The game: A Vincent Price-esque narrator announces that a race of dull, monochromatic "Sheeple" have "spread their gray disease" throughout the world. A Toyota sedan then drives past, carrying a carload of "Little Deviants"— mischievous, bloodthirsty, midget demons. Your mission: Use the Deviants to pummel, slice, and dismember legions of roaming Sheeple. In the first level, you slap the helpless, bleating creatures until they spew blood and pass out. In another, you rough them up in a sewer and watch their body parts fall off. (Your Deviant then "customizes" himself with the scattered pieces.) At the end of the game, the neon-green Sheeple blood that you've accumulated is used to fuel a factory that produces the Toyota Scion xD. (You can play the game, Book of Deviants, here.)
Needless to say, this campaign is a departure for Toyota. Sure, the company has dabbled in violent ads before. The automaker's spots for the Scion, in particular, have featured murky palettes and ominous music. But Toyota has never used a violent video game as a promotional tool, much less a game in which potential car-buyers are encouraged to pummel innocent, cartoony sheep creatures until they bleed. Who is Toyota trying to attract here, teenage metal-heads and Tim Burton fetishists?
Pretty much. Toyota launched the Scion in 2003 as the company's "youth car." Rather than build a national campaign aimed at the whole family, Toyota has focused on targeting 18-to-35-year-old males. Along with the Book of Deviants game, promotion for the Scion xD—the car will go on sale in August—will include guerilla marketing tactics like "missing Sheeple" posters. In terms of sales figures, Toyota has adopted the Beanie Babies approach: keep numbers low to keep the product's cachet high. (Magazine ads for the Scion tC, for example, boasted that the car was "RARE" and "UNAVAILABLE SOON.") Toyota sold 170,000 Scions last year, compared with more than twice as many Camrys. This year they expect to sell only 150,000.
Since Toyota wants the Scion to be a niche product, it wants the campaign to be polarizing. "People that find it offensive are not our target," says Simon Needham, co-founder of ATTIK, the agency that's designed every major Scion campaign. If square grandmas reject the Scion for the Nissan Versa, the thinking goes, that will only boost the Scion's image among the cool kids.
The Scion xD is "pretty aggressive looking," says Needham. He also told me that "it's a little badass"and, yes, "a little deviant." But to this twentysomething's eyes, the Scion is a lot less cool than Toyota thinks. If there's something uniquely edgy about this vehicle, I just don't see it. Even after watching Scions tearing through bleak nighttime cityscapes, I still think the petite sedan would look just as normal sitting in a daisy patch with bunnies nuzzling its tires. It makes sense for Toyota to differentiate the xD from similar cars like the Honda Civic or Toyota's own Yaris, both of which have friendlier images. It's hard to shake the feeling, though, that the automaker chose its "youth car" at random.
That seeming randomness plagues the storyline, too. The non-Scion-driving Sheeple are boring, dull, and repetitive. The Little Deviants are supposed to be mischievous, creative, and clever—the kind of cynical demons that wouldn't drive a compact car just because an ad agency told them it was cool. Beyond that, there's the Deviants' attitude problem. The creatures are inexplicably nasty and bullying, and they maim without provocation. Even if I don't identify as a googly-eyed Sheeple, I would also prefer not to associate with a bunch of thugs who commit genocide in the name of nonconformity. I guess I'll get in line with the grandmas for a Nissan Versa.
It's a shame the story line doesn't work, because the game's artistic design is fantastic. ATTIK's in-house talent and hired hand Dave Correia have conjured an aesthetic that's part Edward Gorey, part Insane Clown Posse—images that will look compelling on billboards and in magazine pop-up ads. They've also managed to brand the Little Deviants subtly, taking advantage of the emoticon-like shape of "xD" to form their eyes and mouths. The game play, on the other hand, is less spectacular. Anyone who's played Whac-a-Mole or one of those online putting games will be familiar with the mouse-click-heavy functionality.
Using a video game to pitch a product to a youthful audience makes sense in theory. Kids love games, right? But you run into a problem: If you want players to beat the game, unleash the Scions, etc., you can't make it too challenging. Which means it's not much fun, either. As you play the game, you can click on buttons that launch a tour of the car's interior and, when you win, let you print customizable cutouts. But these returns to reality only make the game itself feel disjointed. At least Toyota's other Scion game, while a lot less elaborate, lets you get to know the car by building it and then driving it around.
But what needles me most is the game's violence. Not the extent of the violence—as Needham points out, the bloodletting is tame compared with, say, a first-person shooter like Halo.(Still, some theaters and TV networks have refused to show Toyota's long-form Scion xD trailer.) No, it's that the gore feels like edge for edge's sake. It's neither realistic enough to be titillating nor funny enough to be entertaining. (Same goes for the game's forced profanity—at one point, the narrator drops an F-bomb for no discernible reason.) Plus, most bloody video games at least give you the satisfaction of knowing you're chopping up bad guys who would otherwise be doing the same to you. But the Sheeple can barely walk straight, let alone fight back. It feels like executing the disabled.
Toyota shouldn't be worried about people being upset by the game's outré content. The kiss of death for the Scion will be the perception that it's trying way too hard to offend.
Grade: B-. They claim to be targeting people 18 to 35. But I can't imagine anyone with a learner's permit finding the game entertaining. And the pandering allegory about nonconformity? Please. I read The Giver in sixth grade. Only the art saves it from a C.
Seth Stevenson will be back next week.