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.

14 thoughts on “Why the Dead Island Trailer is Exploitative

  1. Yes, I can see your point about it being exploitive. On the other hand, even the short film does not represent what the game is about, it definitely sets the mood for survival horror, especially if it is aiming more towards adult players instead of teens. It gets back to something that I realized while watching Poltergeist a few years ago: I now find movies and games centered on children being removed from their parents much more gut-wrenching and terrifying than personal death or dismemberment. So, if you are wanting to market more towards the adults-with-kids market, then this type of advertisement could be very effective. It is unfortunate that the game does not pull it into the gameplay like Silent Hill does (very effectively, I might add).

  2. I don’t doubt it’s effective — I felt physically ill at several points in the above trailer, not from the gore but from imagining my daughter in that situation and empathizing with the father. But by itself it’s a trope that’s overused, smells of gender bias (compare it to the girl-in-the-fridge trope), and here isn’t even (I’m guessing) integrated into the game.

    Bioshock had little girls who were twisted into harvesters of Adam, and you could save or kill them. Silent Hill uses the protagonist’s daughter Cheryl as motivation. It’s common enough that when Heavy Rain killed off a son instead of a daughter, I was surprised. Having that trope used merely for marketing pushes the trailer firmly into “exploitative” in my mind.

  3. My reaction is that of course it’s exploitative, but that’s not a bad thing; that’s sorta what zombies are for. And what horror is for, honestly. (I’m completely mystified by that Salon piece’s suggestion that zombified kids are a recent development.)

    The fact that it doesn’t give you any factual information about the product seems common in marketing, so to me it doesn’t seem notable here. A straight ad where you saw unidentified avatars biting/bashing each other would be more informative, but if people say “Oh, nice bloodsplatter graphics when she hit that dude with a crowbar!” isn’t that still exploitation?

    I’m not arguing that it’s Great Art or anything profound, and of course the line between “crass & manipulative” and “affecting” is subjective; personally, this didn’t bother me. I’m actually more interested in the use of a Memento-style chronology — it encourages you to create a story as you watch, and I think that, not the subject matter, is a big reason for the buzz.

  4. The lack of factual information isn’t actually part of my charge of the trailer being exploitative. It’s using the images of a child’s death — and a girl at that, to take advantage of gender stereotypes — to set a mood that I don’t expect will really be part of the game, and as an example of something that I don’t expect to see in the game. For me, that’s past the line of standard marketing and into exploitation.

    I agree that the structure is a good part of why it’s gotten as much attention as it has, that and it is extremely effective at evoking the emotions it’s after.

  5. I loved this, actually. It’s the first game trailer I’ve seen that gets to the heart of what makes something a game rather than a film, TV show, or novel: agency.

    I read the trailer as, “You, sitting right there, have the ability to prevent this terrible tragedy from happening,” using the backwards-running time as an analogy for game replayability. Try this — again, and again, and again — until you have saved her.

    I understand why it bugged you, and it’s unfortunate if the game itself is not this emotionally resonant, but I found it extremely compelling as a trailer for the unique artistic quality of games as a whole.

    1. Huh, for me part of the trailer’s impact was the seeming inevitability of the outcome. I’m interested that you saw interactivity in it.

  6. Well, I think the implication we can take from that trailer is, when “we” are playing Dead Island, we can prevent what’s going on there. That outcome is something that happens to console players, people with old video cards, and/or players using trackballs, psh.

  7. Hey, don’t hate on those of us who are xboxing it up in here!

    Though my FPS skills on a console are sad indeed. I was semi-okay with mouse and keyboard, but two joysticks? Feh.

    1. I think it’s worth watching. As a short film, it’s striking. As an ad for a game — that’s where I’m not pleased with it.

  8. Interesting point, but can you tell me who you think is being exploited? Is it the little fictional girl, or the entire fictional family? Or maybe I am being exploited by the trailer. Hmmm….

Comments are closed.