Video games were a mistake, we know that much. Whether it's internet hate mobs or large-scale harassment or executives wearing t-shirts under suit jackets (not even blazers), the world of interactive entertainment has lurched from one nonsensical disaster to another in the half century or so it has been a thing. But its latest trend – and make no mistake, video games love trends, are built, primarily, on trends, the blind following the blind following the spectacularly stupid – is if not its worst, then perhaps its most aggravating. I'm talking, of course, about Putting Melancholy Covers of Famous Songs Over Your Game Trailer.
Now, this is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has mutated from an interesting (for marketing, at least) juxtaposition of audio and visuals – as in the original Gears's 'Mad World' trailer – into something that is almost a parody of itself. The most recent offender is the latest Gears of War 4 promo*, which features Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence as crooned by a man who sounds like he's lamenting the time his local cereal cafe ran out of fucking Lucky Charms.
It is not an isolated incident. The current marketing push for Quantum Break features a cover of Come As You Are which isn't so much melancholic as it is catatonic: the singer sounds like she's being roused by a doctor in a foreign hospital after a jet ski crash and the only thing she knows how to communicate in is famous Nirvana songs. Dark Souls 3 had a frankly apocalyptic version of True Colors, which again was sung by a woman so breathy it seems like she's trying to sing the song and blow up a fucking paddling pool at the same time.
There are others, and while all are bad, there are some which are almost colossal in their stupidity. Perhaps the all-time worst is Crysis 2's The Wall 'trailer', which stoked post-9/11 concerns by mimicking the thousands of missing persons posters which sprung up following the attack on the towers, and then laid an abysmal cover of New York, New York over it. Breathy female singer? Check. Arrangement which wouldn't seem out of place at the funeral for your Facebook acquaintance who is always posting inspirational quotes on pictures of Minions? Of course. A sense of what makes that song work? No fucking way.
The songs are bad enough by themselves: mad karaoke versions sung by the pro equivalent of that person you know who can actually sing but not quite as well as they think, who nonetheless always gets a big clap at the open mic night because at least they're not another fucking guitar band. But look at what they're layering this crap over.
Crysis 2 is a game where you shoot aliens while your suit endlessly nags you about being low on battery like a needy, sentient iPhone, where the words 'Maximum Armour' are heard more than actual dialogue. Quantum Break is a game where you play as a man caught out of time, with that time being a mid-00s Jacamo catalogue. Gears 4 is about a man in a bandanna who shoots aliens and works on his lats, endlessly, and for whom PTSD is a qualification, not an illness.
It could work for Dark Souls, as that is the only game whose thematic elegance could stretch to this sort of thing, but True Colors? True fucking Colors, a song so inherently naff and catchy that it was originally sung by Cyndi Lauper and covered by Phil Collins? No. And also, it has already been done: Kodak had a similar ad campaign with the same approach. And we all know what happened to Kodak.
It's easy to understand why this shit happens. Licensing rights for Simon and Garfunkel are probably quite expensive, so too for Nirvana, and besides, there's probably some asshole sitting in a marketing agency banging on about 'updating the classics' for 'a new audience'. It works: it gets attention. But it's also just another strain of pop culture's most virulent element, which is the simple pleasure of recognising something transplanted into a different form, clapping like a seal or Captain America as you do so. You are, in essence, being patted on the head for having a working brain; base nostalgia as cheap as a NES controller belt buckle and ten times more obvious, and it's both effective and a mad piss take. It is, in short, good marketing.
*Don't get me started on Marcus Fenix in that Gears trailer. Why is he wearing a bandanna at home? Is he Hulk Hogan? Does he owe Gawker money? I want that game, brother.