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The Trouble with Trailers

Developers have learned to deal with violence and difficult themes intelligently and respectfully in recent years - it's time for marketing teams to catch up

Video games have come an incredibly long way as a storytelling medium; not just in terms of the kind of storytelling enabled by technological progress, but in terms of how much the people who design games and their narratives have learned about the possibilities of the medium and how best to let players experience stories within game worlds.

Shooting the bad guys and saving the world is still the bread and butter of many great games, but where developers choose, they can also give us characters and narratives that let us experience and engage with a whole range of complex and difficult topics. Just thinking back over games in my own recently played pile, I can readily name games that have deftly handled themes like love and loss, friendship and loyalty, bigotry and discrimination; each handled in a way unique to video games as a medium, far removed from the clumsy cutscenes that used to be the primary vehicle for such narratives.

"The Last of Us' narrative violence is carefully contextualised and justified at every turn; never simply thrown at the player to shock them"

One genuinely great example of a video game that tackled serious, difficult themes in a way unique to games is Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. The game opened with a violent and shocking scene and spent much of the rest of the game carefully and methodically exploring its impact on the central character and showing that character overcoming the trauma, even in the midst of further violence, through the unhurried, beautifully-paced development of the relationship central to the game.

While The Last of Us falls back on the convenient 'zombies, not people' trope for its gameplay violence, its narrative violence is carefully contextualised and justified at every turn; never simply thrown at the player to shock them and then quickly moved past, as can be the case in other, less well constructed narratives.

What I'm saying here is that Naughty Dog has earned the benefit of the doubt in terms of its understanding of how to use violence in a narrative - even especially shocking or troubling violence.

The degree of violence seen in Paris Games Week's The Last of Us: Part II trailer a few days ago - which starts with a young woman being half-hanged, and proceeds through another being held town and tortured by having her arms broken with a hammer - is gut-wrenching, but in the context of the game itself, will almost certainly be justified by the narrative and handled intelligently in the context of the characters' journeys. Naughty Dog has earned sufficient respect that we should trust they won't throw a horrific scene like that into the game simply to shock, or to try to establish some kind of 'edgy' credentials.

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The latest footage from The Last of Us 2 may serve the overall story, but when showcased out of context it's in danger of doing the final game a disservice

The kicker is this; Naughty Dog has earned that respect. The marketing team that cut together that trailer? They haven't, and they don't deserve it. Sony, as a publisher? I'd love to say they have, because perhaps more than any other publisher they've shown a willingness to really back creators who push games into uncharted waters, narratively and otherwise.

But Sony's marketing has all too often done the company's games a disservice by reaching for the low-hanging fruit of shock tactics and 'look guys, we're so edgy and mature' tropes straight out of a heavy metal obsessed 14-year-old's sketchbook (I may be showing my age here, as I have a suspicion 14-year-olds are now unlikely to be into heavy metal, but you all got the reference so let's quietly ignore our advanced years together).

"Unless The Last of Us: Part II really is a torture-porn extravaganza, the trailer has misrepresented it and its tone"

Building a trailer around that scene almost certainly does TLoU2 a disservice, because unless the game really is a torture-porn extravaganza, the trailer has misrepresented it and its tone - and for many fans of the first game, the implication that this sequel will be darker and bleaker... Well, did anyone really play The Last of Us and think, 'you know, that was great but what it really needed was a bit less hope and humanity'?

More importantly, though, it comes across as rather obnoxious and childish. Picking out what is likely one of the most gruesome scenes in the game and playing it as a trailer, free of context, really just suggests a marketing team that feels like its main goal must be to prove how 'mature' the game is, ticking off 'adult themes' like it's in a feature checklist on the back of the box.

Worse is the fact that this trailer was dropped without warning into the middle of a press event that was live-streamed across Europe at around six in the evening, and filled mostly with kid-friendly games. I roll my eyes at a fair bit of parental outrage over games (my glib, obviously-not-a-parent-myself solution to most of it being "try not buying him a copy of GTAV then?") but I have a hell of a lot of sympathy for a parent who looks away for a few minutes from their kid watching a video of the new Spider-Man game, and when they turn back he's gawping at a woman being held down and having her elbows broken with a hammer.

"Creators are setting out to do justice to the tough themes they've chosen to deal with - but the people who created the trailers have instead thrown them at audiences, begging us to acknowledge how mature it all is"

This isn't an isolated incident, either. The industry has something of an ongoing problem with trailers, and I genuinely think it stems from the fact that marketing teams' ideas about game content have not progressed remotely as much as developers' ideas - or consumers' for that matter.

We've reached a point where games are capable of constructing narratives and context that effectively deal with tough subjects. But whether it's Naughty Dog handling gruesome torture and lynching, or David Cage dealing with themes of child abuse and domestic violence in Detroit, the apparent desperate need to put those things right there in the trailer screams of an earlier era of games, when developers did often set out to shock by pushing at the all-too-tight boundaries of what was permissible, and marketing gleefully ran alongside, building games' profiles by stoking outrage and pearl-clutching.

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There's nothing wrong with David Cage exploring child abuse in his games - perhaps it is to be encouraged - but using such scenes in marketing material is questionable

That's not where we are any more. I don't think for a single second that either the creatives at Naughty Dog or David Cage are setting out to deliberately shock or push boundaries of taste with the themes they're handling in TLoU2 or Detroit; they're tackling those themes for precisely the opposite reason, because they think they can really do them justice in the context of the game, its narrative and its characters. The conversation about whether Cage, a superb game director who has often fallen into the trap of thinking this also makes him a superb writer (call it George Lucas Syndrome) has the narrative and character chops to handle those themes effectively is a whole other discussion.

The point is that the creators are setting out to do justice to the tough themes they've chosen to deal with - but the people who created and okayed the trailers have instead stripped the most unpleasant expression of those themes of context and thrown them at audiences as if begging us to acknowledge how gods-damned mature it all is.

This needs to stop; it does no favours to the games themselves, it turns off parts of the potential audience and it brings us circling back around to a conversation about violence and content that was mostly resolved years ago. It's not a question of what games can or can't depict; it's a question of how you make a good trailer that properly represents a game and does it justice.

No trailer for a big movie would pick its most violent or troubling scene and just let it play out; in fact, even trailers for very violent or sexually explicit R-rated movies are generally (with the exception of Red Band trailers) suitable for all audiences, alluding to their violent or sexual content without actually showing it in all its gory glory. That's because movie trailer creators, for all their faults, understand that the point of a trailer is to tantalise; to give the audience a hint of the tone, a glimpse of the characters and a suggestion of the story, just enough to fascinate and make you want more.

All too often, game trailer creators instead want to show you how far their game pushes its violence, or how 'adult' its themes are. It's an approach that lacks confidence in the medium and in its audience. It can make sense in a trailer for a game that needs a shot of controversy to lift its profile (Dead Island's famous trailer likely served that purpose well), but for the likes of Sony blockbuster titles, it's misplaced, unnecessary, in poor taste and likely harmful to the games themselves.

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Latest comments (6)

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments15 days ago
There's also an issue of "spoilers" here? Presumably the scene from TLOU2 was designed to fit into it's narrative and ramp up the story - everyone going "ah, this is the bit from the trailer" will diminish that somewhat?
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James Batchelor UK Editor, GamesIndustry.biz15 days ago
@Neil Young: Very true, although marketers rarely seem to worry about spoilers - just sales. To use a film example, Sam Mendez reportedly didn't want the villain of Skyfall to be seen in promotional footage at all so his reveal 1hr40m in would be a surprise. But Javier Bardem's entrance was all over the trailers, all to get bums on seats.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions15 days ago
It was utterly idiotic. To your point Naughty Dog has earned a great deal of storytelling respect over the years and one trailer on the back of Amy Hennig no longer being there suddenly throws that into disarray. Whoever decided this was a good idea needs either placing in a creche for the week or moved somewhere out of harms way. I've no doubt the quality of the game and the assets they have mean Sony/ND can rescue this situation but my $60 just disappeared from their coffers for now, I would hope along with many others. The even more bizarre thing is surely they could have learned from the reaction (and subsequent audience drop) to the Walking Dead Negan piece at the start of the season that torture porn turns more people off than on.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios15 days ago
Really thoughtful piece, Rob. Good to make the distinction between the development team and the marketing department, although you would hope Naughty Dog have some input into the choice of trailer content...
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 15 days ago
I think it would have been worse if the trailer was a bunch of sneaking around scenes and some world establishing shots. Imagine paying money for such a game to then come home and find out it includes a torture porn movie. This way, you at least know that TLoU2 is the game for people who think Walking Dead cuts away too often and Ash vs. Evil Dead would be better if it hadn't any humor.

I will pin this on the marketing when the end credits of that game roll and they list a PR person as the head script writer. Until then, it was Naughty Dog's choice to write that scene, for whatever reason. I promise, it will not get better in context.

Why? Just look at it. We have one woman who got her arm smashed by a hammer, another one who choked on a rope for a minute longer than necessary and still the trailer ends on "get ready, cut to monster, fight". There you can see, this is just a game where you kill zombies (and/or certified bad persons) care free while occasionally watching some cut-scenes aimed at your emotional weak spots. Context will not change the nature of the scene, only your emotional involvement and willingness to defend it for reasons unknown to me. Cinematics, whose events are suspended the minute the gameplay of sneaking and stabbing takes back over. You would be a fool investing the slightest amount of emotion into such characters.

PR took the scene and created a well measured shit storm that merely expanded the reach of the initial video by means of controversy. Sony PR certainly did not show it during the Champions League half time break and bet on a 24h news channel to do their dirty work of spreading the signal. It is another well contained attention grab inside the video game website echo chamber. Tip to the hat for that at least.
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Jan Almqvist Senior Level Artist, Ubisoft Quebec City14 days ago
Haha I can't believe you guys are getting so butthurt over a trailer :). #TLoUme2

In any case, I think ND are pretty much autonomous when it comes to how their games are marketed. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Neil edited this trailer himself. And they are getting exactly the reaction they expected.
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