Ten years is a long time. To survive in a highly competitive environment, you need tenacity. Electronic Arts Redwood Shores (EARS, to some) has been producing games for ten years now in 2011, starting with James Bond 007: Agent under Fire. Their pedigree of games had been composed of licensed properties, including James Bond, Lord of the Rings, and The Simpsons. As is often the case with licensed properties in the realm of videogames, this safe – but uninspired – approach to game-making is often a necessary evil; licensed properties sell (keeping food on the table for the hard-working game-makers) but are characteristically meet with mediocre reviews and fade into the darker corridors of gaming history.
Then came a change in leadership at Electronic Arts: in February 2007, then-CEO Larry Probst stepped down, and his handpicked successor, John Riccitiello, took the reins. The games published by EA had been “under fire” for some time, many citing that they simply didn’t meet expected quality standards. The brand was in danger. Although it was in 2006 when EA announced it intended to produce more intellectual properties (IPs), the actualization of the promise would take time. One game – originally in development for the Xbox – would soon find itself at that mythic convergence of critical and commercial success… a game that would “make EA whole” in the eyes of action-horror enthusiasts.
In September 2007, Dead Space was announced. Shockingly dark and viciously bloody, the game hinted at a twisted future – one of terrors ripped from the annals of sci-fi horror classics such as Alien and Event Horizon. The game grew a following, and EA Redwood Shores fed their fans with a sophisticated pre-release multimedia marketing campaign, including six issues of a comic book mini-series and a website with supplemental content called “No Known Survivors.” However, in September 2008, Dead Space community manager Andrew Green claimed that the title had been completely banned in Germany, Japan, and China. This was a lie. Shortly after the announcement, it was revealed that this was merely a marketing ploy, intended to insinuate that the game was so truly horrifying, that it was simply “too much horror” for the aforementioned countries. This was to be the beginning of a darker legacy for EA Redwood Shores, one of artificially generated hype in the guise of an “attack” on their own product.
Dead Space was a success. With a Metascore of 89/88/86 (360/PS3/PC) and two million copies sold as of August 2010, it has thrived in the difficult gamescape of IPs, where balancing creativity and clever design with profitability can mean the difference between having a job tomorrow or not, especially at the time of the 2008 economic crisis. Like a modern-day David and Goliath story, DS had found itself a fervent following, and its team of hard-working developers must have been truly satisfied at their victory. One could almost hear “The Eye of the Tiger” playing somewhere distant…
This calls for a celebration – or a change in name, at least. The lengthy name of EA Redwood Shores would henceforth don the new mantle of “Visceral Games,” and, with it, a commitment to “action, intensity, [and] excellence.” Furthermore, they did not simply rest on their laurels; Visceral Games would continue to produce games in 2009, namely The Godfather II and Dead Space: Extraction. (Godfather II still managed to ruffle some feathers by its inclusion of brass knuckles sent to several members of the gaming press – an illegal item in some states.) While these games did not amount to the same caliber of success as DS, Visceral was about to unleash the floodgates of unparalleled graphic content and questionable taste with their “loose” adaptation of Dante’s Inferno in early 2010.
And yet, a significant amount of time prior to the launch of Inferno, a strange thing happened: around 20 protesters appeared at the Entertainment Electronic Expo event. Claiming to be from “a church” in Ventura County, these “protestors” decried the game as sacrilegious, even condemning EA as the anti-Christ. Unsurprisingly, many saw through this thinly-veiled hoax, perhaps because the game was still fairly unknown, making the protests more confusing than anything; shortly afterward, Electronic Arts spokeswoman Tammy Schachter confirmed the incident was a hoax. But Dante’s Inferno – and the extensive pre-release viral campaign that was to follow – was only getting warmed up…
Inferno seemed to positively revel in its own self-generated controversy – it was an example of a game determined to push buttons outside of its own context-sensitive environment. Electronic Arts partnered with GameStop for an event held on September 9th, 2009, offering customers who pre-ordered Dante’s Inferno a $6.66 discount. They even sent unsolicited checks to videogame reviewers of $200, with a note describing the nature of “greed”; should they redeem the check, their sin would have “consequences.” The International Nanny Association even attempted to (genuinely) boycott the game, due to the inclusion of an achievement earned for slaying numerous “child-like” demons, an achievement called “Bad Nanny.” Between these stunts, the websites featuring fake games and ads that would result in accusing the participant of various sins, and a quirky Super Bowl commercial featuring Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the marketing campaign surrounding Dante’s Inferno was reminiscent of a spoiled child “acting up,” and that old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” was becoming a new mantra for Visceral.
Inferno would score moderately amongst fans and critics both. Whether the games boundary-ravaging content was a factor to its benefit or detriment is difficult to pinpoint; it certainly faired well enough with regards to sales in its first month, though its legacy is a mixed one. Had Visceral gone too far? Was it trying to be the game whispered amongst parents, as they warned one another of its potential for corrupting their children? Was it coveting that role Grand Theft Auto (still) has in this capacity? It’s all conjecture, sure, but Visceral Games had made a bold decision that seemed to scoff in the face of anti-videogame legislative fear-mongers like Senator Leland Yee… or, regrettably, endow them with additional ammunition.
Shortly after Dante’s Inferno launched, Dead Space 2 was announced. It was heralded as one of the most highly anticipated titles at E3 2010. The technical prowess and design had truly evolved, with stylish zero-g combat, exciting new monsters, and highly polished environments and characters. The IP that had put Visceral Games on every core gamers’ radar was back. Visceral even created a downloadable game to flesh out “The Sprawl,” the location featured in DS2, called Dead Space: Ignition. Dead Space 2 was a game that was well-known to its fans months before launch, and would almost assuredly be a success. But that wasn’t enough.
“Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2.” Just when you thought it was safe to release a game without negative phantom-hype…
Possessed of questionable verisimilitude, “Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2” was a series of web and television advertisements for DS2, portraying a selection of roughly 200 women selected for their “conservative values and lack of familiarity with videogames”. They were exposed to some of the most graphic scenes in the game – without context, presumably – and their reactions were recorded. Expectedly, the “moms” reacted with disgust and shock. But the intention of the campaign – to drum up excitement over a product so horrifying that it must be cool, because mom hates it – backfired. The campaign was decried as sexist, ageist, and simply missing its mark. By suggesting that “moms” hate this game, it implies that the game’s audience must be of an age where mom’s approval matters; as a Mature-rated game (ages 17+), this seems wildly inappropriate, as the only people who should be playing this game should have little concern whether Mom hates the game or not. The portrayal of moms (read: older women) as being ignorant and/or judgmental of the content of the game as a whole based on limited exposure is also confusing. Mary Elizabeth Williams puts it succinctly: “The videogame’s campaign hinges on a unique premise – one that ignores how much the culture of gaming has changed.”
So what legend is it that Visceral Games is attempting to found? Surely their work speaks for itself. Dead Space is one of the premier IPs in the modern gamescape, and even Dante’s Inferno is a startling adventure game that forces its player to experience the horrors of Hell with its uncomfortable subject matter. And yet, their continued attempt to draw attention to their work through bizarre – and somewhat irresponsible – fabricated hype only seems to detract from their impressive catalog of games since they began to twinkle as a bright star in the world of game development with DS. Can Visceral learn to simply accept that their body of work is strong enough to stand on its own, or will they continue to degrade themselves by exploiting the popular animosity held that violent videogames are a “threat to our children”? To do this, they will have to be truly confident and assured in their amazing abilities as developers, and not fall prey to the sin of just being “cocky.”