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Why Do So Many E3 Trailers Show So Little Gameplay?


E3 press conferences are undoubtedly exciting, not just for the announcements, but for the stuff that can go wrong in a live environment. E3 2015 gave us great moments like Unravel‘s Martin “Trembling Man” Sahlin shaking like a leaf as he introduced Yarny to the world, and those nail-biting Uncharted 4 demo moments where the developer couldn’t get the controller to work. These were undeniable moments of authenticity, and gamers responded positively.

Yet that authenticity was nowhere to be found during many of the loud, visually dazzling game trailers for some of the biggest games of the coming year. Numerous times I caught myself going long stretches without taking notes, because so much of the content dwelled on the obvious. There’s no need to write, for instance: “Halo 5: Guardians trailer features Master Chief in space.”

Some game trailers are still copying movie trailers and in doing so they leave out critical information. You don’t watch a game, you play a game, and many of this year’s E3 trailers displayed a notable lack of meaningful gameplay footage, leaving players convinced that these games are very pretty, but not that they’ll be seventy bucks worth of interactive entertainment. A player should be drawn into the reality of the game, understand how they’re going to have fun, and practically feel that controller in their hands while they watch a trailer. Impressive graphics and a cool protagonist aren’t enough to make a game trailer truly effective: these days, everything in gaming looks great.

But despite the fierce competition, some game trailers cut information corners. Take Horizon Zero Dawn, a trailer for a brand new game that didn’t make clear what kind of game it was. Post-apocalyptic tribal woman that shoots robot dinosaurs with bows and arrows — cool. Not giving any indication that it’s an open world action RPG — not cool. But Horizon was loaded with detail compared to Ubisoft’s For Honor trailer, which is two and a half minutes of nothing but heavily armored warriors fighting. It’s a great action sequence, but I had absolutely no idea how it worked as a game. It’s apparently a 3rd person melee fighting game with an interesting combat mechanic tied to the right stick. So again, vikings fighting samurai fighting Medieval knights — cool. I just didn’t know how I would be involved, and for a game trailer, that’s not cool.

“You don’t watch a game, you play a game”

In the case of Dark Souls III, I suspect the game trailer was actually trying to avoid the ludicrously difficult combat of the Dark Souls franchise. These games are so hard they’re essentially unplayable for many gamers, but that’s why their fans love them – so why not make it a selling point? This insider snobbery surrounding franchises like Dark Souls actually touches on another issue I have with some other recent game trailers: They rely on pre-existing knowledge of a franchise to the point that they come off as cliquey.

Master Chief was stuck to the mirrors of every women’s washroom at E3 because he’s immediately recognizable. However, his antagonist in Halo 5: Guardians, Spartan Locke, is an unknown unless you’ve watched the Halo: Nightfall TV series. How does playing as Locke differ from playing as Chief? How does he add to the excitement or fun? Based on the trailers, I have no idea. Similarly, if you don’t know what a Forzavista car is, the Forza Motorsport 6 trailer boast that there are 450 of them is meaningless. Potential players shouldn’t have to become researchers to understand these inside references. (FYI, Forzavista cars have viewable interiors and engines that have been recreated with the same level of detail as the outside of the car. You’re welcome.)

But Halo and Forza were just single moments in a trailer. Those sitting around me not familiar with Shenmue, were very confused regarding the way the Memorial Arena went bananas over the announcement of a Shenmue III Kickstarter. If you weren’t in the know, you weren’t part of the excitement. Shenmue II came out fourteen years ago, before some current gamers were even born, but context was sacrificed for that predictable “build up game, drop game name at the very end” approach. I’m glad PlayStation is supporting the completion of the Shenmue story. I just wish they’d been clearer about why that matters.

I just wish they’d been clearer about why that matters.

The most cliquey trailer might have been for Mass Effect 4 which showed us a character in front of a computer console that looks something like the Illusive Man’s. They then fiddle with an Omni-tool then march toward the camera, which zooms in on the N7 logo on the armor. If you don’t know what The Illusive Man, an Omni-tool, or the N7 designation are, all you’re left with is some generic sci-fi stuff set to a Johnny Cash tune. It’s a teaser trailer for the core fanbase, but since the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle is still something people talk about, it risks seeming arrogant even among those fans. After all, last year’s submission was just a teaser too.

Fortunately there were some trailers that managed to hit their marks. Ghost Recon: Wildlands gave us an immediate sense of why the game will be fun to play, not just fun to watch: the colorful drug cartel enemies, the motivations of the playable heroes, and the size of the open world environments, snipers, stealth, vehicle pursuits, drone operation, assault rifle shoot-em-ups, melee combat, boats, bikes, paradrops… the details about what gamers will be able to do in the game just kept coming! Similarly, Black Ops III quickly showed off cinematic first person gameplay that set up the protagonist’s predicament, then became a compelling demonstration of weapons and abilities players will be able to use. I wanted to play now, and that’s the desired effect. Even Doom managed to capture the essence of its gameplay through a sample of various gory ways you can kill extremely ugly demons — that’s all there really is to Doom, and that’s okay. The process doesn’t always have to be deeply philosophical; it just has to leave the audience with a clue of why a game is worth seventy bucks, as opposed to the twelve-or-so dollars a movie trailer needs to pull out of your wallet.

And then there was Unravel. We know more about the motivations of a creature made of yarn than some of the human characters that debuted this year. Unravel wowed and charmed more than dozens of louder games because we were given the opportunity to understand what it is in the context of gaming. It’s not just that Yarny is cute. It’s that he jumps and swings around using a yarn trail in a way that’s subtly unique in terms of a platforming game. Simply put, we want to play with Yarny.

Gaming is an established media form now, so it doesn’t need to be explained in comparison to others media form like it did in the past. Effective game trailers show gameplay because they exist to sell video games, and therefore they need to get to the core of why you should buy these games, especially at full price. If people want movies, they’ll go to the movies. To sell a game, a trailer needs to embrace that game, not just as a setting and story, but as an interactive adventure that the player can see themselves within.

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