Maybe it’s me getting older or maybe it’s that games have started to look a little samey, but trailers just don’t seem to hit the way they used to although there were plenty in the past that got my attention for all of the wrong reasons.
The trailer I remember being the most egregious was Techland’s for Dead Island, a first-person RPG shooter that’s basically the Fyre Festival with zombies.
It’s probably one of the most deceptive pieces of work I’ve ever seen and not just because it made me cry when I watched it back in the day, and if you know me it takes a lot to make these tear ducts run.
As a game, Dead Island strikes entirely the opposite tone of the trailer. There’s no swelling music, there are no touching moments, and there’s no cinematicness at all. What you get is a lot of characters swearing at one another about the need to survive.
And I know there’s a difference between cinematic and gameplay trailers, but this thing was a significant achievement within the industry and even has its own Wikipedia page. It made people feel… disappointment more than anything else.
Shortly after the trailer was released in 2011, the realization dropped that the game wasn’t going to be a narrative-driven masterpiece, so people had to put a positive spin on the game through its “fun” mechanics because Techland likely gave them a bunch of advertising money.
And realizing what they had done, Techland started to change the game to be more reflective of the cinematic trailer or at least telling journalists that they were going to.
One of the game’s brand managers told Ars Technica that there were hoping to establish the tone that the trailer had set where, “You wander around the island and you are the last hope for people that are struggling on the island that are trying to survive, you’re going to meet people and you’re going to [take on] quests and you’re going to help those people that are trying find family members, trying to get in touch with other survivors. So it’s not just walking around fighting all the time, but you will be in this emotional surrounding of the survivors of that island.”
I’ve watched a full let’s play of the game and, as far as I can tell, Techland did absolutely nothing to match the trailer outside of an easter egg where you can find the couple from it in their hotel room sans defenestrated child.
Techland realized the power of their trailer and the expectations they’d set themselves up with, so as much as the trailer is a triumph it also feels like a lesson.
But Dead Island isn’t the only series in the 2010’s making cinematic trailers, which was a growing trend in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Gears of War had long been known for their dramatic trailers including Mad World and The Last Day.
Unlike Dead Island, Gears of War gives their characters some room to grow, which means Augustus Cole goes from this character in the second game:
To this character in the third game where he has a flashback to his life before The Locust Horde showed up:
So while Gears’ trailers are a tad overdramatic, I always felt that the series at least tried to live up to them through their narratives even if it was mostly Dom crying over his dead wife.
An engrossing story can only make a video game better; however, that requires having a writing staff that’s respected during the development process.
So, let’s fast forward a few years and see what Techland has been up to with their trailers.
Dead Island 2 has yet to be released, so we can’t really see if the game will match the tone, but I think this trailer sets up something much easier for the game to actually achieve which is it being a fun, off-kilter shooter.
On the whole, I think game developers understand now that failing to deliver on an engrossing story is as deadly of a sin as a game looking nothing like it does in the trailer.
When I was reviewing games, I was often rebuked for my desire for better stories in games, but we all come to this medium looking for something different.
Dead Island promised something engrossing, but delivered the opposite. Gears of War promised drama, and sometimes the games can be a little dramatic.
Story’s important, y’all.