In the lead-up to this year’s E3 show, many publishers have released trailers for their upcoming games, to stir up buzz before the floor doors even open. Some, such as those for Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations are heavy on gameplay and use in-game assets. Others, such as the stunning trailer for the Tomb Raider reboot are beautiful rendered cinematic trailers that make the FX in this summer’s crop of blockbusters look ancient in comparison.
But in today’s market, where the graphics of many games, even those on consoles, rival the CGI seen in films and cutscenes aren’t generally pre-rendered, is there still a place for the cinematic trailers of old?
Some of my favorite game trailers have been cinematic. Who can forget the amazing teaser for the first Bioshock, presented from the perspective of a splicer fighting a Big Daddy? Or last year’s trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which found Ezio and his initiates facing down Cesare Borgia? Both were fully rendered and neither featured any actual gameplay, but they still felt like accurate representations of what their respective games were going to be like. They may have looked prettier, but each took pains to work actual aspects of the game into the structure of the trailer. Bioshock’s illustrated how plasmids worked and portrayed the Bid Daddies with the right amount of awe-inspiring horror, and AC: Brotherhood’s displayed the game’s new features, including the crossbow and Arrow Storm ability.
But many of today’s cinematic trailers are not as forthcoming, and often seem designed to trick consumers into believing a game is going to be better than it actually is. Tomb Raider’s trailer may have been beautiful, but it didn’t really show us how the game will differ from previous installments, other than the fact that Lara Croft now looks like a real, albeit super-attractive person. Or take both of Prey 2’s trailers. The first, a teaser, was awesome, and I particularly appreciated its Cloverfield-esque found footage style, but it told you nothing about the story or gameplay, just that aliens abducted a passenger jet. The second trailer, while visually stunning, is deceptive because not only does it make the game look like it will have far better graphics than is possible, it also makes it look a lot more fun than I imagine it will be. It sets up the premise: you’re a bounty hunter in an alien city, but makes it seem like Prey 2 will be the most incredible first person shooter ever, which considering the first title, most likely will not be the case. And then of course there’s the Johnny Cash song—after Splinter Cell: Conviction’s trailer, which did feature gameplay as well as Cash’s awesome “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” I think the Man in Black has been banned from trailers.
But there is hands down, no worse offender than Dead Island. Dead Island’s emotionally intense and visceral cinematic trailer, which showed a family being killed by zombies in reverse a la the film Memento, was so astounding that it immediately became an internet sensation and was even covered by the mainstream media. Rumors popped up that production companies had already snatched up rights to the property based on the trailer alone, rumors that were later deemed false. Friends of mine who had never heard of the game before declared it would be one of their sole purchases for the year, and I have no doubt preorders went through the roof the following day.
But as amazing as the trailer was, it’s clear now that it is a terrible indicator of what the actual gameplay of Dead Island will be like. As soon as I read in a preview that one of the playable characters would be a rapper named Sam B., who says ridiculous things such as “You a dead bitch now!” upon killing zombies, I knew Techland’s entire marketing scheme was one giant exercise in smoke and mirrors. There would be no emotion in Dead Island, no engrossing story, nothing to set it apart from the countless zombie games that have come before it. The trailer screamed realism, and initial reports that spoke of degradable weapons made me think that this would be the first zombie game to take its lore seriously. Maybe, I prayed, maybe this will be the first game where getting bitten by a zombie actually turns you into one. Then I heard you could craft electric machetes and other bizarre weapons in much the same way as Dead Rising, a game that thankfully, makes no illusions about its over-the-top silliness.
We still know so little about the game that some may chastise me for jumping to conclusions. But how can a game that features yet another incredibly and unabashedly racist stereotype of an African American male possibly recreate the beauty of that trailer? There’s a difference between a game that makes you feel something (L.A. Noire, Alan Wake) and a game that features the Cole Train (“soooo hot!!!”). So why, then, would Techland spend so much time and effort on a trailer that doesn’t accurately represent their game in the slightest?
Most likely their marketing team realized that their title was pretty standard fare, and in order to make it stand out from the crowd, they needed to pitch it like it was some epic, cinematic masterpiece the likes of which gamers had never seen before. If they sold it for what it was: Dead Rising on a tropical island in first person, chances are the game wouldn’t have generated much buzz.
And this is why cinematic trailers feel like an archaic and insidiously deceptive form of marketing. They raise expectations too high, make gamers think a game will blow their minds when all it is going to do is entertain. If you’re going to make a trailer like that, you need to back it up. The Halo series is a great example of trailers done right: people are familiar with the games and thus, don’t need to see actual footage to be convinced it will be great. Instead, the past few titles have been accompanied by live action trailers that not only set the mood, but expand the universe in a natural way. But don’t try to trick players into thinking your game is something it’s not, because it’ll backfire. I may be wrong, but I feel as soon as people get a good look at Dead Island in action, excitement will decrease greatly. Unless the game truly is something special, it’s not worthy of such an amazing and tear-jerking trailer.