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The strangest disconnect: the trailer and the videogame

Mass Effect 3

To some, the very idea of a videogame trailer is a surprising thing. Despite the growing popularity in the use of trailers for other media forms (books, comics, even conferences), to a mainstream audience, the idea of a trailer is inextricably linked to the world of film.

Therefore, if we can imagine videogames as an isolated cultural element for a moment, the idea of a trailer appears as a strange ring-in from cinema culture, as a filmic mechanism designed to advertise an interactive medium in wholly non-interactive ways.

Given the decades of fine-tuning that the trailer has had as a form of advertising, it is not surprising that videogame trailers are, by now, routinely quite good, or at the very least effective. Lately, we have seen a glut of trailers that are visually, emotionally, and narratively arresting.

However, given that they are a primarily cinematic form, it should be equally unsurprising that the videogame trailer is often able to evoke emotions that are completely foreign to the game being advertised. This sometimes results in what I previously (and perhaps unfairly) have called the ‘when the trailer is better than the game’ phenomenon.


The most recent of these is the ‘Take Back The Earth’ trailer for Mass Effect 3. While the trailer isn’t the kind of thing that pushes my buttons (too much obvious emotional manipulation and a clichéd choir push it well past the limits of subtlety), it is certainly of a quality that may well draw in a previously disinterested bystander. It also completely fails to capture the tone of the Mass Effect series, which for the most part is better described as a dialogue simulator than a saving-the-children-from-alien-zombies kind of thing.

Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of trailer/game disconnection is the ‘Mad World’ trailer for the first Gears of War game – one minute of non-interactive video that provides a deeper emotional experience than who-knows-how-many hours of play from the entire Gears of War trilogy. Other offenders are the wonderful ‘Believe’ trailer for Halo 3 (featuring Chopin and some amazing miniatures) and, of course, the chronologically playful trailer for Dead Island. These all point to a kind of melancholia simply absent from all three games.

But perhaps distinctions of quality are of little use here, as are claims of emotional manipulation. Perhaps what we are really looking at is a set of cinematic-style advertisements that can only do their job by tapping into themes that are simply not present in the product they are trying to sell. The qualities of videogaming are difficult to effectively impart in a 30 second (or even two minute) clip that needs to gain and sustain as much attention as possible. Trailer directors, understandably, turn instead to the qualities of their own media form rather than the one they are trying to sell.

Trailers use the language of cinema. Videogames use the language of videogames. It’s unsurprising that a clash emerges.

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  • 1
    Ruprecht
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why videogame developers keep borrowing from movies like this?

    And when can we get rid of lens flare in-game?

  • 2
    Mr Ak
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I’d actually argue that cinematic trailers could work for me, they just need to be done better. (I was thinking about this yesterday after reading a piece by Brendan Keogh, found here:http://games.on.net/article/1418/You_Know_What_I_Love_Cinematic_Trailers)

    The problem isn’t that you’re doing stuff in the trailers that couldn’t be done in the game (which is the common argument), it’s that they’re actually about different things on a thematic level. ME 3 isn’t going to actually be directly about the final battle for the earth, as large armies clash with technologically superior foes, and there’s no reason you couldn’t do a Mass Effect Trailer that was about Sheppard leading an elite team of aliens in a desperate race against time to yada yada yada. It could work. It’s just that you couldn’t feature a little girl in it, and daughters are the new black when it comes to videogames. (Unless they’re actually black, in which case they don’t exist. But that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

    A counter example of an effective cinematic trailer would probably be the one for Bioshock . It’s things you might not be able to do as a player, but it’s still about the same basic experience.

    Eh.

    Thoughts.

    There ya go.

  • 3
    tinman_au
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I suspect the crossover between gaming and the film industries is the marketing departments, most trailers are obviously done by marketers…the trailers would have a much different feel if the games developers themselves did them.

  • 4
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that the ME3 one does miss the point – it’s going for the emotional underpinning of the new episode, of last stand desperation. (Although it does lack most of what makes ME special, and makes it look indistinguishable from a Gears of War or other War of the Worlds type story.)

    There is of course also a demo, which is important to note when discussing game trailers as lacking in interactivity – they’re usually accompanied by interactive promotion as well.

  • 5
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Ugh! When you comment on someone else’s blog you don’t get an edit button!

  • 6
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Ruprecht – yeah, the lens flare is a weird one, along with blood spatter and water drops on imaginary lenses.

    Mr Ak – Good point. With most of these, there is a disconnection with the base material itself. However, don’t you think that the cinematic trailers are reaching for the kinds of thematic material that resonates best with their media? The actual themes of Gears of War, for example, would be simply less compelling if presented in cinematic trailer format. It’s simply easier to turn to desolation/melancholia/bleakness than masculine, curb-stomping ‘heroism’.

    tinman – Yep, I’m sure that’s also a factor here. Though equally, I’m sure there are trailers made by devs that are out there (especially for games with small budgets), though without tracking them down it would be difficult to tell if they’re better at communicating the appeal of the game or not.

    Jeremy – Perhaps you’re right. The ME3 trailer is certainly not as far from the actual material of the game as the Gears of War trailer, for example. But in conveying the feel and mood of the game, it’s still pretty far off. Demos, as you say, are also important, though I wonder how central they are to marketing these days, especially for console games. A bad demo can scare people off a good game, after all.

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