Trailer Anatomy is a series in which I analyze video game trailers. To see other entries in the series please click here.
The subject of objectivity is a perilous one—how an individual grades any piece of art is bound to be based in some sort of subjectivity—so I’d be remiss to sit here and point out what I believe to be the gold standard of video game trailers without first giving some context behind my thought process.
A video game trailer, as discussed in the inaugural episode of Trailer Anatomy, is principally a marketing tool, created for the purpose of drumming up anticipation for the game at hand. With that in mind, the creators of these vignettes have the duty of both luring us in and planting a seed, all without divulging their product’s most elusive details. A good trailer is mysterious while also being direct; the strong introduction of both settings and characters can captivate an audience, but motivations, conventions, and doctrine should be veiled, as to apply the hook but not reel the line. A good trailer captures the correct tone—be it through music, dialog, action, or imagery—to convey a message or mood that’s in line with that of the final product, but does so in an intentionally fleeting manner, creating the want (or need) for more. Open but aloof; seen yet obfuscated; finely-tuned while purposefully missing components—these are the traits I associate with any well crafted trailer, but when it comes to video game trailers specifically, true success is only found by those who capture the essence of how their game feels.
A film can engage its audience in all manner of different ways—some by providing the fuel for thought and others by pulling on heart strings—but at the end of the day an individual’s personal involvement in the film going experience is limited to the cerebral and emotional, whereas games by nature are interactive, requiring a physical response which manifests in a digitized physical reaction. Those unaccustomed with the medium can claim all games “feel the same”, it’s all just pushing the same buttons on the gamepad after all, right? But we know better; we know the unique sensation of firing the Super Shotgun, the feeling of scaling buildings in our assassin’s garb, and the heft behind each iteration of the Moonlight Greatsword. For many it’s these feelings that define their gaming experiences, and only the best trailers accurately convey what it feels like to inhabit these digital playgrounds.
So, now that you know what I look for in a trailer, join me as I list 5 ways the best video game trailer of all time succeeds in what it sets out to do—but first, would you kindly watch this masterpiece one more time?
#1) The Monologue
How does one build a state of joyful ecstasy out of brick and mortar? And, if such a construct were attainable, what would you risk in its defense? Ayn Rand’s state of Objectivism, manifested in a city, miraculously built several thousand leagues beneath the sea, founded by a man who wears his ideals on his sleeve—so when Andrew Ryan asks how far you’d go in defense of your dream, in defense of your life, how do you respond?
The opening moments of the trailer bombard the senses; the realization of an underwater metropolis is visually striking, but it’s the words we hear—the motivation, the anger, the questions—that drive home a sense of wonderment gone askew. Putting aside the obvious queries relating to viability and logistics, the opening monologue begs us to wonder of philosophy, morality, and sociological structures, all before brilliantly stripping away the layers, right down to the most primitive, and asking a question that most, if not all humans have pondered: how far would you be willing to go in the name of self-preservation?
#2) The Baptism
Ken Levine & Co know what a baptism represents, hence the relationship between Booker DeWitt and his old pal Comstock, but BioShock‘s first baptism happened long before our introduction to Columbia. Around the one minute mark in the trailer the camera turns into a hallway which is split right down the middle—half being clear of obstruction, with the other impeded by a steady stream of water pouring down from above. As Andrew Ryan is explaining how we’re nothing more than the sum of our choices, the camera deliberately picks to stay on the side blocked by water, and a man comes into view behind the stream, his appearance indiscernible through the cascade. The camera shoots forward, through the water, cleansing us of all sins and giving us birth anew beneath the waves, now a resident of Rapture. The deliberate environmental set pieces and specific camera movement, with obvious aid of the voiceover, both foreshadow and lend credence to the game’s most prevalent theme: choice.
#3) The Syringe
Around the two minute mark the character we’re experiencing this world through pulls out a syringe, injects himself in the forearm, and gains some sort of supernatural power, granting him the capability to fight back against a seemingly insurmountable foe. This depiction of events creates an expectation which is fully met once players actually experience the game for themselves. The way plasmids are injected, the way they’re used, all the way down to the animation of the character’s arm as he flings the bees towards his enemy—this CG trailer faithfully depicts actions we’ll be able to perform within the game, avoiding the common pitfall many debut trailers fall into of setting a standard that the actual game can never achieve (ala Star Wars: The Old Republic’s gorgeous yet painfully deceptive first trailer), and instead gives a real, accurate sense of the game’s feel.
#4) The Tone
Not many trailers would be willing to depict a grown man with the intent of beating a cowering child with a wrench, and even fewer feature giant submariners with drill arms looking to skewer anything that gets in their way. While the original intent for Rapture may have been an undersea utopia, this trailer makes it pretty clear that something’s gone awry, shifting the city from a potential safe haven to an unforgiving tomb buried in the shallowest of depths. Borrowing heavily from the survival-horror genre, BioShock’s ominous lighting, bloodstained decor, and windows that look out upon the ocean floor all combine into a claustrophobic sense of wonderment and terror. Most who have taken the plunge into Rapture would agree that the city itself is the game’s greatest asset; decrepit yet beautiful, its partially flooded hallways have a distinctly gorgeous sense of dread to them, and that tone of awe mixed with doom is on full display in this trailer.
#5) The Questions
Watching this trailer now, just a few months removed from BioShock‘s 10 year anniversary, it could be hard for some to remember just how confusing it seemed the first time around. A little girl hiding in an oddly placed hole in a wall, a wrench-wielding maniac willing to assault a child for seemingly no reason, and armor-clad—potentially non-human—monstrosities roaming the halls of a sunken city. The trailer poses so many interesting questions: Who is the character we’re inhabiting, how did he get here, and why is he aggressive towards the child? How has this once prosperous city fallen so far, and will we play the role of redeemer, or are we filling the shoes of one of the betrayers Andrew Ryan mentions? The most prominent moment in the trailer isn’t the bees, the drills, or the shotgun blast to the cranium, but instead the moment the titan who gutted our proxy reaches his hand out to the child and she reciprocates the gesture—will we play the role of a villain? Are we trying to steal children from their guardians? What role does this pair play in the grand scheme of things? The trailer offers so many mysteries, both its setting and inhabitants are riddles waiting to be untwined, begging prospective players to enter the fallen metropolis and seek out answers for themselves.
While World of Warcraft‘s Wrath of the Lich King cinematic is my personal favorite trailer of all time (due to my history with the series and a love for its lore), BioShock’s debut trailer stands tall as my pick for the greatest video game trailer of all time. Even 10 years later, it’s everything a trailer needs to be, and more.