“Many people like to diss Final Fantasy XIII for its gameplay, characters and story, but it is one of my favorite games to this day. One of the main reasons for this is the line of trailers Square Enix released as the game came out. What I remember most about the trailers is the Leona Lewis song “My Hands” that played during the commercial. Leona has a strong voice which rang out over the different scenes from the game, and the combination of scenes and her voice emphasized the tone of Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a beautiful song, and in the end they chose to use it in the game itself in the very last scene where they all look to the horizon and the future. It gives that feeling of hope, if only we knew at the time the fate that awaited all of them.”
Michael Riel, Staff Writer

Everyone loves a good trailer; they’re like the doughnut holes of media. They might not be as filling as the feature presentation, but they’re quick, sweet, and give you a taste of the full thing. Video games are no different; ours is an expensive hobby, so people like being able to get a taste of a game before they buy it. But what makes a good trailer? What makes it stick in our memory, and psyche us up for the upcoming release? ┬áLet’s take a look at some of the most impressive and memorable trailers in gaming history, and examine how they succeeded.

Origin Stories

Back during their awkward formative years (otherwise known as the 80’s and 90’s), video games had a public persona that was quite a bit different than presently. More toy then media, games, at the time, were marketed like the newest action figure, which meant that most “trailers” were glorified tv commercials. Since the graphics on games weren’t that sophisticated, gameplay was usually kept to a minimum, meaning that there was plenty of bizarre live-action stuff going on. Some of these are classics, like the original Zelda┬árap, while others, like Sega, pull out all of the 90’s attitude they could with their meaningless “Blast Processing” marketing campaign. Seriously, they filmed a drag racer driving around with a television attached, how awesome is that? These “trailers” made up for the lack of focus by being full of energy and personality, which sometimes make me miss the days when people beating each other up while dressed like Nintendo characters could make it on TV. For me, though, the most memorable trailer of the 90’s was the one included above of Majora’s Mask. The dark and foreboding atmosphere, which actually completely captures the game’s tone, really made it stand out for me. In another first, I actually saw this trailer in a movie theater, which just made it all the more powerful.

Shock And Awe

Few people like to remember it, but there was a time when there was no Internet (hey, my family used dial up until 2001!). However, as access to broadband increased, and especially with the advent of video sharing sites like Youtube, game trailers gained an audience beyond the industry journalists, which only made them a bigger part in marketing. Thus, developers and game creators began devoting more time, energy, and money to make the biggest, flashiest, most eye-grabbing trailers they could. Rather than just sell you a game, the most memorable trailers would introduce you to entire worlds. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is especially adept at this; AC2s trailer dropped viewers into the middle of a gorgeously detailed Venice. Blizzard is especially well-known for their cutscenes and trailers, and the first look at Starcraft 2 perfectly shows why. Not to be outdone, Bethesda introduced us to the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3 with this brilliant trailer. For pure atmosphere, though, you can’t forget about the first trailer of Bioshock, with its opening monologue and that first look at Rapture. After countless bland first person shooters, Bioshock’s attention to story and theme made it truly stand out, due in no small part to its trailer.

Give the People What They Want

There’s no denying that video game fans are an entitled audience; we know what we want, we want it yesterday, and we demand to know why the next game in the series hasn’t been announced yet. That’s why, when unveiling a big project, developers will often use trailers to get people excited. Some of these work better than others, but the most successful reveal trailers often try to blend in the old and the new; to invoke the players’ recognition while at the same time making them crave the unknown. That’s why, when making Bioshock Infinite, Irrational’s debut trailer opened with a shot on what we thought was the underwater city of the original. Its also why Portal 2 showed us the outcome of the first game before literally substituting it with the new lab. The best example of trailer hype, though, came from the announcement of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The trailer is actually an homage to one of Ocarina of Time’s ads, and its pretty obvious which people in the audience realize that first. I’ve never seen a reaction like that to a trailer before or since, and the surprise appearance at the end only makes it all the more memorable.

A Little Humor Goes a Long Way

When they don’t have an existing franchise or a well-known team behind a game, there are still some ways that developers can peak their audience’s interest. Chief among these is humor; if you can make someone laugh, you’ve mostly sold them on the idea already. This one happens to be a very popular strategy among indie developers, as they don’t have the technology or the budget to render elaborate CG videos. For example, when top-down naval strategy game Leviathan Warships was releasing a free update, how did they sell it to us? By giving us narration by the sexy Jazz Boatman, relying on his smoky voice and a clever script to entice us. Similarly, one of my favorite games from last year, Gunpoint, had a bit of a challenge when it was first explaining itself to gamers. However, its creators masterfully introduce us to its bizarrely-compelling hacking, climbing, and stealth mechanics in a face-punchingly hilarious trailer that immediately sold me on the game. Probably my favorite set of amusing trailers, though, has to be from Team Fortress 2. Instead of showing us clips of the gameplay, Valve decided instead to inject some personality into their first person shooter. Each of the classes in the game received their own introductory trailer, and they are all amazing. Take “Meet the Spy”, my favorite out of the bunch. The video is masterfully paced, managing to convey a measure of suspense while the jokes still hit with full force. What’s really great about this trailer is it how it manages to incorporate all of the Spy’s techniques and strategies into the narrative without need exposition or explanation.

The Right Music Makes All the Difference

Ever since World 1-1 and Green Hill Zone, games and music have always had a close relationship. To this day, a game’s soundtrack is oftentimes one of its most distinguishing features, and there are countless fans who have devoted themselves to remixing their favorite tunes. The choice of music is crucial to a trailer; the right song choice can make or break its staying power. One of the best examples of this comes from the Gears of War trailer “Mad World“. This third person shooter franchise isn’t know for its deep introspection or portrayl of the human condition, but mute out the bromance and explosions and dub in a melancholy tune, and you’re left with a surprisingly poignant piece of advertising. When Bethesda wanted to build up the excitement for the announcement of The Elder Scrolls V, they lead with the game’s harsh, powerful theme song. Watch that a couple of times, and you just want to grow a beard and slay a dragon (No? Just me, then?). Then, there’s Dead Island. This was a completely unknown franchise, with an undead enemy that was already cliche by 2011. So how did it manage to generate the ludicrous amount of hype that it did? Why, by tugging at all of our heart-strings with what has to be the saddest trailers I’ve ever seen. This video was only three minutes long, and its still the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen.

Trailers Too Awesome For Us

Now, most of the time its not the developers of a game that create the trailers; the work is often given to either different teams or to an outside party. The only problem with this is that sometimes the trailers do too good of a job, and actually make the end result more disappointing. A perfect example of this is the previously-mentioned Dead Island, whose amazing trailer made the “meh, it was okay” game all the more heinous by comparison. Falling into this same trap is The Old Republic. Now, I’m not saying that its a bad game, just a bit of a missed opportunity. People expecting the same epic battles seen in “Hope” were probably a bit disappointed. However, at least gamers got the chance to actually play these games; there have been trailers so awesome that they seemed to have killed off the very games they were promoting. After a forgettable first game, the trailer for Prey 2 had me pumped up to play as a kick ass alien bounty hunter. However, its been almost three years, and the chances of the game ever seeing the light of day are nebulous at best. Speaking of which, it brings me absolutely no pleasure to have to mention The Last Guardian in this paragraph, but it fits too well. A sequel to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the trailer for The Last Guardian promised us a chance to interact and explore with this strange, griffon-like creature. Sure, they were almost certainly going to kill it off by the end of the game, but I wanted to be able to experience the heartbreak myself. Well, at least I can go watch the trailer again.

Have any trailers (good, bad, ….other?) to share? Please feel free to show them to us in the comments below.