Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover, Or Why Trailers Always Lie

Recently, a certain videogame trailer began making its rounds on the Internet. The trailer, promoting a game appropriately titled “Hatred”, depicts an obviously deranged protagonist who narrates about his desire to kill and die violently. The protagonist picks up an M16 and some grenades, and then goes outside and starts gunning down the civilians in front of him. The trailer depicts him violently blowing people’s heads off with a shotgun, repeatedly stabbing police officers and performing all kinds of vicious acts of mindless violence against innocent people. Polygon called it “the worst trailer of the year”, and even our own Kevin Pourmostofi was rather disgusted by it. And, yes, objectively speaking, the trailer is pretty appalling – its implications could prove to be catastrophic for an industry that’s already plagued by so much recent controversy. Really, it’s a small miracle that this game is even getting made – after all, how does one pitch a project like this? No sane publisher would ever agree to finance a title that’s all about a man committing an act of terrorism for the heck of it. Hell, there’s hardly a development team that would agree to put their name on a product like this – even if the game is good, gameplay-wise, the controversy alone would be enough to completely destroy the studio. And that got me thinking – what if mindless murder isn’t all there is to it? What if there’s something more going on under the hood that we’re deliberately being left out of? What if we’re being manipulated?

hatredIf “PayDay” can get away with having the player kill a bunch of cops, maybe we can too!

Let’s flash back to 2012, when a little indie game titled “Hotline Miami” saw the light of day. The gameplay trailers that were released for it depicted it as little more than a violent murder simulator where the player gets points for murdering people in various bloody ways. The trailer explaining the function of the various masks shows dozens of people being slaughtered by our silent protagonist, including a particularly grotesque death involving the main character jamming a drill into the head of a helpless enemy. Anyone judging the trailer by itself would be understandably disturbed by it – hell, I’m being rather honest when I say that I probably would have never given the game a chance in the first place if I had seen that trailer. But anyone who dared to venture into the actual title would discover one of the smartest experiences in gaming history. Yes, the game is incredibly fun, and yes, you do get points for slaughtering people in horrible ways. But as a whole, “Hotline Miami” is a deconstruction of violence in videogames – one might even say that it’s a deconstruction of videogames as a whole. Throughout its story, the main character accepts phone calls from a mysterious caller that are pretty much telling him to go somewhere and kill everyone in sight. He accepts these tasks with no incentive – there’s no reward for him, no kidnapped girlfriend for him to rescue, no cash for him to upgrade his arsenal. He’s doing it because he was told to… But then again, so is the player. Ultimately, it’s the player’s choice to go outside, get into the car and kill everyone violently. We can always just turn off the game and refuse the call of the anonymous benefactor. But we don’t, because killing people in “Hotline Miami”, barging in with nothing but a baseball bat and killing six people in four seconds after your previous plan has gone to hell, is incredibly satisfying and fun. And in the middle of the experience, the game asks you the question that puts into perspective everything you and the protagonist – or perhaps you as the protagonist – have done – “Do you like hurting other people?”

Hotline MiamiAt that point in the game, any answer you give would either make you seem a liar or a sociopath.

Of course, “Hotline Miami” isn’t the only game that has trailers which deliberately subvert expectations. Hideo Kojima is pretty much known as the master of deceiving trailer, as he has employed this trope for practically every single one of his games since the original “Metal Gear Solid”. Famously, back when “Metal Gear Solid 2” was still developed, all trailers released for it – including the E3 2000 trailer and the TGS 2001 trailer – portrayed Solid Snake as its main character, setting the game to be yet another adventure where the bandana-clad hero takes down a gigantic nuclear robot. Only when gamers finally got their hands on the game in late 2001 did they realize that Snake is only playable for about the first hour or so, and that after that point a new character named Raiden takes the spotlight. The TGS trailer even went as far as to edit Snake into certain scenes where, in the actual game, his place would have been taken by Raiden. The fan reaction to that change was mixed, as not everybody enjoyed their badass male fantasy lone soldier protagonist being replaced by a much more feminine rookie with a girlfriend on the line. But regardless, the fact remains that “Metal Gear Solid 2” is an incredibly thought-provoking game – much like “Hotline Miami”, it asks important question about the relationship between the player and the protagonist. By exchanging said game’s protagonist – and keeping it a secret until launch – Kojima was able to make those questions, and the game’s overall meaning as a postmodern art piece, all the more powerful. And while the game wasn’t received very well at launch, prompting Kojima to practically reboot the series by starting the Big Boss saga with “Metal Gear Solid 3” and then give Raiden a cybernetic upgrade to make him look more badass in the eyes of the general public in “Metal Gear Solid 4”, recently “Metal Gear Solid 2” has began receiving the recognition it deserved. Chances are that its symbolism, as well as the unique marketing campaign used to enforce it, were simply too far ahead of its time.

RaidenPost-modernism? What’s that? Can you cut it in a million pieces?

At the end of the day, videogame trailers are just that – another marketing tool. It’s a means to drive sales numbers up. As such, it’s not particularly difficult for certain developers to attempt to manipulate the player into purchasing their title by releasing a trailer that makes the game out to be something that it’s not. Before gameplay footage became impressive enough on its own, it wasn’t uncommon at all for companies to release trailers consisting almost exclusively of CG/Cutscene footage. “Final Fantasy” VII is, objectively speaking, a very good game – even if it’s probably not the best Final Fantasy title. However, 95% of what the trailer shows is cutscene footage, as if Squaresoft wasn’t confident that their otherwise excellent product would sell without flashy explosions and impressive vistas. Whatever the reason, their approached worked – with VII becoming the single best-selling game in Square Enix’s entire library. Since the practice of making “cinematic” videogame trailers has proven to be successful many times in the past, it continues strong to this day. Some franchises – most notably “Assassin’s Creed” – use the cinematic trailers to showcase the various gameplay elements and mechanics in each respective game while also telling a story that couldn’t be told with in-game footage, at least not as effectively. Others, like “Dead Island“, use an excellent trailer to promote a mediocre game, even if said trailer ultimately ends up having very little to do with the actual game. And it worked – “Dead Island” sold 5 million copies, becoming developer Techland’s most successful game to date, while also averaging a score of 71 on MetaCritic for the console versions. When all is said and done, no matter what the core audience claims, a good cinematic trailer will often push more sales than a good gameplay trailer – at least in the eyes of the people paying for them.

Dead IslandA picture of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Game and his family.

But what if you can’t afford a shiny cinematic trailer to promote your game? No worries – as people say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. As such, certain developers and publishers may intentionally try to portray their game as something it’s not, knowing that the controversy may increase sales. Interestingly enough, EA – one of the biggest and most influential publishers of our time – has pulled this off at least twice, within two years. In 2009, Visceral Games were hard at work on their hack’n’slash “Dante’s Inferno”, which – while fun – ultimately ended up feeling like an uninspired clone of “God of War”, earning itself a Metacritic score of 75. In order to promote it, EA actually went ahead and organized a protest against the game, hiring a bunch of people to wave signs around their headquarters and major gaming events such as E3. In 2011, when “Dead Space 2” was nearing completion, EA was hard at work promoting the sequel to one of the greatest horror games of all time. And while they released what is, in my opinion, one of the best videogame trailers ever made (which still lies and portrays the game as being pure action rather than horror, but that doesn’t make it any less effective), they also produced a trailer where they take a bunch of middle-aged women and show them select scenes from the game, claiming that, and I quote, “It’s revolting, it’s violent, it’s everything you love in a game!” Obviously, this created a fair bit of controversy, but for all the wrong reasons – gamers didn’t particularly like that they were stereotyped as a 13 year old living with his parents who can only enjoy a game if it’s violent and revolting and makes our mom angry. Ultimately, it ended up selling 2 million copies in its first week, but not because it was “controversial”, but because it was a good game, earning itself a score of 90 on Metacritic.

MaddenPictured: A game that isn’t violent or revolting, and yet still appears to bring EA lots of money every year.

So, is “Hatred” trying to copy EA and intentionally gather controversy in order to get recognition and eventually sell copies? Or is it hiding itself under the facade of a mindless shooter while trying to convey an important message about the state of the world? I don’t know. Chances are, nobody that isn’t intimately familiar with the game knows. And while we can definitely judge the trailer for what it is and what it portrays, I don’t believe we can really have an objective opinion about the game it’s promoting unless we have actually played it. For as we all know, trailers always lie.