The decade ends, history’s book turns another page, and you’ve still not finished playing The Witcher 3 for some reason. While the games of the past decade have left their marks, we can also remember the flashier side of things: trailers. Here are the best of the decade.
Writing a list of best trailers feels a bit strange. Trailers are mostly extravagant pieces of marketing, and sitting down to talk about “the best pieces of marketing” is a bit like writing about the best promises that politicians made on the campaign trail. They mean something in the moment, but the reality of what comes next could be entirely different. In the worst cases, trailers can be deceiving, and even in the best cases, they’re still bits of focus-tested lightning in a bottle. The best trailers reach beyond this. They ignite the imagination and grasp at the truths behind even the most expensive of AAA games. Do it right, and a trailer can completely capture what a game is about.
This list, like any list, is subjective. There’s no metric for “best” at play here. Some of these trailers are sensory explosions. Some perfectly nail what the game is about. They are all great.
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Using licensed music in trailers is always a gamble. Revelations features “Iron” by Woodkid. It’s a mix of brooding percussion and triumphant brass that matches up perfectly with the action. As Ezio fights through hordes of soldiers, he spots the ghostly image of the series’ original protagonist Altaïr. Revelations is the finale to a trilogy that places a capstone on Ezio Auditore’s life. We’re halfway into the afterlife already in this trailer. A wonderful mixture of the magic and grit that makes Assassin’s Creed so compelling.
In retrospect, Dead Island’s trailer did a poor job conveying what the game actually was. The game was not a deep and emotional zombie survival story; it was mostly about finding cool loot and busting skulls. I’m not sure that matters. Yeah, the trailer is maudlin and manipulative but it also worked. When this thing dropped, it really did capture everyone’s attention. Everyone was talking about Dead Island, and I guess we still are.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
What the hell is up with 2011 and fantastic trailers? The Old Republic’s first trailer was a smashing success, painting a picture of battling Sith and Jedi on a scale that fans hadn’t really seen in a game trailer before. More trailers would follow, each of them with spectacular lightsaber duels and even greater emotional stakes, but the impact of the original was huge. It was BioWare, it was Star Wars. And holy crap, it’s still fantastic.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Heather, you’re just putting this on the list because you like Final Fantasy XIV. Well, yes, but also no. The “End of an Era” trailer feels important to me in the context of the series. Not only is it a particularly epic scene but it’s an important turning point for Square-Enix’s initially bungled MMO. This was the start of one of the most impressive gaming redemption stories of the decade, and this trailer marks that moment with astounding clarity.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
There’s no shortage of fantastic Witcher trailers, but this one stands above them all as a mixture of high magic and bloody realism. Letho, the titular assassin of kings, leaps onto a boat of soldiers and obliterates them in a balletic display of magic and swordplay. It’s one of the most captivating trailers I’ve ever seen.
What I like about this trailer isn’t the flashy action or even the small bit of humour. What I like best is how it grasps at Overwatch’s main thesis: that anyone can be a hero. From Tracer’s chipper arrival (OMG she is still the best?) to the final moments when two brothers stand lined up in front of images of bright comic book heroes, there’s something undeniably special here. Fans can debate if the series has delivered on the thesis, but when this trailer first arrived it felt fresh. The possibilities were—and frankly still are—limitless.
Following up on an indie darling like Limbo is no small effort, so when the time came for Playdead to reveal what would come next, they needed to land their punches. Inside’s trailer is short but oppressively tense. Marching feet, barking dogs, the muffled sounds of swimming beneath still waters. You’re waiting for something to go terribly wrong, as the specter of sudden violence lurks behind each image. That violence never comes, leaving viewers to sit with bated breath for an uncomfortably still minute and a half.
Caves of Qud (2015)
I’ll gather that some folks reading this list don’t know about Caves of Qud but it’s one of the best rogue-likes of the decade. This trailer is nothing more than soothing voiceover and ASCII art but I think that’s fantastic. The magic of games, part of the reason they grip players so tightly, is that we buy into the notion that there is another world behind the screen. For Caves of Qud, that’s not a matter of killer graphics or intense action. It’s about writing, about strange and evocative creatures, and the unknowable journey of each playthrough. On a list of expensive CGI and high profile franchises, it’s also important to have a reminder that you don’t need millions of dollars to make something evocative.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Heading into The Phantom Pain’s release, the writing was on the wall for the series. This was almost certainly going to be Hideo Kojima’s last Metal Gear game. There was a sense among fans that a moment was happening. The Phantom Pain is a deeply flawed game, but it is also one burdened with decades of history. The launch trailer gestures at that, flashing back to older games and tracing a line from where player started to where things would end. The game itself would be more of a whisper than a bang, but damned if this trailer doesn’t capture what fans felt going in.
Here’s my pitch: Tetris Effect is The Game of the Decade. It is a perfect game, a dazzling mix of sensory pleasure and challenge. The announcement trailer gives a perfect sense of what the game would be. Contemplative, soothing, addictive. We only see pieces of tetrominoes for most of the trailer until we finally see a full board. It’s cleared in rhythm to the music, in a simple but hypnotic finish.
No Man’s Sky Beyond
When No Man’s Sky came out, its first gameplay trailer got dissected in countless comparison videos and ranting vlogs. A small studio with a grand vision, marketing that sold the vision too well, and gamers who couldn’t chill the fuck out. With No Man’s Sky Beyond, No Man’s Sky became the thing that everyone hoped for. That’s a testament to Sean Murray and the incredibly hard-working team at Hello Games. This trailer is a bold and confident victory lap from developers who endured far more shit than they ever deserved.
Untitled Breath of the Wild Sequel (2019)
The surprise announcement of a Breath of the Wild sequel came earlier this year, and the announcement trailer eschewed heroism for horror. Creeping dark magic, desiccated corpses, fire, and secrets. The trailer was unsettling and strange, igniting speculation across the internet with its astonishing tone and feel. If the actual game is this off-putting, it could be one of the most unique Zelda experiences since Majora’s Mask.