I begin with an editorial disclaimer: I am not a gamer. I have never been a gamer, I have no intention of becoming a gamer, I don’t play games to that extend or invest my time in that way. That said, I’ve been around gamers my whole life. One of my closest friends growing up was a gamer, a former roommate from college was a gamer, the IT guy I worked with at an advertising company was a gamer. But I’m no gamer. Despite my ability to watch movies or TV or whatever for hours on end, I just can’t “invest” in gaming. That said, video game commercials have often represented some of the savviest marketing efforts in the recent past. For example, consider the use of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for Gears of War. The Gears of War commercial retained my attention every time it aired. The juxtaposition between a slow remix of an 80s pop song featured at length in Donnie Darko then combined with an alien/human warfare/sci-fi-horror VG trailer gave the ad a haunting depth that elevated its worth in a way that I didn’t have to “read” it as a video game text. In the same tradition, the makers of the ultra-contraversial Grand Theft Auto franchise are at it again with what I might qualify as a superbly produced piece of marketing.
I have never played GTA I-IV, but I am not concerned with the game itself nor its past versions or its current narrative. What does interest me is how the “trailer” for Grand Theft Auto V incorporates so me identifiable genre elements that if I were a gamer, there would be no way I could resist purchasing this product. I mean, first of all, their commercial has saturated all of the channels I encounter. I cannot remember when I first saw the ad, but it may have been during a college or
corporate professional football game break. I note this because I otherwise wouldn’t have caught the commercial since my schedule/lifestyle privileges me with a DVR to record shows I watch and burn through them at will. This is a current issue that advertisers grapple with and thus situates the urgency that ads mean more to audiences/consumers.
But back to the ad. GTA V opens with a desertscape complete with a railroad moving toward the vanishing point on the mountainous horizon. This landscape recalls Western iconography, but a couple of planes in the sky and a conspicuous black car speeding down a twisty dirt road signify modernity’s imprint on the West. To boot, this CGI-generated “shot” is framed with a bright orange sun overhead to emphasize the desert heat. On top of that, the artificial sun “generates” an optical illusion in the form of a lens flair. In film photography, the lens flair is a lighting technique that has evolved in desirability over time. Nonetheless, the opening shot communicates the collision of “old” [Western motif] and “new” [Modern technologies]. Even the “camera angles” generated by designers evoke both classical wide-lens framing and ultra contemporary handy cam shots. The back-and-forth editing between these two forms help reinforce that this product has both epic scale and intimate characterization, a crucial component for modern video game design and artistic balance.
Cut to the interior of a gritty corner room where three males congregate. The instantly distinguishable White male antihero identifies himself as “retired” which recalls notions of “past” not unlike the Western landscape.
Then a shot change reveals a movie trailer-styled slow motion sequence where a crew of ski-mask bandits jog into a building labeled “Blaine County Savings Bank”. The bank name evokes an Old West main street while the break-in mixes nuances combining The Wild Bunch and Zero Dark Thirty. The background exterior recalls that Western landscape once again with the sun causing yet another lens flair as it begins to dip behind a mountain that overlooks the city. This continues the trend that combines Western style iconography with contemporary urban heist myths.
A montage of sequences follow that establishes a string of characters that round out the game’s cast. There is the “psychotic best friend” walking through a dilapidated trailer yard and banging his head against a wooden pallet, another pervy-looking out of shape male with wide-rimmed glasses and a five o’clock shadow, a Black male in a letter jacket that shatters a lavender ferrari window with his elbow, two other Black males walking near the California shoreline, and a group shot of the crew getting oriented for what we perceive to be the “big heist” to come. To intensify the narrative, these shots are interspersed with action footage of the bank job, a street chase in the rain, a violent explosion, and the begrudged ex-girlfriend screaming at her “pathetic” loser as he crawls out of a pool fully clothed. The montage thus shifts genres to introduce a number of familiar male-dominant genres and their respective conventions, which continues trends of male-gendered superiority in media representation.
First, there is the getting the gang together feature of any heist movie. The letter jacket on the Black car thief evokes the stereotype of the Black male high school athlete that never left the hood due despite his athletic talent. Finally, the supporting token girlfriend that projects insensitivity onto her on again/off again mate because she’s drawn to “bad boys” but too insecure and self-hating to reform. In addition, the lone female presence always assures the males viewers/gamers that there is no chance of homoerotic undertones between the copious collective of hyper-masculine personalities and the phallic extensions of their endless gunplay. In fact, the female rant may not only signify heteronormativity for the male viewer but also reinforce the “sanity” of career criminality. I make this claim because only two shots later, we see the father-phallus of all action weapons, the mini-gun, getting toted around in street shootout that combines the most intense gunplay of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Michael Mann’s Heat. We even hear the short pervy male joke, “So is a group hug out of the question, hehe” but as with typical pervy jests, the comment is unnerving in execution and reception.
To complete the machismo trinity, the shot in between the verbally abusive (ex)girlfriend and the mini-gun compensation, a gorgeously rendered shot of a nighttime skydive recalls the most iconic non-surfing moment from Katherine Bigelow’s bankrobber bromance Point Break. In addition, the intensifying montage gives us action on land, air, and sea. Three’s seem to be a theme here and for good reason. I mentioned that first caught this ad during a football game, but I didn’t realize how special it was until the maker’s began running a lesser-quality version at :30 seconds. Thus, a catch that connotes both the epic financial undertaking and the big-money stakes of the GTA franchise is how the more successful “trailer” version runs 1 minute in length, an impossible ad to produce and afford and require of audiences in the modern television era. Despite my non-investment toward gaming, this :30 second ad lacks depth, context, and most importantly, the genre conventions that connect these desperate fragments together so pointedly. To my repetitious surprise, I found the original minute-long trailer on several prior DVR recordings, including Comedy Central, FX, and AMC among others. Clearly, marketing can still function successfully if not hegemonically as, aside from my personal preference against gaming, I posit the key White male [virtual] middle-class demographic the gaming industry thrives from. Surveillance culture is alive and well as they can find me watching all of my favorite shows like Breaking Bad, The Daily Show, Sons of Anarchy, Futurama, [you get the demo picture] and even the increasingly scripted football narratives. Consumers unfamiliar to Orwellian prophecy might acclaim, “I cannot believe how these texts are so closely tailored with me in mind!” Indeed, it’s as if they ‘already’ know me.
[Images obtained from Grand Theft Auto 5 trailer at http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/09/16/grand-theft-auto-v-review]