Squeezing the Plastic Lemon

Here is a recent Trailer for an upcoming Transformers game that left in in tears… from laughing.

So what I think happened here is that Black High Moon Studios tried to pull an effect like in the infamous Gears of War Mad World Trailer. Back then, the trailer surprised by putting very slow, emotional, famous music with poignant lyrics over quite violent, masculine game-play. The mismatch was effective because it completely blew past any expectations. And yet, there was some logic to it. Gears of War depicts a once rich world that has been devastated by war. The glimpses of it’s former glory make up a melancholic lining that the trailer picks up against the apparent mismatch. Even then, it’s still quite a stretch.

Beginning of this year, The infamous trailer for Dead Island showed the pitfalls of the strategy. The Trailer also features very violent, pop culture infused images set to slow, sad music. Together with some clever editing, it hints at the kind of emotional depth many video game enthusiasts have been looking for in their games for years now. It became almost immediately clear that the game itself would never be able to live up to than kind of expectations. Indeed, the ad turned out to be a hollow, misguided marketing ploy. It’s debatable if it helped Dead Island in the long run. On the one hand, it generated a lot of publicity for what otherwise would have been a mediocre game. On the other hand, it added a sting of disappointment what indeed was a mediocre game.

But apparently, it wasn’t clear enough because here we are again. This time around, there are no redeeming arguments. Transformers is pretty much as shallow as pop culture gets. It’s giant robots that transform into cars, space ships and dinosaurs as they wage an eternal battle of good vs. evil. And that’s ok as long as you just accept them for what they are – a flashy pretext to make things transform and go boom. The original War for Cybertron game seemed to understand that. They took a lot of cues from the Saturday morning cartoon and avoided the any references to the less honest, cinematic version.

Not so much now. The Trailer evokes a depth and significance that is utterly, unmistakably absent from the Transformers universe. The Transformers are giant robots, they live on a completely alien planet. They are emotionally empty as the toys they are meant to sell. There is nothing humane about them. The Trailer evokes notions of loss and struggle. But is death for a machine the same as for us? Optimus Prime died like 5 times already. How are new Transformers born anyway? What did they lost due to the War? How did life look like on their planet before there was war? Do they have families, lovers? Do they have art? If so, where is all that culture now? What did they used to transform into before they transformed into fire-breathing space dinosaurs?

None of this is and ever will be topic of the game. And to be fair, it wasn’t focus of any of the Transformers series either. It’s not why people watch Transformers, it’s not what Transformers CAN address. The Trailer in an embarrassing, involuntary pastiche. It’s unbelievable that Black High Moon Studios would misunderstand the material they working on in such a hilarious way.

Yet the idea behind the trailer is clear. Games want to have the same kind of emotional impact as other media. So big game productions are keen on squeezing their lemons a little bit extra to produce that special juice we are all after. But what they forget is that in order to have lemon juice, you need to get dirty. You need to dig into the soil. You need to make the plants grow and bear fruits. But that’s never what the game industry did. They always went for the simple solutions. Always catering to the fans, always going for the popular choice instead of laying groundwork to nurture generations to come. So they have no lemons now. All they have are plastic lemons. And when you squeeze that plastic lemon, you don’t get any juice. You get a squeak.

EDIT: I originally wrote Black Moon Studios instead of High Moon Studios. I apologize.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

5 responses to “Squeezing the Plastic Lemon”

  1. Nick LaLone

    I always felt that video game commercials should be more like the Beggin’ Strips commercials: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CErapf79rqM

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Nick, you truly understand the core of Transformers. Thank you.

  3. Michael Samyn

    The joke already starts before the clip, with the announcement that a film about the Transformers toy may be “inappropriate for children”!

  4. GhostLyrics

    I noticed the same effect being used on Bioshock Infinite’s VGA trailer.

  5. Amanda Lange

    But now look at the comments on the video on YouTube.

    People buy it.

    I’m convinced now there’s no footage that sad music cannot be put to, which someone will not take totally seriously and with an air of melancholy.

    (Now being a Transformers fan I think there is in fact drama to be wrung out of it, but not like this.)


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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