Friday, October 6, 2017

Quick Takes — “Still Playing Games”: Considering Musical Meaning in an Assassin’s Creed Origins Trailer

By Will Gibbons

In the years since Gary Jules’s cover of “Mad World” graced an influential 2006 teaser, covers or edited versions of popular songs have become de rigeur in video game trailers. That’s particularly the case at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, where games debut to great fanfare, often with trailers created specifically for the event. After this year’s E3, a post in Vice’s video-game blog, Waypoint, bemoaned the ubiquity of covers and pop songs. The all-too-convenient pre-existing associations of these siren songs, the author argues, lure overworked trailer-creators into making questionable aesthetic choices. In his words: “it’s laziness. There’s a hook, the smallest one, the slightest indication of suitable association—and it’s grabbed, and tugged at, and there we go, there’s your trailer with a song that just barely works.”[1]

I tend to agree, and that’s the context in which I first watched the trailer for the hotly anticipated Assassin’s Creed Origins (Ubisoft, 2017) on the E3 livestream. Entitled “Mysteries of Egypt,” the wordless trailer (seen below) shows off the game’s ancient Egyptian setting. It also offers a few oblique hints about its plot, which appears—like many games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise—to center on the liberation of an oppressed citizenry. In this case, the “song that just barely works” is “Blood” (2015), by the Atlanta-based trio Algiers. A unique blend of (afro)punk, soul rock, and gospel, Algiers doesn’t shy away from politics; their provocative, insightful, and downright catchy songs often tackle issues of race and class head on.

There are two fairly straightforward aspects of “Blood” that connect the song to Assassin’s Creed. First, like the African-American spiritual, “Go Down, Moses” (in which the Biblical narrative of Israelite slaves in Egypt subversively reflects the status of black slaves in the United States), the trailer seems to draw connections between the plight of the downtrodden laborers seen on screen and the overt and systemic racism depicted by Algiers’ music. No doubt the trailer’s creators also found the allusions to media in the lyrics of “Blood” to be a clever twist; the references to “television coma,” images “flash[ing] across your screen,” and “playing games” allow the song to simultaneously suggest both Assassin’s Creed’s medium and its message.

Already, this use of “Blood” is troublingly insensitive. But further reflection reveals additional worrying issues at play in this particular combination of song and function. “Blood” strikes me as a fairly unambiguous warning about the harmful numbing effects of mass media on black culture. The original lyrics (softened by editing for the Assassin’s Creed trailer) are a powerful indictment of media-induced apathy. Consider, for example: “Flash across your screen/They got you in their hand/Fifteen minutes of freedom/Still 3/5 a man” or “Now death is at your doorstep/And you’re still playing games/So drown in entertainment/Cause all our blood is in vain.”

Likewise, Algiers’ official music video for “Blood” (below) juxtaposes images of the band with rapid-fire cuts of televised moments in the history of race relations in the United States. Like flipping through television channels, the images change too quickly to fully process—information overload. Before one can be contextualized, it’s abandoned, with the end result being (at least for me) a seemingly endless series of images divested of their meaning.

Even a cursory reflection on the song’s meaning casts the Assassin’s Creed trailer in a damning light that was surely not its creators’ intent. Around the time “Blood” was first released, bandmember Ryan Mahan noted in an interview that their music focuses on “engaging with the social circumstances that are repressed through the mechanisms of culture, through the mechanisms of power, through the mechanisms of pop culture, and also just by who benefits most from appropriation.”[2] Meanwhile, it’s difficult not to interpret the trailer as a dispiriting example of the kind of appropriation Mahan decries: the pop culture appropriation of music created to oppose pop culture appropriation.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for music to appear in media in ways its creators never intended. But the use of “Blood” in this trailer creates a paradoxical situation in which one or the other of the media involved must be understood in a way precisely counter to its purpose. Either 1) “Blood” helps sell the exact product that it so elegantly problematizes, or 2) the Assassin’s Creed Origins trailer explicitly discourages potential players from purchasing the game it advertises.

In either case, the “Mysteries of Egypt” trailer becomes a case study in the challenges and dangers of manipulating popular music in trailers. Without context and reflection—and without considering the ethics of our musical choices—we all risk drowning in entertainment.

William Gibbons is Associate Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Building the Operatic Museum: Eighteenth-Century Opera in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Rochester, 2013) and co-editor of Music in Video Games: Studying Play (Routledge, 2014). A new book, Unlimited Replays: The Art of Classical Music in Video Games, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
[1] Mike Diver, “Dear Video Games: Please Rethink Your ‘Emotional’ E3 Trailer Music.” Waypoint (12 June 2017).
[2] Amelia Mason, “Algiers Reclaims the Black Roots of Rock and Protests the World’s Troubles,” (16 September 2015).


  1. PART ONE of 3:

    Depending on one’s approach to music as an aesthetic object, there is in this article either very little or very much.

    My first reflex is to discount the article and its subject matter, because the use of contemporary popular songs in brief marketing video productions promoting computer games (or movies) all strikes me as trite in every way. Perhaps it’s attributable to my age that I find games generally as juvenile and a waste of time, but is the advertising for such games really the place to find art most worthy of our contemplation? And though I have thousands of rock and country and other popular music CDs, over time my move towards classical has been through a deepening appreciation that —measure-for-measure— there tends to be much more inventiveness in classical music, both melodically and harmonically; and on a grander scale, the larger architecture of symphonies and other large orchestral and chamber works is a type of composition that gives me deeper thrills and contemplative feelings than the relatively repetitious and gimmicky nature of popular music.

    My dismissive impulses towards this article are strengthened by the its virtue-signaling inclusion of assumptions that seem de rigueur here at Musicology Now: that American society is supposedly characterized by “systemic racism” (and various other systemic injustices rooted in prejudices based on gender, nationality, etc), that identity politics will supposedly ameliorate these “systemic injustices,” that the purpose of musicology is to politically analyze music (and society) while treating the aesthetic aspects of music as if they were secondary or irrelevant altogether. In this article, the song itself is considered primarily as a text, and the text analyzed for whether its political intent is served or neutered in its application as soundtrack for advertising a computer game.

    Once again I wonder why this website is not called “Politics of Musicians,” since the politics almost always assume priority and the music is mostly an afterthought or mere ornament. To me, that is not musicology but rather the musification of politics. (And yes, thanks to the beautiful functionality of the English language, I can forge the word “musification” as exactly the right term for what I perceive to be the aesthetic veneer over this political website.) I won’t debate the degrees of truth or untruth in the political assumptions of this article, nor do I care the attitude of an artist towards such assumptions, because that to me is besides the point when considering whether the music is any good, and if so, what makes it good. Does Musicology Now accurately represent the larger trends in the field, focusing on the politics of popular (commercialized) art as its most important inquiry? I hope not, because that would mean a cultural eclipse of what I came here to find: musicology that is about MUSIC.

  2. PART TWO of 3:

    But after reflex and revulsion, I force myself to step back more reflectively. After all, when we don’t like someone or something, its good to make a learning moment out of it and ask, “what is it about ME that provokes this revulsion?” Perhaps accommodating this article will help me grow as a learner and as a person. So I’ll try to appreciate whatever here merits appreciation.

    The questions raised are timely in this age of near-universal computerization and social media: is the political message of a song served or hindered by attaching it to a computer game advertisement? Does the spiritual vacuity and attention-fragmenting speed of contemporary visual media undermine social understanding of our world or even the level of our cognition generally? Are emotional triggers being tripped without the time and conceptual space being given to sort through these primal responses to images changing in rapid flash? Is it really true that “we all risk drowning in entertainment?”

    But I think such questions are better addressed as questions of technology (such as discussed by Paul Lewis in his article “Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia,” published Oct 5, 2017 on the Guardian website) or of human nature (as in political theory regarding the level of self-government possible by millions of people in a political unit, or even in theory of how contemplative and nuanced of political thought we can expect of people whose lives are occupied by working and family responsibilities, not to mention diversions of computer games and corporate-produced entertainments). Only after such larger, non-musical considerations have been tackled can we wonder aloud “how important is the choice of pop song attached to a game advertisement?”

  3. PART THREE of 3:

    One final consideration might seem to justify the article’s path of inquiry. Musicology Now published a few weeks ago an “Open Letter to AMS Members on the State of the Academic Job Market.” In the unstated context of the inherent pyramid-effect of professors training many students for the relatively few academic positions that will ever be available, the letter laments the general degradation of academic employment via use of adjuncts, and, more pointedly, asserts that “a traditional academic position is not right for every musicologist or ethnomusicologist….by embracing alternative academic (“alt-ac”) career paths, we contribute to the study and enjoyment of all kinds of music beyond the walls of the ivory tower.” My own disappointment that Musicology Now authors prefer to analyze music soundtracks to game and movie advertisements might flow from my own career having nothing to do with music, so I am free to make purely aesthetic judgements of my musical focus with zero responsibility for turning music into a cash flow. Those who make a profession of music have always been dependent on finding patrons, whether the church and aristocracy of previous centuries or the consumerist public of today. After all, there must be a t least a few jobs for musicologists who might also cultivate the sound studio skills necessary to making loud and flashy advertisements not just for entertainments, but for virtually any product being advertised. These commercial considerations dovetail well with the left-populist politics dominating campus life today, in which the aesthetics and disciplined study required for classical music are rejected as “elitist” (or worse: racist, sexist, imperialist, etc) and replaced with a praise of relatively musically-illiterate popular music of the great mass of identity-politics passing as the spirit of democracy.