They say there are only 7 types of story in the entirety of human creation (which is four up on types of video games - we have "shooting", "not shooting" and "sports"). No matter how hard we think, everything we do can be boiled down to basic plots, the animal instincts that drive us funneling our most enlightened thought.
It's much the same for trailers. Look through the annals of E3 history and you'll spot the same tricks popping up again and again, little pieces of shorthand that help direct the advertising we crave into our brains with utmost efficiency. That said, if this list proves anything, it's that trailers are literally twice as creative an endeavour than all human storytelling - here are 14 trailer types to watch out for this year.
Modern gaming's always looked to cinema for a little help - trailers are no exception. A big, grand voiceover groaning out meaningless wisdom, out-of-sequence clips bolted together for dramatic effect, some rousing music, maybe a weighty tagline to go along with the logo. This is the oldest trailer sequence in the book. And it works.
Here's the opposite end of the spectrum from the Hollywood. Your average indie game is, according to recent surveys, made by four men, with three jobs each, two hands, but only one finger on each of those hands. It's tough. That's why the indie trailers that sneak out around the main conferences tend to be pretty badly cut together, with weird little flourishes and miniature stories to follow. They become twice as intriguing than most AAA fare as a result.
The new kid on the trailer block, the Rockstar is named for the company that made it popular. Essentially, it treats us viewers like the vapid, easily-distracted cattle we are by using the voiceover portion to patiently explain every important facet of the game, while accompanying images show us exactly what it's talking about. It's basically a really, really positive preview.
Look, sometimes the game just isn't ready to be shown. Sometimes all you have are a bunch of assets, some sweet design documents with little doodles in the margins and a whole lot of hope. But then a publisher comes along as says you have to show off your game. In this case, you put together a stopgap - a CG proof-of-concept that proves your game exists, even if it shows absolutely nothing else. See you in four years!
A new, more accommodating form of the Stopgap, the Kickstarter fleshes out all that missing gameplay with talking heads, interviewing men and women more used to tweaking camera systems than sitting in front of a real one. The result is most often a stream of platitudes and half-explained features, presumably because a studio executive behind camera is controlling a teleprompter that just endlessly scrolls the words "if you break the non-disclosure agreement you signed, I will remove one of your eyeballs or children".
People love music. Just look at the way no one talks to each other in public anymore - we've all got headphones in because we literally cannot stop listening to the tunes we love. It's the trailer's greatest friend. Put a recognisable track over some nondescript footage and you've got yourself a winner. Even better, get an idiosyncratic cover of a famous track, and people won't even pay attention to the footage because they'll be so busy trying to work out what the song is.
This tends to go hand-in-hand with a Distractor, but it's become so popular that I'm willing to classify it as a genre all of its own. You know that thing where an advert starts putting sound effects in time with the beat of the backing music, and then you imagine a video editor in a tiny, hot room, crying their eyes out as Adobe Premiere crashes again and something inside of them, small but important, breaks forever? This is that, but in game trailers.
The Knowing Lie
This is another Distractor breakaway most of the time, but not exclusively. It basically involves taking a game of one tone (usually wildly frenetic and macho) and presenting it as if it's got an entirely different emotional timbre (usually a bit sad). Everyone knows that their new shooting game won't make them cry or think about real life, but it's nice to pretend it might, for some reason. Just look at the Gears of War 'Mad World' trailer, that weepy Halo: Reach funeral one or, the king of them all, Dead Island, which duped everyone by making us think the game would be at all good. Genius.
This one works on a meta-trailer plane, spoofing other trailer styles to make its own. It's best explained using an example. Take Sunset Overdrive - it starts out as what looks like a Hollywood, then breaks kayfabe and becomes a Rockstar-Distractor hybrid, which in some ways makes it a Knowing Lie too. All of which is to say it looks like a serious gun game and is actually a silly gun game.
The Uncanny Alley
This is where the humble gameplay demo comes alive, and the oh-so drab world of "watching a game" gets catapulted into the rich, heady atmosphere of marketing. Sometimes, that gameplay looks a little too good to be believed in - it's in-engine, sure, but is it real? Can we trust that this game we're being shown is the game we're going to play? Can a version of a game that only exists for the purposes of its own gameplay trailer even be called a game at all? It is both game and un-game simultaneously, our minds left to ponder circuitously forever - or at least until the downgraded version with flat lighting and weird facial animations comes out.
Look, the chances of a live-action trailer being anything other than some sub-Syfy Channel business - where guys prance around in fibreglass chainmail and somehow look less realistic than game NPCs - are so slim that I struggle to understand why anyone still makes them. The hit-rate is decidedly low but, to be fair, can lead to some great things, like this still-wonderful Destiny spot. Unfortunately, it's so enjoyable that it makes me regret that the game is almost nothing like it in tone or action. So yeah, live-action stuff. Dodgy.
This has some of the same tonal problems as the Cosplay, but feels less adorably naff and more haughty and obnoxious. It tends to follow a single, prescriptive formula - start with what appears to be real-life news footage and slowly segue into gameplay exposition, establishing a timeline of events. This is presumably meant to make it all feel chillingly "authentic", but in reality lends it a sort of weird neediness, like the game's story couldn't hold up on its own without showing us the horror of Some People Rioting Once. Also, no one can ever make fake news channels look right, for some reason. I still quite like it, though, because it reminds me of the start of the new Mad Max.
These trailers are amazing. A combination of smart editing and neat storylines, subtly hinting at game systems as they go without the need to show gameplay. They whet your appetite for a game perfectly - and almost no game can live up to them. Usually, an Over-reach leads to a game damned by what it doesn't do - just look at Bioshock Infinite. Sometimes, however, an Over-reach is deadly. RI.P. Prey 2 - we barely knew thee, apart from the cool-looking weapon systems and hover boots.
Just a Name
This is the ultimate Stopgap, a rule unto itself. You have literally nothing to show, and can't corral anyone together for a Kickstarter. An Indie's out of the question, and you can't Switcheroo because there's no Roo to Switch to yet. Terrified of making an Over-reach you can't come back from, and a Cosplay you'll regret, there is only one action to take. Just put the logo on screen for a second. That'll do. Good work, everyone!