Why the Dead Island Trailer is Exploitative

The trailer for the game Dead Island is striking both in content and presentation. The trailer’s focus on a young girl turned into a zombie has sparked debate, so of course I have to weigh in!

Be warned: the trailer is gory and disturbing.

The trailer is for a game but it functions like a film trailer, seeking to establish a mood and evoke emotion while giving an idea of what the game is about. It uses a filmic shorthand that people are familiar with. The trailer’s down-tempo piano music performs the same function as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” has since it showed up in The Elephant Man: provide an elegiac soundtrack signaling that Very Sad Things Are Going On. The slow-motion effects re-enforce that mood of sadness and inevitability. The story centers on the death and zombification of a little girl in front of her parents to provide an emotional wallop, especially to those who are parents themselves. It’s no surprise that they chose to make the kid a girl instead of a boy, since our cultural narrative is that little girls must be protected while little boys can be adventurous.

The trailer’s structure adds to the sense of inevitability. It’s a short scene about a girl running from zombies before becoming one herself, attacking her dad, and being thrown out of a window to land dead on the ground below. The scene is shown simultaneously from the beginning moving forward and from the end moving backward, until the two narrative strands meet at the turning point of her being bitten. It’s like the Greek concept of tragedy without the hubris: you know what’s going to happen and you don’t want it to happen, yet you watch it happen anyway. And that last image before the titles, with the dad moving backward in time away from his just-bitten daughter, symbolizing the theme of the whole trailer — man.

What’s notable is that this trailer for a game never indicates that it’s for a game. It’s a short film that shows no gameplay and doesn’t even indicate that it’s for a game. I’m betting that that’s because we don’t yet have a common visual shorthand for games and gameplay. We do for films, though, and the developers chose to borrow that language to gain attention for their game.

Some have called the trailer exploitative, especially since the developers chose to center their scene on a little girl’s death. It is undoubtedly exploitative, but in much the same way that many film trailers are. It’s aiming to cause a gut reaction, and using everything it can to get that reaction quickly. Three minutes aren’t a lot of time to develop characters and get us to care in the people being shown without having them be archetypes. If that were all there were to it, I wouldn’t be concerned. Here’s the thing, though: is this trailer what the game is about? Everything I’ve read about the game indicates that it isn’t. The game’s a standard zombie survival one where you run around smacking zombies around with lead pipes and axes. Jason Schreier at Wired.com spoke to the game’s publisher, who confirmed that it’s a film that “takes place in the world of Dead Island.”

That’s why I think it’s exploitative in a way that’s beyond normal game and movie exploitation. It’s using the images of a young girl dying not because it’s central to the game or necessarily indicates its theme, but because it’s attention-grabbing. When I look at this trailer, I see something technically proficient that has a hollow center.