BELIEVE: Why You and Eight Million Other People Bought Halo 3
Posted on Monday, July 12 2010 @ 23:52:58 PST
On opening day sales, Halo 3 grossed more than any other entertainment property ever. It made over twice as much as the most successful movie release in history, despite being in a medium less than half the country enjoys. It is not a genre-breaking video-game. It is not even particularly different from its two predecessors. Most importantly...it is not a better piece of artwork than the hit Michael Jackson album Thriller. Thriller is the 20th most influential album of all time according to Rolling Stone. Thriller had 7 of its 9 songs break the top 10 billboard. Thriller is f#cking awesome! Have you listened to it? You should. But Halo 3 made two times more in two months than that album made in two decades. Here’s why.
To date, Halo 3 is the most artistically marketed video game. Rather, it succeeded in convincing people not of the merit of its product but rather on the artistry surrounding that product. For the sake of lucidity let it be known I am focusing on the ‘Believe’ section of Halo 3’s marketing campaign. This does not include the widely televised Starry Night commercial or anything else released before or outside of the two weeks prior to the game release when this last marketing push was begun. Also, it is not in contention that the Halo franchise was already very successful or that the multiplayer and Forge features weren’t a huge part of Halo 3’s success. This is an explanation of what set it so vastly apart from other video games in magnitude of hype and loyalty, including it’s own counterparts.
Halo 3 sold itself on imaginative and moral trends that have resonated with people since the most fundamental narratives: war, honor, duty, sacrifice, cliche, solidarity, survival, etc. The entire ‘Believe’ campaign featured six separately aired advertisements, (a substantial amount for any advertising push) and yet not a single one featured even a second of gameplay footage or one fact about the video game itself. What these commercials did do was create an engine with which the advertisers could manufacture their own meaning for their own product. To take a contemporary and still fairly insular thing and elevate it to a higher status by producing artificial testament. Furthermore to take a FPS, (a genre of game not known for its lush story-lines or character development) remove the focus off of the technical gameplay element, and instead sell it on human emotionalism. They did this in two ways––historical allusion and pure, stubbornly belligerent immersion.
First, the fabrication of a legend. Master Chief’s iconic status isn’t due to anything un-reminiscent of some bygone Pharaoh, except for the fact that it took the Egyptians 100 years to build a pyramid, and the ‘Believe’ campaign started two weeks before game launch. The character was literally eulogized before he had died. This was accomplished with an ingenious manipulation of the historical lens to set the ‘Believe’ advertisements decades after the events of a video game that people hadn’t even played yet. And just like that, voilà! Instant allusion. Suddenly the people in charge of marketing Halo had the ability to glorify history that they hadn’t even been required to provide yet and could still sell to a quickly ravening public. We were presented with images of kindly, battle-scarred veterans tearfully musing over the always ambiguous events of this unreleased game. The entire premise of the advertising series was set around a future museum housing monuments to the events of the Halo series. Master Chief in a character role was not present in a single advertisement, yet his silhouette constantly overshadowed each one. Time is the most reliable glorifier and these advertisers had found a way to bend it to their needs. It’s not coincidence that there’s an over-abundance of World War II shooters. They evoke the same themes as the ‘Believe’ campaign, except the game industry had to wait 60 years for that. Just think of all the mediocre Medal of Honor games we wouldn’t have had to play if other people had learned how to spin their own fiction like Halo had.
Second is the immersion. Unanimous, complete, and uncompromising. The advertisements were shot entirely live action, a good choice for installing a sense of real world drama in anything. However, the angle of perspective they chose was possibly even more effective in making the viewer lose themselves in this fictional meaning. All but one of the commercials were not shot as commercials. The fragmentary format of the commercial is almost intrinsically betraying to the idea of reality. It is this strange glimpse of something, without introduction or explanation, in its own vacuum. A vacuum that is generally bordered on either side by either adds for tampons and breakfast cereals or the gaudy, blaring supplications of various Internet porn websites. Far too artificial to ever pass as life. While the ‘Believe’ commercials still have to vie for plausibility in this media cluster****, they have a leg-up. They present themselves as documentary excerpts. It seems like a simple thing, but this one move immediately springboards them well past the average advertising blurb. Even if you know nothing else about the documentary you still carry the same imprinted responses most people hold toward documentaries. This is an exposé. This snippet is part of a larger work of art. There’s an informative sounding British interviewer. Not an announcer, not a disembodied voice imploring you to join the world largest on-line dating network, an interviewer. Furthermore they provide you with a lovely tidbit of authoritative, technical information that is entirely...made up. Military enlistment information of fictional soldiers provided by a fictional military branch. The campaign goes even further in preserving this bid toward reality. These commercials don’t feature some cyborg super soldier employing ridiculously advanced technology to eradicate a horde of genocidal aliens garbed in chromatically questionable armor. No exotic landscapes with foreign constellations and multiple moons. Nope. Save that kind of craziness for those darn kids and their video games. This is real life, almost. These things would be too apart from reality to overcome in the mind of the audience. Here is what you do get though. Senior citizens attending a museum. But wait! You also get senior citizens shuffling around in what could pass for West-Virginia coal mining country. In fact, the closest you get to any action is viewing a 1/12 life-size model of some, while Chopin gentle plays in the background. Needless to say, it does not take a sizable creative leap on the viewer’s part to find familiarity in scenes like this. They’re intentionally grounded from the fantastical to lend more credibility to them. Furthermore, they’re shot simply, acted conservatively, and rarely even boast music. Possibly the best example of how far into the real-world technicalities this marketing effort was willing to delve in order to maintain its immersion is in the Internet-only advertisement “Making of the John 117 Monument.” This is a fake documentary about the actual building of the fake monument in the fake video game universe featuring footage of actual model builders building the actual monument as you see it in the fake commercials. Setting aside the profound meta-artistic implications of that, as well as the fact that the previous sentence was borderline incomprehensible, we can safely assume the lines between reality and fiction are adequately blurred.
This analysis of the final facet of the ‘Believe’ campaign affords me both an overarching conclusion to the campaign itself, as well as a suitable conclusion to the article. I’ve posited above that the exceptional success of Halo 3 is credited to a marketing campaign that sought to beautify the non-game related side of a video game in order to strike a stronger chord with a larger group of people. The final push of this campaign was not in effort to approve upon their prior attempts. The marketing company behind the ‘Believe’ advertisements knew they had done as good of a job as was possible. The potential was there. The only thing left was the audience and their reception to this video-game as either just that, a video game, or as a humanistic, celebrated epic. To accomplish the latter the artistic lens was finally lowered for only a moment, letting the immersion slip, for this one trait commonly discerned in a marketing attempt. A slogan. Flashed for two seconds, plain white font on an empty black background, the only direct acknowledgment by the sellers to their buyers that this was even an attempt at selling. One word: “Believe.” The veil is dropped and you now can see this thing for what it is, (a shameless advertisement) and yet they use those two seconds not to pitch the product but rather to pitch the commercial you’ve just watched. Set aside the fact this is just capitalism’s big business trying to trick you out of your money. Set aside all the future moments of playing Halo that will just be inane, chaotic machine gun fire and 12 year olds spewing racial slurs over microphones. Don’t get the game for that. Get the game because you want all of these artistic ideals encapsulated in this one faceless protagonist. Just believe. And suddenly you have a perfect comprehension into the artistic vision of these ads. They’re not selling you a video game about a fictional war. They’re selling you the art that comes with all wars, real or fictional. This art just happens to be a video game where you shoot lasers at monsters in outer ****ing space. It’s not a pitch. It’s begging. A final, desperate call to arms for their would be sales demographic. “We’ve created all of this meaning. All you have to do is believe it.” Well, we did believe it. Or rather, we bought it. 8.1 million times over. Humor and hyperbole aside, in the mainstream media of recent years I cannot think of a more deft marketing effort, nor a more earnest, straightforward prayer for the power of Art than the 'Believe' campaign.
If you haven’t watched all the advertisements for Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, and Halo: Reach, please do. They're all quite well done, if not as unique as the one section I talked about. Thanks for reading and stuff.