Game Makers Going Soft? Don’t Count on It

The military squad members from the hyperviolent “Gears of War” video game franchise are on your TV screen, sandwiched in between football scoring drives or reality show arguments or autopsies on “CSI Des Moines.” Only there’s not a insectoid killer alien to be seen for miles in this particular commercial.

Instead, the game’s central character, Marcus Fenix, broods under a lone tree in a field. Another character uses his sniper scope … to zoom in on a flower. Another sits besides a massive vehicle, gazing at a smudged photo of a pretty lady from happier times.

Where’s the Gore?

If you were unaware of this game’s existence, you’d think these were digitally-drawn U.S. soldiers making peace and psyching up for transfer to Iraq or Afghanistan. You certainly wouldn’t know a brutal sci-fi battle is about to take place until halfway through the ad, when the characters climb into huge cylinders that plunge miles below ground to a subterranean cavern where an unseen enemy awaits. You also wouldn’t know you were in a video game commercial because of the soundtrack: Instead of martial music and grunting dialog with chopper rotors thump-thumping in the background, its Devotchka’s “How It Ends,” your basic emo-style ballad.

Jarring? Out-of-place? Try dropping Wall-E in the “Grand Theft Auto” universe. “The Last Day” commercial for the new “Gears of War 2” game is another winning effort from the creative brains behind Xbox’s ad agency of record, T.A.G. San Francisco. Its team gave you a similar take on the first “Gears” game — Fenix running through post-apocalyptic ruins to the plaintive piano-tinged strains of “Mad World” — but two years ago the game was just being discovered as the Xbox 360 franchise-maker we now know it to be, much like “Halo” was for the original Xbox. (T.A.G. did some of those ads too.)

Got Your Attention

Now there’s mad anticipation for the crazy world of “Gears of War 2,” and if you’re a gamer, the spot keeps you glued to the screen, wondering where this unique approach to an M-rated game is going. If you’re not a gamer, it keeps you glued to the screen, wondering “who does that song?” and why it’s being used to show off a bunch of hypertrophied muscle cases in fatigues who forgot to turn their frowns upside down.

The spot is the latest rocket-propelled grenade fired at traditional media’s loosening grip on our leisure time; Exhibit A in the case for interactive entertainment’s rapid climb to the top of American pop culture. Video game marketing has already hit levels of artistry and impact previously reserved for memorable films or Clio Award-winning commercials.

And just in time for the holiday console wars. Get your gear and saddle up, Fenix.

Competing Media

Gamers are certainly talking about the “Last Day” spot on industry blogs and comment boards. Some think it’s wimpy, others are loving it. The discussion rages, so Mission Accomplished. What must be discouraging for studio executives who would rather that viewers focus on their fall TV schedules or forthcoming films is that the commercial is simply one in a recent string of out-of-the-box ads for video games. And you’ll find more of these airing in prime-time slots that aren’t just targeting the typical gaming demographic, like sporting events or niche cable networks.

The “Call of Duty 5: World at War” ad for Gamespot is a meta-marketing, self-referential take on gaming that doubles as an innovative sales incentive. “Poor first level noob,” says a soldier to his squad as a lone sniper fires at them from a far-away hillside. “Wasting ammo like that.” Great, now the video game characters are dissing the people who play the games. Nice.

“You know, what do you think he’s using? Bill? Guys?” asks the squad leader, before realizing only too late that his comrades have fallen. “Oh crud.” Turns out that other guy pre-ordered “Call of Duty 5” so he could access the “deadly” M1-A1 sniper rifle 64 game levels early in multiplayer action. Offering cheat codes may indeed be one way to move games off store shelves in what could be the toughest holiday selling season in a long time.

Other spots simply dazzle with production value, their use of mood and suspense. I picked up a copy of “Resistance 2” largely on the strength of the 60-second spot I saw during a prime-time action series on Fox. “They block out the sun … Hell follows them,” says a succession of doomsayers, survivors of the first wave of the Chimeran alien invasion. (Apparently, after these bad guys arrive on Earth in city-sized mother ships that hover menacingly over the Golden Gate bridge, everybody not enlisted in the military dresses in togas and rags and gets in touch with their inner shaman.) “We must rise … stand … resist,” I am told, as scenes of 1080p HD combat goodness flash on my flat-screen LCD. Clearly, I couldn’t resist; here’s my US$59.95 — where’s my carbine?

Then again, if I had the endurance to chase a Lucy Liu-lookalike on top of — and along the sides of — tall buildings, as is depicted in ads for “Mirror’s Edge,” I’d be there, too. This commercial scores points for its quick shift to point-of-view action as the heroine leaps parkour-style on and around high-rise scaffolds and ledges. Bring your own safety harness and vertigo blockers.

Opening Up the Gaming Market

Hard-core gamers are notorious for being a little, shall we say, opinionated when it comes to their favorite games, favorite consoles, favorite leisure activity. As previously mentioned, some of these ads aren’t going over well with some comment-trolling thumb jockeys. “Live actors in game ads never work out,” says one. “Resist overacting day players!” screams another. (Kind of funny, actually.)

These fanboys probably don’t care that “Gears of War 2,” “Resistance 2,” “Fallout 3,” “Call of Duty 5” have something in common besides numbers in their titles. Creating a world eternally at war may be making a pointed statement about a real world that seems to be eternally at war. Dystopian futures already have a place in recent literature. Cormac McCarthy won a Pulitzer for “The Road;” the movie version comes out early next year. Why should video games be less of a cultural mirror than some of our best entertainments?

What these gamers also fail to realize is that more hangs in the balance this holiday season besides the fate of the free world or freedom from alien domination. Artistic commercials that sell the artistry in the games themselves need to expand the market during a year that has already seen Circuit City file for bankruptcy and Best Buy warn of lowered expectations for Christmas sales. Nearly all the games mentioned here are not the family-friendly variety pioneered by Nintendo’s Wii or the “Guitar Hero”/”Rock Band” franchises. These are mostly first-person shooters or role-playing games. The heat is on.

The commercials, of course, also highlight what gamers have known for some time: video games offer more entertainment bang per buck these days than movies or TV shows, which is why studio executives are shaking like they just saw a Leviathan from “Resistance 2” round the corner.

Meanwhile, video game culture keeps showing up on your TV in places other than video-game ads. The little animated football player going through his warmups on Fox’s NFL coverage would be welcome on Marcus Fenix’s squad. One of Honda’s “Guzzler Be Gone” commercials shows cars morphing into giant oil-sucking mosquitoes, only to fly into a bug zapper the size of the Chrysler Building.

Now that might make Marcus Fenix crack a smile.

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