Cinematic trailers impress us by playing their schlock material as drama, attempting to imbue B-movie alien invasion storylines like Gears of War with gravitas through solemn music, poetry readings, and cinematography. The marketing message is that the games they're selling are not only fun, but somehow important. It's a tactic designed to get around the defenses of a consumer block that is increasingly product savvy and unimpressed by visuals. But among game trailers, Dead Island is something completely new: A fully-formed story that emotionally blindsides us, jumping us from behind just like the undead girl it features. The trailer works because it subverts our expectations of the genre - we don't expect to see genuine poignancy in a zombie game.
"We set on a pretty emotional story early on," says Anton Borkel, Cinematic and Video Designer for Deep Silver. He's talking about the dead girl, the one who flashed across fiber-optic networks worldwide as soon as the Dead Island trailer debuted. A family tragedy played in surreal reverse, the trailer was widely dubbed on Twitter as "the best videogame trailer ever," a perfect marriage of mood, style, and relentless detail.
Everyone seems to agree that the trailer's reverse order is central to its resonance. Inverting the story arc emphasizes the most powerful moment - when a father and daughter reach out, neither realizing that they're about to destroy each other. "We wanted to have a realistic level of violence in the movie," says Borkel, "but end on a high emotional note as well. By having the trailer play out backwards, we really could challenge the viewer, keep them interested. I remember talking about a ballet or dance of death to describe the mood we wanted."
The astounding detail is another key to the experience. There is a moment during the closing home movie clips where we see the family checking into the hotel. The father drops an armload of suitcases, and we know just by looking at his face that his enthusiasm is dampened by jet lag. Traveling with kids is hell. He needs a nap. These pedestrian concerns make his coming tragedy almost unbearable.
Small touches like these are the work of Axis Animation, the Scottish studio Deep Silver hired to create the trailer. While Borkel and his team forged the concept of the film, the Axis team actually choreographed the "ballet of death" with such grace and poise. "Axis was very great on putting some details in there," says Borkel, "which you only get from watching it multiple times." Rather than the Hollywood blockbusters game ads usually try to mimic, Axis drew their inspiration from more eclectic sources, like music, short films, and classical Dutch painters. That varied influence shows through, and makes the trailer feel fundamentally unique.
"One of the goals with the trailer was to be very different from other competitors out there. We wanted a piece that could exist on its own, even if there were no Dead Island game," explains Borkel.