Lessons from the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided launch trailer

Mankind Divided subjected me to systemic prejudice countless times over my two play-throughs, yet its release trailer focuses on empowerment — showcasing all the superpowers you can use to conquer foes (which are limited in-game). This isn’t false-advertising, this is broad-shouldered video game advertising at its smartest. Square Enix knows players want “do what you want” simulators — regardless of whether or not they have themes of social injustice.

Power sells games.

Listen closely. The voiceover points to this power-focus: “If you try and rip the world apart, someone will always put it back together… You can kill freedom. But you can’t kill progress.” You are that someone and that progress is a super-charged robot fist — with a dozen beat-up-oppressor abilities.

You have to make players feel powerful and in-control. As such, Deus Ex games are in a bit of a bind: as stealth games where hiding and hacking are often preferable to all-out power-punching elbow-katana cyborg battles. But this is where we can learn from Mankind Divided’s lack of restraint and subtlety in the trailer: it harps on the power-usage. Then it builds towards the P.E.P.S.arm-gun-blast conclusion. It ends leaving viewers feeling like they can do anything (as Adam Jensen).

There’s a lot of challenges and problems to this. I could belabor Lord of the Rings’ “lust for power” theme or address how weird it is to cast a white guy (working for the most powerful people in the world) as a “victim” of social oppression. But that’s the game’s responsibility to handle with tact and nuance. The trailer’s job is to get players in the door — to make the would-be players feel the power to do as they will. 

This “do-as-you-will” emphasis makes people feel like kings. And it’s why they pick up the controller to begin with.

  • Dave

    Really? You can’t imagine a white guy as a victim of social oppression? Even in another country in a fictional future?

    Um….Russia. World War 2. The Basques. The Irish Potato Famine. The French Revolution. White American gays. Prague under the Habsburgs……Prague in 1939……Prague in 1968……

    The world’s more complicated than just the color of a person’s skin, ya know? Sheesh.

    But good article. I’ve read a few of your articles today, and have learnt from them. Though I think that the whole “power sells” thing is kind of the industry’s default position, which is a shame.

    I understand that it works, but in my opinion it sells intelligent, nuanced games like this short. I had the same issue with the Dishonored trailer: atmoshperic game about creative and clever navigation of your environment…..trailer spends 60 seconds stabbing dudes in the face.

    • Oh Jeez! No clue how I missed this reply! Sorry!

      Yeah, you make great points about other times white folks were oppressed. My point wasn’t so much about skin color as much as being in a position of power, and yeah. “Power sells” is a default position, and Dishonored’s marketing is an equal shame on how emphatic it is on face stabbing.

      Dishonored is still a power-fantasy if you opt for a no-kill ghost run since it provides some powerful tools to do so. And honestly, you can play through the whole game without magic too if you’re patient, as the game is designed for that option too (which I’ve completed in Dishonored 2). There’s something to be said about game design in all of these avenues. But marketing them? Oh man.

      I gotta tell you that it’s painfully hard to make a FPS trailer — and stealth trailers, let alone ones that eschew face-stabs. Trailers need to show what players can do. And it’s just very hard to figure out how to do that unless you show the player character doing something.

      I think this is why I love the live-action trailers Bethesda has been doing this year.

      Here’s a good one for Dishonored2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2JvtKTSWxU (especially that ‘Domino’ moment at 1:21)

      And here’s my favorite one, for DOOM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSZ4tSoumNk (love those battle scars as storytelling devices)

      Such great ‘show, don’t tell.’