The worst type of game trailer is one which is, essentially, a montage of glorious concept art, rendered into cutscene after cutscene. There are all sorts of tricky angles and subtle facial expressions, but there's no actual gameplay.
Presumably, the producers are trying to make us care about the characters through narrative, but that's not really the way video games work — even in the early days, when our characters were mere pixels, we still identified with them , because of how well we could control them. If they did what we wanted to, when we wanted them to do it, they became our avatars in the game. And that kinesthetic, 1-1 connection provoked our empathy.
Here's an example of an incredible game trailer:
There are some cinematic shots, but they are integrated into the gameplay shots. There is no big show made of the game's graphics — Nintendo has always emphasised gameplay over visuals, which is probably the right way to go. Instead, the entire trailer focuses on new things that Mario can do. Like ride Yoshi. And use his tongue to swing across ravines. And use a screw to burrow into the ground. It's marketing a game as a game, rather than as a passive form of entertainment, and that's what makes it engrossing.
The Call of Duty 2 ad campaign was a perfect example of how not to make a trailer:
This trailer was released at the beginning of the original Xbox's life, which made it more confusing — it was difficult to know what sort of visuals the console could handle. The end game ended up looking much less detailed and resolved, and thus, the trailer set a bar that the Xbox couldn't possibly reach. It also didn't show off any of the game's mechanics, or any of the soldiers' abilities. Trailers like this risk selling the consumer a false bill of goods, even including details or levels that will never make it out of post-production.
And although everyone is talking a big game, it's reasonable to question whether developers can deliver on the exact realism that they are promising, especially in flashy marketing trailers. And, like players at the beginning of a console life cycle, we should be cautiously optimistic.
Take The Void, for instance, which will be creating the first virtual reality theme parks in the United States. These parks will have massive play rooms to allow for free movement. The rooms themselves will be built with obstacles and architecture, which the games can then graphically overlay.
It's seems like the most glorious version of Laser Tag that one could hope for, and the first promotional shots seem to confirm that. And here's a promotional trailer, which is just face meltingly amazing:
Which makes you feel a little like this:
But what will the final result look like, if history is any indication? Yes, it's wrong to expect wizardry on that level so early into a technology's infancy. But that's what overly-fancy trailers would have us believe.
I can't help but remember those toy commercials from my youth - they have the action figure jumping through explosions and crawling through mud, and then when you finally buy it, it's a toy: nothing more, nothing less. The hype machine is both necessary and damaging to a company's success — especially a small company's success, which has no access to the technology of corporate backed developers. You can't get the public's attention without tricking them. But then once you have their curiosity, can you follow through?
Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. His focus is on video games, American pop culture, and Asian American issues. Kevin has also been published in VIBE, Complex, Joystiq, Salon, PopMatters, WhatCulture, and Racialicious. You can email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.