The Art of the Video Game Trailer

BY ALEX WAKEFORD

Every year brings with it a series of new blockbuster video game titles, and the next best thing to playing them when they release is waiting for their trailers to drop at a big industry event.

This week, Universally Speaking examines the place of trailers in the gaming industry, their artistry, and looks back at some of our all-time favourites.trailersOnce, the term ‘live action video game trailer’ had a very different connotation to what it does today. Far and away from the likes of Neill Blomkamp’s breathtaking and visceral short film ‘Landfall’ for Halo 3, they were far more domestic – an embarrassing spectacle of overacting from a family looking at grainy footage on a now archaic television screen.

Somewhere along the line, we discovered that showing somebody playing the game in that fashion can’t communicate the feeling of the moment-to-moment gameplay, and so the ‘modern’ video game trailers of today are entirely different.

Now they’re an art form unto themselves, a commercial freight train for marketing and hype as the nature of fanbases as online communities has evolved.

Millions are spent on gorgeous, cutting-edge CG scenes that are less concerned with the game itself and more about hooking the viewer with a certain mood.

How far we’ve come!

Trailers have become so vital to a game’s marketing that whole studios now exist who specialise exclusively in the creation of this kind of content, with fans anticipating them almost as much as the game itself (particularly when beloved star power gets involved).keanuThis is a development that could be argued to have begun in 2006 with Gears of War, which just recently saw the fifth main entry in the series release to grand critical acclaim, which we all remember for Gary Jules’s haunting cover of Mad World.

More than the song, it is the closing image of the trailer that leaves such a lasting impression. We see hundreds of glittered lights in the dark, a small group of them moving out of the shadow and revealing a spider-like Corpser as Marcus hopelessly fires his weapon as the camera cuts back to reveal the scale of this creature before the end.

That single moment captures the tone of Gears of War. Humanity on the run, facing titanic foes and overwhelming odds. That’s all the trailer needs the viewer to jive with, and suddenly you’re interested in buying the game.

And many did. Gears of War was the fastest selling game of 2006, it sold over three million copies in ten weeks and overtook Halo 2 as the most-played title on Xbox Live.

Obviously, that success can simply be attributed to a trailer. The game had to be great on top of that, but the twelve million views on YouTube alone (never mind how often it was shown on television) certainly helped!gears1This became the standard for emotive trailers, with what was – at the time – incredible new technology using the Unreal engine. Video game trailers became a confluence of talent across partners looking to communicate a basic idea about their game – refined, calculated (and, at their best, honest)… and expensive.

Of course, when consumers deem it not to be representative of the final product (or, more accurately, when the final product is deemed not to reflect its marketing material), this has also been – and will continue to be – the cause of controversy too.

But there are other promotional ‘genres’ too. Concept art, screenshots, making-of video documentaries, featurettes and interviews, playable demos and vertical slices…

That then sparks the fanbase into action, creating fan art and fan fiction, films, cosplay, let’s plays, reactions, streams – all of these could have a full article dedicated to exploring their place in the ‘ecosystem’ of community hype…

A complex interplay exists between excitement and cynicism in gaming communities surrounding trailers, but there are many from over the years that are fondly remembered for capturing our imaginations.

Here are some of our favourites.


MASS EFFECT 2

Bioware has always been known for landmark RPGs that do things with the genre with a sense of scope and intensity that few others can match. Mass Effect 2 is, for many, the pinnacle of that.

Not only would Mass Effect 2 continue Commander Shepard’s journey in this incredible new universe, but all of the choices you’d made in the previous game would carry over to this instalment and affect the characters and setting in ways hitherto unseen.

This trailer promises epic action, with the Normandy SR1 destroyed by a new foe known as The Collectors; The Illusive Man informs Shepard that they will have to build a team – with old and new faces alike – and earn their trust in order to embark on what is considered a suicide mission… and survive.

Oh, and this is all punctuated by Heart of Courage by Two Steps From Hell!

The word ‘cinematic’ is considered trite in its frequent overuse with regards to the narrative presentation of video games, but it is fitting here. It’s hard to get to the end of this trailer and not feel like you’re going to be the director of the most intense film ever made.


MIRROR’S EDGE

“The following is all in-game footage,” we are told at the start. Rewatching this trailer, it’s hard to believe that Mirror’s Edge released in 2008 because its stunningly minimalist visuals hold up to this day.

The cityscape of this futuristic setting immediately catches the eye, experienced entirely from Faith’s first-person perspective as she leaps across buildings, slides under pipes, scales chainlink fences, clambers onto rooftops – all with consistent speed and unbroken elegance.

While weapons are present, your arsenal is primarily focused on acrobatic wall-runs, leaps and vaults, all with an adrenaline-pumping sense of immersion.

The clean white aesthetic of the buildings sees vibrant splashes of primary colours, highlighting the aspects of the environment that can be interacted with – set to the calming beats of Lisa Miskovsky’s Still Alive.

Much like many aspects of the game, this trailer has aged like a fine wine and is every bit as sleek and imaginative as it was twelve years ago.


GEARS OF WAR 2

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath
I have a rendezvous with Death
And I to my pledged word am true
I shall not fail that rendezvous

This is but an excerpt of selected passages in Alan Seeger’s sombre WWI poem ‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death,’ but the weight of its finality – Seeger’s use of the narrator as something of a eulogy for himself, made tragically prescient by the fact that he did, in fact, die in 1916 – conveys his resolve as he chooses not to fear death, but accepts and perhaps even anticipates it.

We see this resolve in Marcus Fenix, who trudges through the underground tunnels of the Locust Hollow, before charging into the fray with a Locust as a shield (incidentally, this was a new mechanic Gears of War 2 introduced) as the drumbeat grows in intensity.

Many would point to 2006’s Mad World trailer as their enduring favourite, but the marketing for Gears of War 2 proves to be every bit as compelling in its tone, atmosphere, and emotion.


FALLOUT 3

A bulb sparks to life and The Ink Spots’s take on ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’ plays as the camera slowly pulls back, revealing a radio, a hula-girl bobblehead, a seat with a toolkit, a toy truck, and a teddy bear… and then, shattered windows, rusted metal, a grimy floor, and a completely absent back-end of the vehicle.

The ruins of DC come into view as the camera moves further back, large chunks of the Washington Monument missing, and a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape, settling on the image of the iconic Brotherhood of Steel power armour – a character gazing out over the destruction before turning to the camera.

That’s it. There’s no action, no dialogue (save for the diegetic lyrics on the radio and Ron Pearlman’s “War. War never changes.” line) – just a slow pan through the wreckage of what was once ‘ordinary life.’


DEAD ISLAND

As it turns out, it’s quite hard to do an original take on ‘family gets torn apart by zombie apocalypse’ as a premise, but Techland had a go with a slightly non-linear, three minute micro-story… that all its successors would be (and will continue to be) compared to.

I’ll just be quiet now. Watch (or rewatch) the trailer. It speaks for itself well enough!


HALO 3

“What would happen if we played Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude over an extensive, ridiculously detailed diorama of a battle five hundred years in the future between humans and aliens?” is just not the kind of question that gets asked often enough for viral marketing, but no ‘favourite trailers’ list could possibly be complete without this masterpiece…

I’ve been lucky enough to see every piece of this diorama in person – 343, Bungie, and Microsoft each owning respective pieces – and there’s even more to it than what’s shown in this trailer.

This was Halo‘s big leap into becoming a transmedia juggernaut, with a successful series of novels (totalling almost thirty today) and comics, live-action productions, ARGs… at the time, there were even talks about a film and spin-off games (RIP Halo: Chronicles) being made with Peter Jackson – a fully driveable Warthog was even made by Weta Workshop.

The unseen levels of hype for Halo 3 from its promotional material alone was something that set the standard for franchise marketing in the gaming industry and many would argue has yet to be surpassed…

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What are some of your favourite video game trailers? Are there any that have stuck with you as you followed a game’s development process from announcement-to-release, or one that you didn’t expect would sweep you off your feet?

Let us know in the comments below!


Universally Speaking is the globally renowned, multi award winning Localisation, QA, Audio, and content creation provider to the gaming industry.

With over fifteen years of experience, Universally Speaking is one of the industry’s most experienced and trusted game service providers.

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