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Why Do So Many E3 Trailers Show So Little Gameplay?

Liana Kerzner | 3 Jul 2015 12:00
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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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