Video game trailers face the challenge of having to accomplish two tasks in a manner that film trailers don’t. For a movie, the trailer need only prove that there will be a compelling passive experience. The game trailer, as I see it, needs to give insight into the passive experience, the things you can’t truly control like the setting, plot, and characters of the game, but also the active experience, the things you’ll be able to do if you buy the game, be it shoot cool weapons, fly, or any other epic activity.
We’ve gotten to a point in gaming, though, where innovation in terms of gameplay has slowed down. Everyone in the industry is equally capable of putting epic combat features into their games. Also, there are just so many games constantly being made that truly original ideas are few and far between (though existent). So if you want to stand out these days, it takes a lot more than just a specific gameplay element. The passive experience must be what distinguishes a game from its rivals. Look at successes like BioShock and Final Fantasy. Neither offers anything truly unprecedented in active gameplay, but the stories for each are for the most part unmatched.
Because of this, gaming trailers must take a turn toward the theatrical. The best modern game trailers, like the Deus Ex 3 trailer released today, are those that focus almost entirely on the passive, which is answering the question “Sure I’ll do lots of cool things, but where, when, and most importantly why will I do them?” We all expect cool weapons and abilities from modern action games. What I never expected to see was such an expansive and captivating setting displayed in full detail in a mere 3+ minute trailer: (Watch it full screen. Trust me.)
Yes, it’s full of movie tropes and Batman-esque voices. But it’s so shamelessly and successfully epic that you can’t help but drool, come to your senses, and pre-order the game. Just the chance to be a part of that world is enough to make the game worthwhile.
But there’s more to this trailer’s success than the incredible setting, production, and epicness of the plot. This trailer manages to show you the active elements, hidden in the context of the passive. All the weapons and tricks are on display. There are blades, guns, spinning hands, cloaking devices, and more. All of which will be incredibly fun to implement yourself, to be sure, but the trailer doesn’t hit you over the head with how cool it would be.
Let’s look at another very recent trailer for Singularity:
That was cool, right? But I hope you will agree it did not compare to the Deus Ex trailer. And that’s because this trailer was overly active-focused. And as I said, it showed us nothing particularly new. Just sort of a cross between Prince of Persia and Portal. So while it does seem likely to be fun, the trailer doesn’t grab you out of your chair the way a more theatrical trailer does.
But to give some context of how far game trailers have come already, let’s look at just how incredibly gameplay-focused old gaming trailers used to be:
Things have come a long way since then, when the fact that you could do either single-player or multi-player was remarkable, and the fact that a game could be exciting was cause for exclamation. But now gameplay and environment are expected. We need a compelling story. And what better source for a compelling story than a recent trailer for a movie game (or book game, take your pic). Right?
You’d expect it to be more passive, like a movie trailer, but it isn’t. Now maybe that’s because they assume everyone knows the story, which everyone admittedly does. But this Harry Potter game is obviously not bringing us new gameplay. It looks to be, for the most part, the same gameplay as every other HP game had, just in a darker setting. This trailer is almost all spell-launching, which is too predictable.
Then this trailer for Two Worlds II has similar flaws, even though there’s no reason to expect us to know the story:
The mistake here is that, while it does try to show us the setting, it does so in a way that still doesn’t give us motivation. Like the Harry Potter trailer, it relies on a visual, dark setting, which is not unique and also not all that graphically stunning. And swinging a sword is, again, nothing new.
I think it’s clear how much more compelling the theatrical, plot-driven, yet implicitly active trailer is compared to others. That said, there is one exception. I earlier made the statement that almost never is a game going to be so innovative that its new gameplay features can be the trailer’s entire angle. But it does happen. So here’s the trailer for the game I’m possibly most excited about in the near future:
So let the lesson be this: Unless you’re the next LittleBigPlanet, put some plot, some drama, and some epic music in your trailer. Treat it like a movie. And get rid of all the gunfire and swordplay. We know we’ll have weapons. What you need to tell us is why we’re using them.
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