Trailers as an Artform

I like viewing video game trailers. I would put them on par with movie trailers as far as my interest goes, and not far behind seeing a long form commercial for the return of TV show I was anticipating. There is as much artistry in a game trailer as there is for a movie as it sets the tone for the whole game and gives most viewers their first and possibly most memorable impression of the title. The stakes for new titles that are unrelated to established series are even more important as the majority of the universe is finding out about games on TV, not because they comb game sites all day.

A good trailer can make a bad game a big seller and a bad one can ruin a perfectly fine title.

There is a reason that video games started using and making “trailers” instead of “commercials” . Games are becoming more and more cinematic (for triple A titles at the least) and much heavier on the story telling. I think you have Bioware to thank for this lately but really I think Square started the trend with Final Fantasy VII. People have been talking of the death of the cinema and video games taking their place for some time now, and while I do think the death of the regular, old fashioned and totally linear movie is greatly exaggerated, I do think games are closer now than ever to being a viable option when it comes to a person’s “cinematic experience.”

So what makes a good trailer? If you treat them not as their own medium but as a sort of genesis of the movie trailer, one could argue any number of points, from direction, to pacing, sound design, locations, etc. I’m sure this analysis has been done hundreds of times for movie trailers; hell I am fairly certain that there are entire college courses on this subject. I think I’ve isolated the single one unifying element all good video game trailers have. That’s right, I cracked the code.

Watch the following trailers (which by the by, in looking for these advertisements I often had to sit though another advertisement that was as long as the trailer itself) all of which I consider to be among the best game trailers made in recent history. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s enough for you to hopefully get where I am going with this.

Gears of War

 

Gears of War 2

 

Gears of War 3

 

Mass Effect 3

 

Dead Island

 

Did you catch it? Did you see the common thread that all of these trailers had? Think about it before you scroll further down.

 

 

 

Really think.

 

 

 

Did you get it yet?

 

 

Well here it is. NO DIALOGUE! That’s right, none of those trailer has a single line (Mass Effect 3 had some background talking but it’s not really dialogue per se). Every one of these trailers was a god damn masterpiece of the medium, and not a one had a character saying one hack movie trailer line (“THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL!”). From each trailer you get an understanding of what it’s trying to convey about the game. Most of them attempt to grab the viewer on a truly emotional level. From the Gears of War 1 trailer which used the gloom of the music to convey the loneliness of a person facing unwinnable odds and being truly alone, to the Dead Island trailer which used its simple piano melody and backwards/forwards chronology to make it one of the most depressing and heart wrenching trailers that I will be talking about for the rest of my days. I kid you not when I say I fully expect that 20 years from now I will look at a trailer for whatever it is that we are doing in the future and say “It’s good, but remember the Dead Island trailer?”

These trailers were all treated as art forms. They looked at the composition, the sound design, the lighting, the story telling and created a device to convey a riveting and emotional message. And in doing so they left out the dialogue. And why did they leave out the dialog? Because dialog in short bursts distracts you from the story telling. A sound clip here or a catch phrase there, and your entire focus is drawn away from the art of the piece and towards the story literally being told. Thirty seconds of sporadic dialog simply is not enough. A picture is worth a thousand words after all.

These trailers also do not spoil any part of the actual game. There are references to parts of the story line, but not parts of the story itself. Have you ever had a movie spoiled by a trailer because they show a relevant part and it removes surprise from your viewing of the movie, or because all the funniest lines from the movie are in the trailer? Not happening here.

The other commonality between these videos is that they have no in-game scenes. Nothing in these trailers is rendered in-engine. I don’t think that’s a bad thing anymore than I think the marketers were trying to hide the fact that their games had lackluster graphics (because duh, the games listed above are mostly gorgeous). I do think think it speaks to how this industry is treating its premiere products. In-game graphics have simply come so far that at this point showing even the most beautiful game in your commercial is not going to win sales. We have all seen amazing game graphics, so unless it’s something truly next gen, it just won’t impress the cynical masses. That being said, I don’t think using in-game elements is a bad idea, but it just isn’t a given. Whether the studio does or does not is going to be more specific to the needs of their intended audience.

So I want to back up the above with some sort of evidence. Below you will find the antithesis of the above examples of good trailers:

 

Final Fantasy XIII-2

 

FF fans please do not rain shit upon my head for this one, but this trailer truly sucks. The music does not have the emotional aspect to it, it’s just some soundtrack song. It does not make me sad or excited or really do anything but roll my eyes.  The dialog is at best chintzy movie lines (I will have nightmares where a man is saying “It’s a time gate, it’s like a portal” until the day I die. Also how the fuck does someone know what a time gate is?). The scenes mix gameplay with cinematics, and the game play displays a bunch of truly, truly riveting menu selections and numbers popping out of things. Did I mention a chocobo? Which I guess people like. Lastly, it would seem that they are spoiling part of the game with that whole “YOU’RE FINISHED” (ugh) clip, where the girl is ballet fighting against the J-Pop singer.

The more that marketers behind trailer production start thinking about what’s being shown to the public with the same artistic mindset as the game artists and developers have, the better we are all going to be. At least we’ll get more memorable trailers.

— Fred (Protoaddict)

Protoaddict
Linguist, Archeologist, Musical Savant, Robot, Asshat. Only one of these apply to this guy. The host of the show, who also sometimes writes and makes videos!