In 2006, Microsoft marketed Gears of War with a CG commercial backed by Gary Jules’ melancholy Mad World cover. The ad, and its use of Mad World, was so successful that the song shot up on iTunes charts and was eventually on the Gears of War 3 soundtrack. Initially praised for conveying a more somber side of war, the spot soon was criticized because the same level of sobriety wasn’t in the game itself.
Microsoft didn’t invent appeal to emotion, and Gears certainly wasn’t the first game to market itself that way, but the Mad World ad seemed to kick off the modern use of unearned emotional impact. Marketing that exploits feelings the games themselves never, or clumsily, follow through with in order to foster a bond with the consumer before they even get the game in their hands. E3 2014 seemed to be wall-to-wall down tempo trailers filled with dudes killing other dudes.
Hey, it’s advertising. I get it. Fib a little and make your audience feel something. I’m not against any of that necessarily, but as games have become more complicated and more profitable, one would think the stories driving them would be more sophisticated to match and they haven’t.
I’m often very critical of video game stories. I think parts of game stories sometimes work, but usually, I think video games are just awkward strings of bad dialog. After nearly 30 years of playing games, I’ve come to accept this just as I have come to accept advertising is often deceptive, but video game advertising, at least as it applies here, doesn’t have to be deceptive. Video games have the capability to at least try to earn that poignancy they so readily believe they have already attained because their 30 second TV commercial told you they have. Instead, you spend 12 hours murdering swaths of people and upgrading your boots.
To market the re-release of Gears of War for Xbox One, Microsoft produced a new trailer featuring Mad World. This one doesn’t even seem to bother to aim for the heartstrings, but rather, squarely at cheap nostalgia. “Remember this ad from nine years ago?” it seems to ask, lazily conjuring up feelings it already provoked. What seemed novel (if dishonest) then only feels cloying and obvious now. It doesn’t kindle fond memories. It only reminds me that, even though I actually enjoyed Gears quite a lot, it never made me feel anything close to that ad.
Video game ads used to be taken to task for featuring CG footage, or no footage at all. Stuff that wasn’t in the game. Now they’re being marketed with emotion that isn’t in the game. Fewer people seem upset by this than the dishonest game footage, but it’s no less disingenuous. Game ads with dishonest footage have partially fallen by the wayside as video game graphics have grown more sophisticated. In fact, a trailer using all in-game footage has become a common badge of honor. Maybe the writing will soon follow, a small bit of text at the bottom of screen proudly proclaiming “In-Game Feelings.” Slow motion violence set to Lorde can’t make up for the lack of genuine human emotion in games themselves forever.