Serious Play: The Cool Surrealism of the Modern Game Trailer
This summer has been a famously bad one for blockbusters. I have lost track of the number of disappointments many of us have had these past few months with underwhelming film releases. From "Iron Man 2" on down to "Clash of the Titans 2" (well, OK, we saw that one coming), a lot of the stuff that looked awfully cool in the trailers turned out to be something less than spectacular over two hours.
I think all experienced film-goers know that some of the more talented editors in the biz must be working on the trailers rather than the movie. For mediocre comedies, a good trailer can be truly deadly, pretty much aggregating all of the funny lines.
Movie trailers might take a cue from games.
Game trailers have become both elaborate and increasingly important to the online video economy. They drive massive amounts of traffic and have earned special channel status at places like Metacafe, which is planning a more robust hub of game video content. Video trailers more often than not have a keen sense of what is aesthetically most immersive about gaming: not the story so much as the texture of the environment.
Take the newly announced "Biosphere Infinite," the second sequel to the exceptional "Biosphere" role-playing series. Without explanation or a line of dialogue, we take in a riveting first-person view of being tossed out a window to view another in a series of eerie retro-futurist worlds that have become a signature of the series. These games are about an alternate American history of steampunk machinery and crackpot Ayn Rand-style despots in mid-20th century.
The trailer doesn't try to tell the story, because, well, most game stories pretty much suck. Which is not to say there isn't art here. It comes in the form of environments, alternate worlds dense with detail and texture. The trailer gets that and communicates not what the game is about so much as what it will feel like.
Likewise "Mafia II," releasing this week, is running a TV spot that expresses the game's noir grittiness and wry spirit. A single tracking shot comprises the spot, a move that Scorsese himself would endorse. But in this case the frantic action is all rendered by the game engine as we zoom in surreal fashion through some of the game's major episode, all to the song stylings of the incomparable Dean Martin's "Kick in the Head."
Good game trailers work because they are pretty true to the product advertised and they highlight well the things that draw us to great games: the tone, texture and challenges we will experience in a fully created world. The one film trailer this summer that actually drove me to the theater -- the one for "Inception"-- followed the same principles and actually looked more like a game trailer than a movie promo.