearly trying to create an emotional connection with anyone who's ever been a parent, in a way so many games in which zombie body counts begin to rival the billions served at the Golden Arches fail to do. For me, the trailer's gut punch comes midway through, when we're shown a scene of a dad, fire ax in one hand, reaching for and grabbing his little girl, unaware that in a few more seconds, she's going to join the other side and attack him. I have to wonder whether we'll see any of that emotional kick in the gameplay.
For now, mission accomplished, Deep Silver. We're talking about Dead Island and we're looking forward to it.