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.