Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Dead Island controversy

The vacation goes downhill fast from here.
First off, let me warn you that if you haven't seen the trailer for the upcoming game, Dead Island, it's not for the faint of heart.  It's gory, it's haunting, and yes, something very bad happens to a little girl.  It's actually heart wrenching. And apparently it's also stirred up a whole heaping helping of controversy.  While I can understand the emotional response the "trailer" has drummed up, I think it's becoming a lightning rod for knee-jerk reactions.  If you think you can handle it, go check out the trailer, take a second, then come back and I'll explain my thoughts on the brouhaha.

Okay, now that you've got the trailer fresh in your mind, you've probably already started to fall on one side of the fence or the other.  On the one hand, you've got people who seem to be genuinely impressed by the quality of the trailer and the story it managed to tell in all of three minutes.  On the other hand, you've got people who are upset by the focus on the child in the short, some bordering on outrage at what they see as exploiting violence against a child.  I can see both sides of the argument, to an extent, but I think there are some things that might have been sorely overlooked.

Earlier today, Omar L. Gallaga, a contributor to NPR's All Tech Considered, wrote an article for CNN in which he outlined the issues he had with the Dead Island trailer.  In a nutshell, Gallaga seems to think it's a part of some sort of trend where children are essentially being used as cannon fodder in video games.  Gallaga mentions games like Dead Space 2, BioShock, and Heavy Rain as other games that are part of this trend.  To his credit, Gallaga does mention that he has played and enjoyed these games, but then the article takes a sudden turn, and he seems to argue that video games have singled out this "taboo".  At one point in the article, Gallaga states:
"When such depictions are presented in an artful, entertaining way, video game advocates are put in a position of defending content that might be less palatable in other mediums. Would the 'Dead Island' trailer work as a live-action preview of a movie or would it have provoked outrage?"

Now, as someone who's followed pop culture interests for the better part of a decade, I've got to point out the fact that what Deep Silver did with the Dead Island trailer isn't too far removed from anything that's been done in numerous other horror films and yes, the marketing that has gone along with them.  How many of you out there remember seeing the 2004 remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead?  The first zombie we see is that of a little girl from the neighborhood attacking our heroine's hapless hubby.  And bits from that scene were all over the trailer for it.  That's just one example, and an exceptionally appropriate one based on the zombie motif of both Dead Island and Dawn of the Dead.  The Omen, Children of the Damned, The Ring, Case 39, Let Me In.  These are just a few movies that have used children to scare the living bejeezus out of us.  Hell, I still have nightmares that I'm being stalked by D.A.R.Y.L. (look it up, fellow 80's geeks).  But seriously, lets take it a step further ... how many times have you seen TV spots for your favorite drama or action series that show scenes of a child who's just been kidnapped, held hostage, or put in some other danger, leaving the viewer to wonder if the heroes will save the day or, in some cases, get some measure of payback to the criminals responsible?

I think what people tend to lose sight of is that images like this are MEANT to strike a chord with their intended audience.  While I've got no problems showing the Dead Island trailer to a buddy, I'll be damned if I'd show to his kids.  Along the same lines, a date might be up for cringing in the dark to Linda Blair's foul mouthed, vomit spewing, demon possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, but when there's a family night with the kids, Mom and Dad are likely to be checking out the latest Dreamworks animated flick.  That's because, simply put, they're two completely different audiences.  A well-adjusted adult can ride the emotional roller coaster of terror, shock, sadness, and even loss during a film/game/TV show/book/etc. and we can walk away from the experience relatively unscathed.

Even with all of that said, why use images of children to invoke a sense of fear? Why make something that should be "innocent" as a source of horror?  Well, that kind of answers its own question, doesn't it?  It's something we don't expect.  When we think of children, we think of the innocence they represent.  When something happens to a child, you can't help but have your heart break because of the suffering of that innocence.  It strikes a nerve because, as adults, we feel like we should be protecting our children. You can't help but feel that they're helpless against what their put up against.  They've got no way to defend themselves. So that's half the equation ... when evil happens to a child.  But what about when evil wears the face of a child?  Like say, when they become a flesh eating zombie?  When evil takes the form of a child, we're not only angry about the evil, but also at the fact that what we feel to be something innocent has been corrupted and manipulated.

 In all genres of entertainment, which includes horror, you try to tell a story in a way that the audience believes something COULD happen. It's called the "suspension of disbelief".  Sure, there's not likely to ever actually be a zombie outbreak, but what if there was?  Do you really think children would be immune? Let's be honest What makes the Dead Island trailer so emotional is that there's a part of you that can imagine events unfolding like the do on the screen.  You can feel the panic a child would feel trying to escape and make it to the only place they think they'll be safe.  You can feel how a father would go through hell to try and save his little girl.  You can feel to horror of a mother who has seen her little girl turned into a monster.  And finally, you can feel the crushing weight of loss of hopelessness as, in the end, you're hit with the realization that the "good guys", sadly, don't always win.

In "survival horror", the horror is mandatory ... it's the survival that's optional.

Now, I'm not saying I think that the Dead Island trailer is an action-packed festival of fun and joy.  Bluntly put, there IS no "Happily Ever After" ... but no one said there should be.  This is a trailer for what will be an ESRB "M"/PEGI 18 rated game.  If everyone escaped and it was all unicorns and rainbows, there would be no tension.  If you went into the experience knowing everything was going to be okay, there would be no horror.  Say what you will, the Dead Island trailer managed to convey a sense of what the game will be about, the overwhelming odds you'll be up against, and you connected in some way to the story.  Just the fact that you can get emotional over it proves that it told an effective story.

No comments: