Two years ago, Microsoft’s soulful “Mad World” commercial, directed by gaming ad auteur Joseph Kosinski for the debut of Epic’s Xbox 360 game, Gears of War, posted a brand new level of artistry for the marketing of videogames.
Otherwise silent, the ad is set to Gary Jules’s emotive cover of Tears for Fears’ 1982 song, recorded for the dystopic 2001 thriller, Donnie Darko. The piece depicts a lone soldier, Marcus Fenix, above, leader of the battle-sore Delta Squad. He’s roaming a rainy, blighted landscape on the planet Sera, fighting to stay one step ahead of a ruthless, subterranean enemy, the Locust Horde, above.
With its muddy browns, overcast grays, orange flames, and bright washes of arterial blood, it soon became clear that no video game had so profoundly depicted the mournful palette of warfare. The ultra-gritty and -violent third-person shooter eventually sold more more than 5 1/4 million copies, and making a sequel inevitable. (The “Mad World” ad became so well known it was later parodied, shot-for-shot, in an ad for another game, EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company.)
With Gears of War 2‘s “Emergence Day 2008″—the day the game is released—being tomorrow, November 7, however, two new pieces have caught my eye for the way they boldly deepen the the Gears mythos. Both are, again, directed by Kosinski (who is known, as well, for another masterpiece, Halo 3‘s “Starry Night.”)
In the first, “Last Day,” right, Delta Squad contemplates a few final moments of daylight before boarding military pods that will, in a high-speed, chute-ride-to-hell drop, take them thousands of feet into the planet’s crust, down to the lair of the Horde. Paced to DeVotchKa’s 2004 “How It Ends,” the ad, which never shows the enemy, practically seethes with fatal dread.
In the other, “Rendezvous,” Fenix, now far beneath Sera’s surface, has captured a member of the Locust Horde and drags him, unconscious, under a stentorian recitation of poet Alan Seeger’s morbid lament, “Rendezvous.” Encountering a huge natural amphitheater, Fenix eyes the ensuing chaos as the Horde wars mercilessly against the Gears. Then, plucking up his last bit of resolve, using his dragged Locust as a “meat shield,” he runs towards the fight.
What makes these Kosinski ads so rich, besides their astounding technical detail—all the Gears ads are created in the powerful Unreal 3 engine that runs the game itself—is that they reinforce a mood, an attitude, a way of being in the world that the games powerfully support.
These ads aren’t about the game, per se, its specs or features. They’re about the emotions one might feel were they occupying the circumstances depicted in the commercial—longing, determination, fear, wonder, revenge.
As such, they represent a high point in the depiction of gaming content and its related meaning. It’s a peak certainly not matched, even, by many game manufacturers, a notorious exception being my former boss, Rockstar Games.
So, it may not be saying a lot to state that these ads are made by artists that both a) totally get their own products and b) take them completely seriously. However, given the world of badly marketed entertainment that doesn’t mean anything, say anything, or make you feel anything, on the other hand, it may be saying a hell of a whole lot.