If you’ve spent any significant amount of time online, you’ve likely seen advertisements for Merge Mansion, a mobile game from Finnish studio Metacore Games.
The dozen or so shorts, which started out as cartoons before shifting to live-action (featuring stars Kathy Bates and The Good Wife’s Grace Rex), tell the story of Maddie and her grandmother, Ursula. Maddie is a jilted bride whose ex-fiancé Arthur ditched her at the altar. Ursula burns Arthur’s house down in an act of retaliation and ends up in jail as Maddie works to break her out.
None of these plot points have any real bearing on the match-three puzzle game itself. The titular “Merge Mansion” is Ursula’s gift to Maddie after the failed wedding. Teases in different ads that Arthur is still alive or that you’re Ursula’s next target don’t inform the gameplay in any way. They’re hooks with no payoff, seemingly by design.
That kind of attention-grabbing marketing speaks to the advertising monster that social platforms like Instagram and TikTok have become. These wild ads don’t actually have to be about the game for Merge Mansion to capture an audience; they simply need to be compelling. And, if they’re compelling enough, Merge Mansion can find a certain kind of success — even if the gameplay kind of sucks in comparison.
“I’m actually super close to downloading it because of [the] ads,” Romz Bacungan, a 25-year-old from the Philippines, said in a Twitter message to Mashable. “Based on what I see [in] the ads, the story is wild. It’s not every day you see a game about a sweet old lady with a seemingly sinister vibe.”
“Also, they even got the Kathy Bates (one of the OG horror queens) to play the grandma in their live-action ads, which is just crazy to me,” Bacungan added.
For her part, Bates said she and Ursula “fit like a pair of beloved old garden gloves.”
“What a crazy grandma. I loved scurrying around the grand old house,” Bates said, according to The Mary Sue. “So much fun working with the brilliant Jim Jenkins and Grace Rex who played my granddaughter — a very talented young actress. The lovely crew, the production design and the beautiful cinematography.”
It’s true — the cinematography is beautiful. So beautiful that it’s even led game players and fans of the ads to call for a Netflix adaptation. Ryne Vollbracht, a 28-year-old in Denver, Colorado, who has never played the game, told Mashable that he’d love to see a more complete version of the story. “In a heartbeat. Netflix, I am available to help adapt the screenplay when you’re ready for me.”
The enthusiastic fan support for an adaptation completely sidesteps the reality of Merge Mansion, the game. It’s similar to Candy Crush in its simplicity. You use energy to match up sets of tools that are needed to complete small missions, like planting a flower or cleaning a statue. That energy is a limited resource, and running out means you have to either wait for a timer to tick down or spend money to buy more.
Free-to-play games are inherently built to convince people that they should spend money, so it makes sense that the ads are telling you Kathy Bates murdered someone, and the only way to find out is to play the game. But once you do play, the only conversations you get to see between Ursula and Maddie are engineered to forestall any narrative payoffs, like when Ursula makes up an excuse to leave early because her cat needs a bath.
The game is mostly unremarkable, but the ads have been so unbearably catchy that it’s attracted ardent fans like Carson Blanchard, an 18-year-old in Rhode Island. Despite not downloading the game, he, like Bacungan, has been served up a hearty plate full of the games on most every social media platform he’s on.
“The ads really intrigue me because there’s so much lore happening,” Blanchard told Mashable. “When I [notice] a Merge Mansion ad, I watch it in full to see if it’s a new one or if it’s one I’ve seen before.” He’s hoping there will eventually be an ad that outs Ursula as the murderer.
It’s hard not to theorize what Bates’ character is up to. Bacungan thinks she’s good at heart, only working to keep Maddie happy and safe. Blanchard hopes Ursula is “part of some sort of secret mafia or whatever.” Vollbracht said he thinks she’s “running a bad bitch fight club.”
“I hope everyone who does play is there because they were hypnotized by the ads,” Vollbracht said. “I think there’s something about the combo between the nostalgic animation style (very mid-2000s off-brand animated movie vibes) and the promise of an old lady with a lifetime of secrets that makes you want to know more.”
Vollbracht, who works at a social media marketing agency (he hasn’t done any marketing for Merge Mansion), pointed out that adding lore to the game is a good strategy. While plenty of people — like him, Bacungan, and Blanchard — may never play, the ads are still effective in driving awareness of the app. “Their digital footprint is extending much further outside the initial game-player audience,” he said.
That digital footprint is what pulled in Riley McGold, a 25-year-old from Victoria, Australia who started playing ages ago. They’ve enjoyed the marketing much more than the gameplay — but they’re still playing.
“The fact that the ads themselves tell more of a story than the actual game adds a layer of unhinged,” McGold told Mashable. “Like the fact that they’re now using live-action murder mystery ads to advertise a matching game makes them so much more iconic. It’s almost like the ads themselves are written by someone’s kid and they’re brainstorming twists and then they’re just like ‘OK yes to all the above.'”
Pete Treigan, a 27-year-old from Durham, North Carolina, told Mashable that he’s “always getting sucked in by [mobile] game ads and downloading them, only to delete them a few days later.” That’s precisely what he did with Merge Mansion.
“It’s the convoluted nature of everything and the drama,” he said. He likes that there are so many “unanswered questions” left from the ads. “I’m genuinely curious: What’s grandma hiding?”
But you won’t actually find out what Grandma Ursula is hiding by playing the game — every time it seems like she might tell you what’s really going on, she has to go take a bath or something. Nobody dies. There’s no mention of a missing fiancé. There are no arrests. The game is simply a matching game, like Bejeweled but with low-key narrative stakes.
This isn’t a trend led completely by Merge Mansion — ads for mobile games have gotten further and further detached from reality over the past few years. Think about Lily’s Garden, or those horny mobile games like Choices, Whispers, Chapters, or Episode.
“The ads for other games of this type are also just as whack and crazy as Merge Mansion, but the latter has a more intriguing storyline which makes me more interested in knowing more about the lore of the game,” Bacungan said. They’re intrigued by the story the ads have told and want to know more, especially when it comes to what Ursula is up to. “I sometimes even watch YouTube videos about its lore and theories about the grandma in particular.”
In that sense, Metacore has managed to set its game apart by making smart use of the Hollywood system. Other ad campaigns have created stories that aren’t backed up by lore in the actual game, but they haven’t been nearly as effective at incorporating star power. No matter how you cross it, these ads are different.
The Game Theorists, a popular YouTube channel, made a video essay titled Game Theory: The Disturbing Lore of Merge Mansion that’s drawn 6.4 million views. Following the video, Metacore Games released more than a dozen new ads and a ton of social posts adding to that lore.
Amanda Golka, a content creator in Los Angeles, California who is known for her commentary and review videos on Swell Entertainment, says Merge Mansion is separating itself from other mobile game ads by “leaning into” the insanity of it all.
She sees the disconnect between the story-driven ads and the story-lite gameplay, not to mention presence of a Hollywood great like Bates, as key drivers of the mystery that Merge Mansion’s ad-loving fans have found to be so captivating.
“I don’t think you hired Kathy, excuse my language, motherfucking Bates for an ad campaign unless you want people to see it and talk about it [rather] than just swiping past it on TikTok,” she said. “So I think that they definitely see the value in being a meme of sorts or having people speculate about their ads.”
Modern marketers have their reasons for dishing out massive amounts of money for celebrity endorsements. One 2019 study found that “there is a direct relationship between the use of celebrities in advertisements and improvement in company profits.” What does that say about us as consumers? We’ll try almost anything once — as long as Kathy Bates tells us to.
The advertising-driven machine the internet has become is shaping not only how we spend our money, but also how we spend our time. Merge Mansion’s success — in terms of internet mindshare, if not profits directly — depends just as much on attention-grabbing marketing as it does on sticky gameplay.