On the Creation of a Successful Trailer

As anyone reading this blog probably knows, E3 has been going on all week in L.A. (which seems even farther away from Buffalo than usual these last few days), and as such, a barrage of game announcements and trailers for new product have been finding their way to the internets mere minutes after they are revealed to the Expo’s attendants. Of those trailers, there is one that I simply can’t shake after having seen it, and it’s this one:

Besides being being the sequel to perhaps the best game released for the Wii so far, Super Mario Galaxy 2 has a trailer that is made up of 99% gameplay. Why is this such a big deal? Because we also get trailers like this:

Yeah? Really? That’s what the other Bungie team has been up to? Planetscapes and a radio play? While it’s easy to see the value in using a dramatic minute of trailer time to announce the inevitable arrival of a new Halo game, isn’t that trailer something of a failure when it has to be confirmed after the fact that the game is in fact a first-person shooter?

In the era of on-demand streaming video, making trailers for games has become something of an art form — a solid trailer can whip up internet frenzy like almost nothing else. Obviously, a developer or publisher wants to show the most impressive parts of a game, and they want to show their biggest ticket items as early as possible, but if there’s no inkling in that trailer of what gameplay’s going to be like, it’s nothing more than a flashy waste of time. I remember thinking the same thing last year when the much anticipated Final Fantasy XIII trailer made its debut:

It’s a three-minute and ten-second trailer, three minutes of which is pre-rendered animated movie stuff. There are ten seconds (if that) of actual gameplay in there, which tell us nothing about what our experience with the game is going to be like — we might as well be watching Advent Children if this is all we’re going to get out of a trailer. It all looks very pretty and exciting and well-rendered, but it may as well play like Dragon Warrior for all we see there. Since then and particularly since this year’s E3 has begun, we’ve gotten a better idea of how it plays, but I could have waited until this year for a “first look” at the game, especially given that we’re not even going to see the game itself until next year.

Even some of the most celebrated trailers of E3 this year have fallen into the same trap. Take the trailer for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves:

Once you get over the fact that WOW IT LOOKS LIKE A MOVIE, there is, again, not a lot of substance here. Perhaps what this is meant to tell us is that there is a strong narrative element to the game, but again, it gives us very little idea of what we’ll be doing as the game progresses, just that it will be bloody, and it will involve guns. The cinematic feel of it is fantastic, the voice acting (a rather major shortcoming of modern games) is miles ahead of most games of this style, and the look of it is beautiful but will there be platforming? Will there be puzzle solving? Probably, but you’d never know it.

This brings me back to Super Mario Galaxy 2. Granted, there tends to not be a strong narrative element in Mario games so to highlight the game’s narrative would have been folly, but what you get in the Mario trailer is an idea of how it feels to actually play the game. Giant boss? Check. Lots of flying around? Check. Yoshi? Check. A world made in Mario’s own image? Check. Granted, these may be the highlights of the play experience, thus distorting our idea of just how amazing the game will be. But the simple knowledge that these elements will exist when we ourselves get to pick up the controller is as enticing as anything that I’ve seen come out of E3.

Cinematics and story are all well and good and for some franchises absolutely necessary, but please: show us how it plays. Really, that’s what we care about.