I don't play video games all that much, but I watch a whole lotta video game trailers.
My gamer friends tell me that's bonkers — video game trailers usually suck, they claim. So then I inquire about the ontology of said suck — what makes them so sucky?
I expect the answer will be "Because there's no controller," as I imagine hardcore gamers wish to manipulate reality with a joystick at all times. But instead they usually say some version of "Because they're too much like movies."
But that's exactly why I like them!
Or rather, I'm interested in how video game trailers are like movies while at the same time being nothing like movies. They are disorienting art forms, because in yanking the controller out of your hand, they create a new opportunity to invent the language of video.
My fascination probably began with the trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2. In 2001 (OMFG!), these nine minutes played out like a magical new form of narrative potential:
You… could make… a movie… with videogames!
Of course, that potential became a movement, machinima, which in the early 2000s seemed like the future — robots create cinema.
Then in 2006 came the amazing Gear of War trailer, which pushed back against the machines by using classic cinematic technique and a lugubrious soundtrack. It seemed to viscerally connect with people because it felt so much like a film yet didn't look like a film. Part of its brilliance was using a song that you probably remembered from the Donnie Darko soundtrack, a cover of a Tears for Fears tune that in itself probably reminded you of the original. It was a layered sandwich of remembrance. (If you're into the sad-music-with-dramatic-narrative genre, check out 2011's Dead Island trailer, which is something like if Spike Jonze directed an episode of Walking Dead.)
While video game trailers were becoming interesting forms of art unto themselves, movie trailers were becoming hackneyed marketing vehicles. Can you remember a movie trailer in recent history that seemed amazing as a stand-alone piece of cinema? To remind yourself of how movie trailers were once art forms unto themselves, take a glimpse back at those for North By Northwest, The Third Man, or Bananas. (A rare modern exception of ingenuity might be The Social Network's trailer, which, like Gear of War, used the nostalgic dissonance of a cover song — a children's chorus singing Radiohead's "Creep," in this case — to create dramatic tension.)
So whereas movie trailers have become trite clip reels, video game trailers have become something completely different: Their own cinematic language.
The trailer for Heavy Rain is a masterful example. It borrows a byproduct of the film industry — the casting video — as an opportunity for narrative. It's almost like the trailer is saying, "We can invent a whole universe out of the stuff you leave on the cutting room floor."
This post can't neglect mentioning the most cinematic game series ever, Grand Theft Auto. The series seemed most ingenious when it referenced experimental cinema, such as with "Things Will Be Different" from GTA IV, which pinched its style from Koyaanisqatsi. More recently, such as with the trailer for GTA V, the stark realism looks amazing, but it falls flat on narrative originality. It feels too much like a movie trailer.
At this moment, gamer culture is pumped about the trailer for Halo 4. The trailers for the Halo franchise have uniquely mixed live action with gameplay to raise tension — Halo 3: ODST's trailer is a great example. When the fantastic new gamer site Polygon launched a couple weeks ago, the lead video was the mashup History of Halo. Unlike anything else in the cineplex right now, it seems to signal yet another separation from film and the further development of its own visual language.
I might even play this one.