Friday, 8 January 2010

I pity the fool who doesn't endorse video games.

Happy New Year everyone. I wasn't sure what to write this week as I have been waiting for Bayonetta to come out and the video game part of my brain has been centred around that. I read an interesting article in the Escapist magazine about the patchy representation of women in video games which suggested that Bayonetta was something less than an aspirational female role model, and I was considering writing a response, but I thought I had better wait until I had actually played it. Although the pulicity shots make me wonder whether governing Alaska and shooting moose is actually a bit more exciting than we might otherwise have believed it to be:

Anyway. I was still stumped as to what to write until the 29th, which saw me in pyjamas at 4pm, sitting on the sofa, surrounded by piles of cheese, watching Death on the Nile. It made me wonder where all the tourists were in the middle of the day during peak season when Lara Croft went to the Temple of Karnak. (Challenge to self: go one week without mentioning Tomb Raider). Anyway, like anything featuring Poirot, Death on the Nile was interspersed with television commercials. And so it came to pass that I saw this, and my problems were over.

Of course! Celebrities don't get much press days, why not spare them a passing thought? Specifically, a thought for their video game endorsement campaigns.

Celebrity-centered video-game marketing can be roughly divided into two categories:

     1 - Putting a celebrity in an advertisement in order to make video games seem more approachable.
     2 - Using a celebrity's voice or likeness in a game in order to increase an audience or drive publicity.

Now Mr T (doesn't he look good for 57?) falls into the first category. He has fronted more than one World of Warcraft advertisement, as have William "Kirk" Shatner and Ozzy "Prince of Darkness" Osbourne. These three are cult legends, who inspire T-shirts and halloween costumes the world over. They are the friendly, high street faces of geekdom who still appear on the novelty bottle openers of students everywhere. They are not only instantly recognisable but they collectively represent nearly 50 years of popular culture: Shatner the 60s, Osbourne the 70s, Mr T the 80s. There were re-runs of Star Trek and The A-Team throughout the 90s, and Ozzy enjoyed his bizarre renaissance in the 00s. Those Warcraft guys are smart. William Shatner, Ozzy Osbourne and Mr T are the perfect faces for a brand which not only appeals to a huge age demographic but also embodies the kind of brightly-coloured escapism to which all three owe their careers.

This marketing strategy is also employed to great effect by Nintendo. Wisely ducking out of the gladiatorial battle between Sony (Playstation) and Microsoft (XBOX), Nintendo focussed its energies on the handheld console the DS and the famous motion-sensitive Wii. With these, Nintendo approached alternative gaming markets, namely families and older people. The Wii now occupys the same Saturday-night slot as a board game, whereas the DS has been successfully marketed to an older demographic as a brain trainier and puzzle compendium.

This is because Nintendo has circumnavigated a problem which has left video games sidelined as an entertainment medium for much of their existence. Despite the ever-increasing age of the average gamer, the reason games remain alien to so many is because they require a certain understanding before they can be played. And perhaps the biggest challenge to the green gamer should they wish to fire up a console is the controller itself.

In this picture you can see 13 buttons, and it doesn't show you that the large buttons in the middle not only rotate 360 degrees but also push in. You also can't really see the extra four buttons on the "shoulders" where your index and midde fingers go. That's 17 buttons in total, 2 of which do several things. To a seasoned gamer, picking up such a controller feels entirely natural, but if you've never held one before, you could be forgiven for feeling a little daunted.

Allow me to create an unimaginative stereotype. Let's imagine you are in your 50s, and the only people you know who use Playstations are your children and that guy in your office who fixes the computer. Those people might be dear to your heart, but they also do a lot of uncomprehensible things, like DOWNLOAD MUSIC ILLEGALLY and watch The Mighty Boosh (actually, fictional luddite parents, why anyone would want to watch The Mighty Boosh is completely beyond me too, and I'm only 23!). You can't imagine ever playing a video game because the interface is prohibitively complicated and you have nothing in common with anyone who plays them.

Now, take a look at this advert:

Here we see middle-aged actors Julie Walters and Patrick Stewart playing the now famous Dr Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old is Your Brain? on a Nintendo DS. Firstly, it all looks terribly simple. They're just writing numbers on the screen with a stick that looks even more simple than a mouse. That looks easy! But more importantly, you saw Educating Rita and understood the whole thing! You have a moustache just like Patrick's! Suddenly video games don't seem so scary after all!

Now I apologise for how patronising that all was (especially if you are actually 50 and you do kids and could also kick my ass at Street Fighter, or indeed kick my ass in real life), but it hopefully illustrates a point. Nintendo understood that it could not compete with the XBOX and the Playstation for the big-budget games about the apocolypse which feature complicated and powerful engines. The hardware was never going to be able to handle them and the seasoned gamers would soon leave Nintendo for a younger model with a bigger processer. So whereas most video game adverts for XBOX, Playstation or PC games focus on graphics, concept and spectacle, confident that their audience takes their playability for granted, Nintendo game adverts feature people an audience associates with other media enjoying a simple and approchable game. Other Nintendo adverts feature Girls Aloud racing each other on Mario Kart (on different coloured DSs no less), Nicole Kidman and granny favourite Ronan Keating attempting to improve their Brain Training scores, and those wholesome Redknapps playing Wii Fit.

So what about celebrity appearances in games, you ask? This is a slightly more complex issue because celebrities usually appear in games whose target demographic already owns the appropriate platform and does not need convincing of a game's playability. A celebrity who appears in a video game tends to be playing to type in order to re-inforce the game's style. It also generates helpful publicity. A prime example is Jack Black's recent starring role in Tim "Monkey Island" Schafer's heavy metal epic Brutal Legend. He plays the same wide-eyed rock fanatic he played in School of Rock, who is extremely similar to his persona in Tenacious D. Eddie Riggs also looks pretty similar like Jack Black.

In this case, Jack Black's appearence in the game puts the player in a familiar place, and no doubt helped to shift a few copies as his dulcet tones played out over the trailer. Likewise, Kaileena in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within no doubt appealed to fans of Monica Bellucci's performances in The Matrix Reloaded and Bram Stoker's Dracula (you just know a film is going to be rubbish when they feel the need to specify the author in the title)...

In both of these cases, the target demographics probably needed little convincing to buy the games in question, but the appearence of a celebrity playing an exaggerated version of the characters they are famous for on screen creates important publicity, which translates into sales. There's also the fact that consumers are fragile lambs, and like to feel safe. If Jack Black has never let them down before, he is unlikely to now.

I can't help but feel that in many circumstances, a professional voice actor might well do the job better, but this is sadly becoming less and less of a concern. Did you know that the highest-paid voice actor to date is Cameron Diaz for her work in the Shrek films? She's a good actress, but not a voice actress. You can tell it's her as soon as Princess Fiona opens her mouth. A good voice actor should be able to hold conversations with themselves without an audience ever suspecting. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama and many similar shows all feature very small central casts with actors who between them voice hundreds of characters.

Someone who could arguably be referred to as a voice artist as opposed to a voice actor is the musician Mike Patton, best known as the frontman of Faith No More. Anyway, rather than play variations of Mike Patton, his video game voice work tends to hit rather out into left field. His credits include "Anger Sphere" (Portal), "Various Infected" (Left 4 Dead) and "The Darkness" (erm, The Darkness). In other words he has played an insane computer body part, various zombies and some slimy hellspawn. Or whatever The Darkness is meant to be. His dialogue is in most cases pretty hard to spell. The one exception is where he played the titular character in Bionic Commando, but the less said about that the better.

Although Patton's voice work tends to be quite interesting as a) he is a vocalist by trade and b) he isn't really a household name, he still serves the same purpose in games as Black and Bellucci. He has a large and dedicated cult following, several of which are no doubt, like me, the kind of light-starved individuals who play a lot of video games. The games he has appeared in may be of a lower profile than Prince of Persia and Brutal Legend, but his appearence in them still gives them a certain notoriety.

One of the most well-judged uses of a celebrity voice in a game has to be technophile Stephen Fry's narration in Little Big Planet. Although he was very good as the dasturdly Reaver in Fable II, his warm, wise tones were perfectly suited to the gentle, playful world of Little Big Planet. As the big launch title for the Playstation 3, Little Big Planet was always likely to sell well (though a little notoriety never hurt), so Fry's association with the project added a gravitas rather than publicity. The calm, interested authority of his voice as it descibed the actions of the sackpeople made him begin to sound a little like the David Attenborough of the virtual world.

And I can't help but feel that's exactly what video games need. If it takes Julie Walters to reassure people that it's ok to play them that's fine. If good designers like Tim Schafer need Jack Black to play himself in order that his games get green lit, then I suppose that's a necessary evil. It's still hard to find gaming advocates in the public arena though, and I can't help but think this hinders sensible discussion about them. Too often we are left with ill-informed journalists asking stupid questions of game developers with no experience of public speaking, which reflects badly on both parties. The following might be an extreme example, but this level of misinformation and prejudice about an entire artform is just silly. Make it stop.

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