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.”
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.” 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.
 Mike Diver, “Dear Video Games: Please Rethink Your ‘Emotional’ E3 Trailer Music.” Waypoint (12 June 2017). https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/gypdjx/dear-video-games-please-reconsider-your-emotional-e3-trailer-music
 Amelia Mason, “Algiers Reclaims the Black Roots of Rock and Protests the World’s Troubles,” WBUR.com (16 September 2015). http://www.wbur.org/artery/2015/09/16/algiers-band