The camera opens on a young man making his way down a steel corridor. A melancholy piano track plays as we see tight shots of his somber face cut with past scenes of his training and space travels. He reaches a room at the end of the hall and straps himself into a menacing medical device that turns him into a Spartan III super soldier.
The character, Carter-A259, is the star of a live-action video that promotes Halo: Reach, the latest game in Microsoft's best-selling Halo series, which goes on sale in September. (The game's main marketing push begins next month.) It has been shown, in various lengths, on ABC, cable, online and in theaters during Iron Man 2 on its opening weekend.
Called "Birth of a Spartan," the promo is a suspense-building, cinematic three-minute short about the game's hero that was helmed by veteran commercial director Noam Murro. It's also the latest example of an increasingly popular trend: the use of live-action storytelling to sell video games.
Just as video games have grown increasingly sophisticated, so, too, has the marketing used to sell them. Where short video game ads were once mere copies of movie trailers (they relied, for instance, on shots lifted from the games themselves), the promos have become a hot creative showcase for agencies and live-action filmmaking talent. Budgets have grown, as well, with some reaching $10 million, per sources.
Live-action ads are "a platform for them to do bigger and better things," says Scott Duchon, co-founder of agencytwofifteen, the San Francisco shop that handles advertising for Microsoft Xbox -- a company that currently dominates the live-action promo category.
There are myriad recent examples of such ads. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, the newest release from the Tom Clancy collection from gamemaker Ubisoft, has a campaign that includes a two-plus-minute, live-action trailer directed by Ben Mor of Little Minx, and will soon have a 20-minute live-action short from the Oscar-winning team, of Hervé de Crécy and François Alaux. Microsoft Game Studios' psychological thriller, Alan Wake, was marketed, in part, with the online, episodic, live-action series, "Bright Falls," directed by Phillip Van, also of Little Minx.
In addition, the campaign for Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed II game included three short films that, put together, were some 30-minutes long. Called "Lineage," they probed the background of the game's lead character, Ezio. And the marketing for Halo: ODST, the fifth in Microsoft's series, included a live-action spot called "The Life," directed by Rupert Sanders of MJZ.
Such video-game promos are not new. Most notably there was "Believe," the 2007 multi-platform, live-action video campaign for Halo 3 from agencytwofifteen, then T.A.G., which earned top honors at many awards shows. The "Believe" videos, directed by Sanders, depicted a single battle in Halo 3 and featured fictional veterans reminiscing about the in-game war and the role played by the heroic Master Chief.
"We needed to find something that was going to have a bigger emotional connection" than clips lifted from the game, explains Duchon. "We needed to have story lines that connect with people the way movies connect."
Taylor Smith, director of global marketing communications, Xbox, adds that "we believe in content creation rather than promoting something. We're in a category that people are so excited about, commit tons of money and time to, and we feel it's our responsibility to be more of an extension of the [game]."
Van, who directed and co-wrote "Bright Falls" for agencytwofifteen, explains the online series jibed with his artistic sensibilities. "It's the sort of psychological territory I like to explore in my work," says Van, whose non-advertising shorts include Darkland and High Maintenance.
What's unique about working in the video game category, say some agencies and marketers, is how video gamers are such a zealous and dedicated breed who dissect game content and related promotional material.
The "Bright Falls" promo series was analyzed frame by frame by fans, says Van. "It was clear we were dealing with a fan base that is ravenous and as excited about the details as we were," he notes. "That was totally rewarding."