BIOSHOCK INFINITE: The Game Trailer Considered

[Apologies to regular readers for your AWOL blogger. I’ve been doing paid work and was obliged, as I am from time to time, to attend to the realities of the bill cycle.]

It’s hard to escape the critical and promotional juggernaut that preceded and currently surrounds the release of Irrational Games blockbuster series refresher, BioShock Infinite. Though I’m not exactly an avid gamer, I have done a bit of work on game trailers and like to see what new and popular games and their marketing look like.

With the “Beast of America” trailer, so named to differentiate it from other previews for the game, I noticed a few things about the presentation and the sale approach which seemed worthy of mention. I won’t speak to the game play, which is not in my wheelhouse nor in the brief of the blog.

The 1:38 second trailer, with about 1:06 of In-Engine footage on display (their term, not mine), uses a single music cue, provided by Nico Vega from her song, appropriately titled, “Beast.” This throaty alt-punk anthem conveys the post-apocalyptic dread that washes the steam-punk, gilded-Age world of BioShock, an urban vision of prelapsarian America floating above and through the clouds.

The opening scene, shot from the P.O.V. of the shooter/protagonist (as is all of the footage), foregrounds a girl seated in a rowboat, being rowed toward a lighthouse through rain and surging seas. A voice over, presumably the player surrogate, opens a case before him, removes a pistol and speaks the following words as the scene shifts across a series of idyllic cityscapes, circa 1890: “‘Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt’ that was the deal. The details elude me now, but the details wouldn’t change a god-damn thing.”

In other words, says the narrator, I could explain, but it won’t make any difference, so I won’t. And, indeed, there is no further attempt made to justify, contextualize or position the visual presentation, apart from the lyrics of Ms. Vega’s song. It’s an audacious and unwelcoming refusal to provide information (typically the signal obligation of advertising), but then, if you have to ask, perhaps you are not the intended audience.

The action that follows occurs within a partial frame formed by the two hands that belong, presumptively, to the player/shooter/protagonist. One holds a pistol; the other, carries a rotating claw device strapped to wrist and arm, which enables him to slice and grasp. I saw he, because this avatar is marked, in word and interaction as male.

A series of enemies are encountered in a variety of otherwise gorgeous and dramatic settings, interior and exterior. Some kind of conflict has engulfed this city, but its not obvious whether it is one attacker, a battle royale format or some combination of local criminals and external enemies.

A young woman in full skirts and long sleeves assists the shooters advance by throwing weapon his way and providing an object of concern or solicitude. She is a deserving victim and captive, first introduced falling through the air and grasping at the proffered hand of rescue. Later, assisting her rescuer with weapons, she becomes a help-meet and ally. Presumably, she’s the “the girl,” mentioned in the opening monologue.

The action is gory and explicit, with the violence contrasting markedly with the surreal setting. The animation, however, is impressive, as per the advance press and in fulfillment of expectation surrounding this marquee property. But despite the clear presentation of the new game-world of Bioshock Infinite, the conflict that motivates play and the opportunities for its resolution remain opaque. This is not a trailer that explores character or psychology, nor for that matter, one which alternates between movement and stasis. From the opening shot, the movement is relentlessly forward

by watching the trailer in silence and counting “edits,” or repositionings of the camera, I noticed something surprising given 70 seconds of what seems like non-stop action: there are only 28 separate shots. (I use the word shot and camera advisedly, since, as a computer generated image, shot making and camera movement are merely figures of speech for digital decisions and processes.)

Partly, this is a result of the lack of alternate P.O.V’s beyond that of the shooter. The camera moves up, down, left and right, panning and jerking, but it’s always positioned so that the arms of the shooter are visible. What gives the impression of multiple shots and angles is that the Camera moves like a pair of eyes: instantly and easily in all directions in order to meet the challenges of volatile and dangerous surroundings. But it resets, is repositioned, only upon moving into another room, space or venue. Despite the whip-panning and motion, the camera work is repetitive. While this may be representative of game play, I felt that I missed the reverse shot or the side shot, the establishing shot, and the transitional shot.

In the title graphic, which appears 10+ seconds from the end of the trailer, prior to the presentation of additional downloads and an upgraded version of the game for sale, the words “This trailer was made entirely from in-Engine material.” Clearly, for the marketers and game producers this acknowledgement is a point of honor and prestige: they are so confident of the visual world of the game that they don’t feel the need to create additional scenes or use the game engine to generate additional shots in order to show what the game looks like.

On the other hand, this claim points to the open secret of game-trailers. Often, much of the material that appears in a trailer is not to be found as it appears in the game. Rather, most game trailers integrate “in-engine” play with special shoot (or specially generated) material. While Bioshock Infinite’s American Beast trailer is to be commended for this faithful representation of the experience of the game, the point of identification always remains beyond visibility (apart from hands) and that seems like a failure to provide an emotional site of identification.

Anyone who’s played the game and watched the trailer, don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts about how well prepared you were by the trailer for the game, the world and the story. Enjoy!

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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