Anatomy of a Video Game Trailer

These short videos are a medium unto themselves

Trailers for video games, like trailers for movies, exist for a single purpose — to raise awareness, hype, and (ultimately) sales for upcoming products. Like movie trailers, it’s entirely possible for companies to completely misconstrue upcoming games by making inaccurate trailers. Perhaps even more interestingly, though, companies can make phenomenal trailers for games that end up receiving poor review scores. This, of course, is equally true of movies.

There are two main types of game trailers: story and gameplay. AAA titles usually release multiple types of each one before game releases, often spacing these out over months or even years. It’s possible to create categories that branch into even more specific territory, as some publishers release reveal trailers, or live-action trailers. However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll leave the categorization as it stands.

I’m fascinated by the art of trailer making. I think these short, three-minute (ish) videos have become a medium of their own, and I often watch teasers for upcoming games multiple times while I wait for release. Yes, I understand that trailers often reveal more of the story than designers want, and yes, I know that trailers are often inaccurate. But it’s a great medium, and I want to highlight a few of my favorites. I’ll focus on story-based trailers for now.

The Cinematic and the Unique

In the fall of 2013, as Playstation and Microsoft geared up to release new consoles, Activision’s Call of Duty franchise stood poised to reap the benefits of being one of a precious few titles available on a new platform. Their then-newest title, Ghosts, released a customary reveal trailer in May of that year, one that would be followed by several gameplay teasers and various other promotions.

Looking back, Ghosts was an exceptionally mediocre game, and its story was just as contrived as most Call of Duty experiences are. From a present-day viewpoint, it’s evident that this trailer played into these roles and stereotypes perfectly. At the time though, it promised all the allure of a new console system, and there was at least a hint that its story could be unique. In Ghosts, America fell to foreign powers, and players were fighting as a resistance movement rather than a massive military force (in theory, at least).

Accompanied by a piano-heavy soundtrack, and relying on the cinematic overtures that Call of Duty games frequently appeal to, the trailer for Ghosts still stands as one of my favorites. Even though I recognize that it was always going to be just another Call of Duty game, the promise of something different in this trailer was still captivating.

Call of Duty continued to make good trailers, though, and the reveal for a game that released two years later amplified that trend. A purely live-action affair, the first glimpse of Black Ops 3 was completely based on story as well.

Black Ops 3 came at an interesting time for the franchise. Faced by falling (though still incredibly impressive) sales numbers, Activision opted to return for a third iteration of one of the franchise’s most successful ventures. And to a large degree, it succeeded. Black Ops 3 was quite well received, and its story touched on many interesting themes. It’s always difficult to tell a truly fantastic narrative in a series as action-based as Call of Duty, but this title checked the “story” box much better than Ghosts did.

The fear of technology has been present in the world for well over a century, though the advent of nuclear warfare has certainly pushed this uneasiness to new levels. The “Ember” trailer plays to these fears, beginning with the ominous quote “Mankind’s greatest mistake will be its inability to control the technology it has created.” The trailer then blows through a list of news reports about augmented body parts, athletes, and — centrally — soldiers. There’s a sense of tension and disaster that gradually grows throughout the video, culminating in at the end (and the reveal of the game’s logo).

This trailer succeeds on two levels. Firstly, it announces the return of a beloved franchise, but secondly, it does so in a creative and interesting way. Call of Duty games can afford to take chances like these given the massive monetary assets at their disposal, but this trailer was genuinely innovative. Blacks Ops 3 was fun, if not groundbreaking, but its announcement was one of the more memorable ones in recent history.

Haunting, and Memorable

There’s another trailer that is better than these two though. In 2014, Sony released a trailer for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. It was a reveal trailer, and one that heralded a return to a beloved and critically-acclaimed franchise.

This trailer has two key elements to catch viewers’ attention, and the first of these is the graphical fidelity. Developer Naughty Dog has always made some of the most beautiful games in the industry, and fans understandably expected even greater levels given the power of a new console. This trailer didn’t disappoint, and showed some truly beautiful graphics. From the sand on the beach to the skeletons at the end of the video, the visual presentation was flawless.

However, the dialog — a conversation about the advisability of yet another adventure between Nate and Sully — dominates the trailer. Since there isn’t to much going on in terms of action, the writing is a key part of this video’s success. The conversation is dark and foreboding, which is punctuated by music that feels sharply dissonant with everything normally in an Uncharted game. These titles are normally exciting and fairly lighthearted, but the tone of the trailer suggests heartbreak and perhaps even death.

This trailer prompted fans to speculate that Nate would die at the end of the game. The subtitle, A Thief’s End, plays into this theory perfectly. The Uncharted series took a much darker turn with its fourth entry, and this trailer showcased it perfectly. Out of all the games in this post, Uncharted 4 is easily the best. Its trailer is, as well.

All three of these trailers are worth watching, and I’m fascinated by the directions that they go in. Uncharted 4 is the best of this bunch, but the ways that these videos promised interesting story experiences (regardless of how they fulfilled these promises) stands out even several years later. In the future, I’ll detail how modern games and their trailers have fared.

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