Can game trailers stop lying about the artistic worth of their games please? It's bad for industry and audience alike

Don’t get me wrong, games can be emotionally engaging, intellectually stimulating, and poignantly affecting works. If anyone on this site is likely to be seen banging on about the power of interactive narrative and metaphorical gameplay mechanics, it’s going to be me. Believe me, I am all over that stuff. But not every game has to be like that. Games can just be awesome too.

Above: Bayonetta. So fun of atmosphere and clever of gameplay that it does not need to be po-faced

Unlike film or TV, they’re brain-taxing, skill-building, adrenalin-venting, immediate interactive experiences, which engage and excite entirely different parts of the mind on top of (or instead of) doing all the of the narrative stuff. In fact however much games have grown up with their audience and come to stimulate us in cleverer, more eclectic ways as time has gone on, the chances are that it was a simply ‘awesome’ game that attracted most of us to the medium in the first place.

But it seems that the industry increasingly doesn’t feel okay with admitting that,. There’s a self-conscious, illogically apologetic case of back-pedalling going on, as publishers try to portray their products as something ‘more’ than they are, while at the same time not actually changing the products themselves. Because they probably know that those products are good enough, when judged on their own terms.

So instead they awkwardly lie about the experiences they provide, in order to fulfil some abstract notion of ‘worthiness’. Again, that insecure old reverence of cinema comes along to slash the Achilles’ tendon of gaming, a medium pretending to be a proud, utterly valid conqueror of the mainsteam while secretly still cowering in fear of its elders. Video games’ legitimacy-complex forces them to lie about what they are over and over again, until they’re eventually advertising the absolute opposite of what they deliver, when what they deliver is just fine. And that process benefits no-one. It screws over the purchaser, it devalues the product, and it undermines the very sense of validity that it tries to engender.

Above: So where was Journey's horribly laboured two-minutes of an old man crying over a piano?

And the other problem is that it’s never the really ‘worthy’ stuff that gets this treatment. There are plenty of games that really warrant this kind of promotion, but they’re rarely ever the focus of it. By all means give Journey a delicate, underplayed, emotionally affecting promo. Absolutely play up BioShock Infinite’s majestic brutality and socio-political discourse. Hell, give Limbo a two-minute trailer made up of abstract poetry, experimental Polish animation and a soundtrack made by an man smashing up washing machines on an Arts Council grant. Put that thing in the cinema and run it before the new Aranofsky film. But Dead Island? Really?

This whole situation is The Boy Who Cried Wolf While Wearing The Emperor’s New Clothes. The more we pretend that our fun, striking, but ultimately deep-as-a-puddle blockbusters are the gaming world’s equivalent of The Road, the more we lower people’s expectations of what gaming can achieve in regards to serious narrative. We make our industry appear deluded as to what really constitutes a serious artistic work, and we divert attention from the games that really do achieve that status.

And anyway, what the hell is wrong with just saying “This is a slick and exciting zombie killing thrill-ride that will let you punch a giant cave troll in the face”?

When the above behaviour is exactly the main draw of the game, and provides a perfectly tense and brutally good time to boot, there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing wrong at all.

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  • CitizenWolfie - September 17, 2012 6:45 a.m.

    I would say that I agree, but then there's something throbbing away at the back of my mind that lets me know it could have been much... ..much worse. DUBSTEP!!!
  • crswaites - September 16, 2012 11:19 a.m.

    You know, as much as I agree with this article completely and am annoyed by this trend, I can't help but think I know why this happened. It wasn't that long ago where every single game that ever came out, regardless of genre, was advertised with jump cuts of explosions set to metal riffs. I feel like there was even a Final Fantasy somewhere that had a metal trailer. I feel like the somber, sad trailer is kind of a reaction to stand apart from that, and everyone else just followed the lead. Also, isn't it interesting that movies do the exact same thing, make trailers that try to fool you, except it's usually in the opposite direction? When a company has no idea how to advertise a film, they usually make it seem way, way dumber-- the movie Jarhead, which is specifically about how these trained killers go to war and then have nothing to do, becomes an explosion filled action fest in its trailer. There are tons of other examples.
  • jackthemenace - September 15, 2012 1:54 p.m.

    Too right, Dave. The worst part is that when the games do eventually come out, I at least am always left feeling a little disappointed at having not been moved to tears like the trailer suggested. Gears 2 was the perfect game- it was awesome and ballsy, but also really deep and poignant, and the trailers suggested that. But then Gears 3 had the exact SAME trailers, and yet didn't move me anywhere NEAR as much as Gears 2 did. It was the same with halo: Reach, and with Skyrim, in it's own way.
  • SirManguydude - September 15, 2012 12:14 p.m.

    Not to piss in your cheerios or anything, but the Reach trailer doesn't take place on Reach. It is about the death of Thom-293 (the original Noble Six). Thus is why Spartan-B312(Noble Six you play as) was brought on the team as a replacement.
  • Fox_Mulder - September 15, 2012 9:55 a.m.

    I think only a few games deserve this treatment. Halo 3, and RE6 not being a part of the few.
  • Armondo28 - September 15, 2012 9:40 a.m.

    In an odd way, I don't think it's "lying" per se. I think game developers would like for their games to have the kind of emotional impact that great movies do, but even in 2012, the average game, well damn near every game, is so badly written, that this is impossible. In fact, I believe that has a lot to do with the decline of the JRPG. I know I got sick of horrible dialogue performed in high pitched, whiny voices. When game developers hire actual writers who understand how to write affective dialogue, then these trailers will be more accurate. Until then, yea maybe they should tone it down. ...but who would believe a Resident Evil game would have emotional impact anyway?
  • DarthPunk - September 15, 2012 9:08 a.m.

    I will say in defense of the RE6 trailer at least it actually uses footage from the game. The ones that don't are a whole extra level of BS
  • Apastron - September 15, 2012 8:36 a.m.

    Only one thing for it - Bring back Trailer Trash.
  • Moondoggie1157 - September 14, 2012 2:02 p.m.

    Hit the nail on the head once again, Houghton. This was a Great article.
  • Pwnz0r3d - September 14, 2012 1:16 p.m.

    I just wish Fall of Cybertron's VGA trailer was the tv spot; It was the perfect trailer for a game. It didn't bullshit you, it showed the whole point of the story in those two minutes. Autobots and Decepticons are fighting for the last bits of their ravaged planet, and not EVERYONE is going to get out alive, with the trailer outright killing major characters. It set the tone of being a desperate war, and thats exactly what the story was. Of course the gameplay wasn't melancholy, but at least it gave off the theme of the game. It didn't lie to you, robots are going to be killing each other and there's a fucking fire breathing robot t-rex. I totally agree, make the trailer ABOUT the feel of the game, the atmosphere to devs actually made it to be. The ONLY exceptions I can think of are yes, the Dead Island and GoW trilogy's CGI stuff. GoW 2 and 3 I can only accept because this "deep and depressing, almost beautiful" kind of trailerwork was brought into the spotlight with the Mad World trailer. And GoW 3's trailer was exactly what the 3rd game was all about; concluding the series.
  • FOZ - September 14, 2012 12:54 p.m.

    I don't have a problem with Deliver Hope. Reach was always trying to replicate moments like that (Kat and Jorge's deaths especially), so I don't think you can blame them. Plus it was also disguised backstory (the Spartan who gets hit is Kat, and the guy who takes the bomb into the ship is the guy Noble Six replaces, seeing as he blew himself up). As for Halo 3, definitely trying damn hard to turn Halo into more of an emotional experience than it ever was. Even the menu, with the piano music. The only moments that tried to be remotely emotional were Cortana Moments (annoying and make no sense to people who don't read every bit of Halo fiction they can get their hands on), and Sergeant Johnson getting fried by the flying toaster and giving his amazingly generic last words ("Don't ever let her go"). The rest is just purple explosions, space gorillas, and green abominations. The Dead Island one immediately made me disregard the game until I saw plenty of gameplay. I'm not falling for that cg stuff. Only cg trailer I really think of as worthwhile was Human Revolution's. Didn't Resident Evil 5 already have the guy in a dark room with "Kijuju" written all over the wall? Can't wait for the obligatory scene in RE6 where a bunch of civilians die and Chris goes nuts over it. There's also the moments WITHIN games that pretend to be much more emotional than they are, and I don't just mean ME3's hamfisted bullshit with the kid.
  • Apastron - September 14, 2012 11:28 a.m.

    Another great article Mr Houghton. If companies think that people want games that evoke the emotion and atmosphere portrayed in the recent spate of trailers, why don't they just make a game with the same values? There are fantastic examples of games that do orchestrate such subtleties as mentioned in this article, but they are few and far between and generally quite niche. Surely all the false-advertising does is disappoint people that are moved by the trailer that then find the game to be one massive genocide rather than a tale of the fall of man, and drive away those that aren't looking for a melancholic journey in the first place?
  • mikeylawson - September 14, 2012 10:15 a.m.

    The Borderlands 2 trailer irritates me. It is after all, a tongue-in-cheek shooter that is designed, primarily, to be fun. Yet they decided the trailer should be live action and feature terrible CGI. Its awful and doesn't show what the game is like at all.
  • BiscuitWheels - September 14, 2012 6:40 p.m.

    The commercial, yeah. That one blows. The three or four other Borderlands 2 trailers? They're some of the best trailers of their kind in ages. What other game would have "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" as the theme for a trailer?
  • codystovall - September 14, 2012 10:03 a.m.

    metroid other m, but that was wrong for any reasons.
  • brickman409 - September 15, 2012 5:03 p.m.

    yeah the trailer was way too over emotional and tried too hard to be sad, but so was the game
  • Sinosaur - September 14, 2012 10:02 a.m.

    Maybe game companies should start doing some designs and base game work, then ask someone to come up with a trailer for their game before they've actually got it running, then base their stories off the trailer and we'll have amazing game stories.
  • Godzillarex - September 14, 2012 9:53 a.m.

    Beautifully written. You nailed the sentiment that so many, including myself, are feeling.
  • Mooshon - September 14, 2012 9:50 a.m.

    Good words. The trend has simply got to be the Dead Island effect; Throwing some budget on an emotive, film-like FMV and shift millions more units than you possibly have any right to. Does a job of building up the hype but always a bit annoying if you're expecting something different. Saying that, back in the day I used to love game box art even though it bore no relation to the fucked graphics. I'm sure I used to hold the image in my head while I was controlling a blocky block man around! Things ain't so bad really :)