If you had to predict the details of Deus Ex: Human Revolution based on its trailer from this year’s Tokyo Game Show, you could be forgiven for assuming that it’s a movie.
The trailer teases viewers in the manner of great movie trailers, offering glimpses of the game’s set pieces, its action, and just enough of the dialogue that you can get a sense of the whole work without feeling as though you’re already too familiar with its parts. It makes Human Revolution look like the post-millennial heir to Blade Runner and Dark City: a visual feast that will be a science fiction touchstone for decades.
But Deus Ex 3 isn’t a movie; it’s a videogame and so carries with it the promise of interaction. The world you see in that trailer won’t be one you watch in a darkened theater but one you’ll inhabit and explore, controller in hand. Those people you see are characters you’ll meet; those cityscapes are ones you’ll fight, sneak, and run through. As brilliantly evocative as the trailer is, it does not, and cannot, truly speak to the experience of playing the game.
This is not a problem that’s unique to this one trailer. Nearly every major release these days is heralded by a cinematic trailer that might be rendered by the game’s engine but contains little to no footage of the game actually being played. Trailers are usually rolled out when the game is announced, creating a vision of it sometimes years before its release.
When asked about the Human Revolution trailer, its director, Kody Sabourin, said it was created to “immerse viewers in the feeling of what the game is all about” and expressed his hope that it “shows how fascinating the world of Deus Ex really is.” That’s really the purpose of these cinematic trailers: to evoke an idea of what a game’s developers hope the game will feel like while you’re playing it. Diablo III will mostly involve killing small groups of things and looting the bodies for gold, but Blizzard no doubt wants you to believe your dungeon-crawling is part of mythic, world-shaking events. Halo: Reach never feels as desperate, dramatic, and downright heroic as the “Deliver Hope” commercials would imply.
We know this. We know this in the same way that we know a game’s box art doesn’t really depict anything in the game. We’ve learned to read trailers and box art like mystics with tealeaves, knowing that the things we see are just hints and signs. What we easily forget, however, is that the screen shots on the back of that box, and the gameplay footage available on the web, are every bit as divorced from the experience of play.
Set aside the question of artifice, of doctored screen shots and gameplay footage cut to show only the good bits, and consider this: Despite depicting a game exactly as it appears in the middle of things, screen shots and gameplay videos are still non-interactive media trying to portray an interactive one.
What can you learn from a screen shot? Take this one from Metroid: Other M. If you were to sit down and play the game after looking at just that screen shot, you’d know where to look for the health bar and the map. You’d get a good idea of the character design and the setting. But these aren’t things you wouldn’t learn within a few minutes of playing on your own. What about the gameplay trailer? You certainly learn more about the things you’ll be doing in the game. But can you tell from that video whether the game’s controls will feel natural or if all that jumping, dodging, and shooting will leave your hands cramped into grandmotherly claws? Does it show you how satisfying it will be to successfully counter an enemy’s attack or to finally emerge victorious from a tricky boss battle? These are things trailers and box art, screen shots and videos can’t show you, because they’re things you have to do.
When you read a sample chapter from a book, watch a movie trailer, or listen to a radio single, you’re engaging with those previews in the same way that you would the final product: by reading, watching, or listening. Unless you’re playing something with “Metal Gear Solid” in the title, the bulk of your time with a game isn’t going to resemble watching videos. The gaming equivalent of a movie trailer isn’t the cinematic trailer but the demo.
However, of the games released in October of this year, a month that saw the release of some of the year’s biggest titles, less than one quarter had a demo available on any platform. Can you imagine if only a quarter of the movies released in a summer month had only posters and no trailers? How many tickets would you buy?
Demos have been an integral part of gaming since the late ’80s when Apogee Software distributed its Kroz series as shareware, giving the series’ first episode away for free while asking players to pay for the rest. That same shareware model fueled sales of classic game franchises like Doom, WarCraft, and Duke Nukem. Demos were almost unheard of in the console space until the PlayStation era when companies began to abandon bulky, expensive cartridges in favor of CDs that could be produced and distributed cheaply and more easily. Those demo discs gave players their first hands-on experience with games like Xenogears, Twisted Metal, and Tomb Raider. Now, in an age when digital distribution has colonized every major gaming platform, it should be easier than ever for gamers to find demos for the classic games of tomorrow. The catch is that publishers need to provide those demos to begin with.
Demos help publishers and players alike by sidestepping the guessing game of traditional advertising. They can sell players on games they wouldn’t have considered otherwise by allowing them direct access to the experience of playing a game. They also give smaller developers and new titles an edge they wouldn’t normally have. Gaming is an expensive hobby, and as buyers we’re protective of our money. Faced with a choice between two games, one that’s part of a franchise or genre we’re familiar with and the other a title we haven’t heard much about, most of us will stick with what we know because we want to spend our money on games we’re sure we’ll enjoy. Without a demo, there are rarely opportunities to try a game without spending some money on it. By lowering the cost of entry to nothing, demos make it easy to sample the wealth of genres gaming has to offer, increasing the likelihood that you’ll find something to play that’s off your beaten path. Not all games have demos, but they should.
If there were a gold standard for demos in the current generation of games, it would be the one for Darksiders. Clocking in at roughly ninety minutes in length and encompassing one of the game’s dungeons in its entirety, the Darksiders demo isn’t remarkable for its length and size so much as for its comprehensiveness. “We had flagged a few shorter areas as having potential for a consumer demo during development, but when we came to look at them later on we realized they were all fundamentally missing part of the ‘Darksiders experience’,” says Simon Watts, Global Communications Manager for THQ. “When we realized that there were no small areas of gameplay we could possibly release that would really give a feel of what Darksiders was about we took the decision to release the entire Twilight Cathedral dungeon.” While there are some small aspects of Darksiders that aren’t touched on in the demo, it would be impossible to play it and not get a very good feel for the game as a whole.
For all that the Darksiders demo accomplishes, it runs aground in the same way as all demos. According to Watts, THQ “[doesn’t] have any way of tracking directly how many people played the demo then went out and bought the game.” For all that they’re free to us as consumers, demos cost money to produce. However, their effect on a game’s sales is impossible to determine. When faced with a game that’s difficult to distill into a smaller package, or one that’s seen as having niche appeal, it’s easy to understand why a publisher might choose to take a pass on the time and money it takes to carve out a good demo. But when they do, those publishers abandon one of the most effective advertising tools at their disposal, a way to catch players with what really matters: the gameplay experience itself.
As for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, trailers made exclusively from gameplay footage are in the works, but no public demo has been released yet. Unless and until one is, we’ll have to be content to pour over trailers, screen shots, and box art, hoping to scry a vision of its vision of the future.
Adam Greenbrier doesn’t try free samples at the grocery store, oddly enough. You can read more of his thoughts at his newly minted blog, The Clockwork House.