Cinematic Trailers; The Art of a Beautiful Lie



So there I was, mesmerized by the video playing on the screen in front of me. Like a child of the 50’s glued to their favorite radio program before bedtime, I was in a trance. I was watching my dream come true. The thought this type of game had eluded me for years, but now it was finally in my grasp. In a few short months, I would be able to l play the first true zombie game I’d seen. Forget Left 4 Dead; this game promised to be a visceral experience. The paterfamilias of zombie games. Here was a game that portrayed a family caught in the turmoil of a deadly outbreak and the tragic results that befell them, or at least that’s what the cinematic trailer portrayed.

Several months later, I found the out the cold truth. Deep Silver’s Dead Island. What had once been the zombie promise land was simply a hack a slash that lacked any real ambition or story. In fact, the scene from the trailer was reduced to a fleeting reference.

This is what I call the cinematic lie; a trailer that’s full of promising concepts and interesting characters, but fails to deliver when the final product hits the shelves.

Several months before the launch of a game, producers launch a barrage of trailers for their upcoming title. Most trailers launched at this point in the game’s lifecycle focus heavily on CGI, cinematic, and live action. It’s understandable since the game is probably still in development or deep in production. But recent years have seen a relatively harmless means of promoting an upcoming game replaced by a free-for-all of lies and misdirection that even Michael Bay doesn’t have the nerves to pull off.

This has become a growing trend. With the advent of better computer software and money made available by producers holding dozens of studios under their umbrella, targeted advertising is becoming easier and easier by the day. Every game that exceeds market expectations funds the advertising of another project. And thus a cycle forms. The producers show the gamer exactly what the games wants to see. The gamer’s purchase the games and find they’ve been conned. The beautiful trailer they watched over and over is a pipe dream. The producers get the gold mine and the gamer’s get the shaft.

The worst part of the cycle comes next; the gamer forgets, and the cycle is allowed to repeat.

“What’s the big deal,” you might ask. For most people, research isn’t the quintessential means to determine their purchasing habits. On the other hand, trailers are readily available, easy to find, and streamed right into you’re cranium via the ol’ cathode ray machine. That same audience can’t afford, or chooses not to buy every game that hits the shelves. This means that at some point, what you see isn’t going to be what you get.

Producers and developers know that everything I’ve told you is true. While speaking at DICE 2013, Jesse Schell, CEO of Puzzles Clubhouse, said the following; “When you put the demo out, people have seen the trailer and they’re like, ‘That’s cool’ and they make a plan ‘I gotta try that game.’ And then when they’ve played the demo, ‘Alright, I’ve tried that game, that was okay, alright, I’m done.’ In his presentation, he presented numbers that indicated that games that only showed gamer’s a trailer, yet offered no demo sold twice as well as those with a demo.

Consider for a moment the consequences of advertising without merit.

Peter Molyneux, once director of Lionhead Studios and the mind behind the Fable series, confessed, “I could name at least 10 features in games that I’ve made up to stop journalists going to sleep…” While this confession remains vague, it begs the question; how many of these lies found their way into Fable’s advertising campaign? After all, this was the man who was the creative director, and public face of the Fable series. It should also be noted that the bulk of Fable’s advertising pre-launch was done through cinematic trailers, which can easily allow further exaggeration.

Let’s look at my favorite example; Mass Effect 3. The entire advertising campaign focused on the slogan “Take Earth Back.” No fewer than three cinematic trailers (one rendered with an expanded edition) and a live action trailers were launched. Interviews were held. Questions were answered. Pre-orders were purchased. And when the smoke cleared, one of the biggest campaigns against a game in history was launched.

Anyone who paid attention to any news source at the time (even Forbes chimed in for this one) realized the game’s anti-climactic ending wasn’t that well received by fans. By ‘wasn’t well received,’ what I mean is that fans launched a campaign to change the ending that raised $80,000 and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for failure to deliver on advertised promises. Fans of the series were left with more questions than answers. The advertisements, the CGI, the promises made by the game’s director and the studio’s owners were simply hot air.

As with the case of Mass Effect 3, terms like ‘creative license’ and ‘artistic vision’ were thrown around. Unfortunately, producers don’t have the luxury of hiding behind these glass walls. This is an unacceptable practice for producers who point to spread sheets and ask why sales are falling. Gamer’s are simply tired of being lied to. While developers and producers are certainly entitled to refer to their games as work of art, they are also accepting responsibility for delivering a product. We wouldn’t pay for a brake job on a car only to find that we had been charged for top-of-the-line parts and received the bare minimum. When a producer launches an embellished cinematic trailer, no matter what their intentions, they are guilty of the same thing, and are responsible for crafting nothing more than a beautiful lie. Advertisements like those used for Dead Island, Brink, Fable, the first Assassin’s Creed, Dragon Age 2, etc. are all culprits.


For all of you looking for my G.I Joe knowing-is-half-the-battle moment, here it is; look before you leap. It’s that simple. Wait for game demos. Read reviews before purchasing your games. Look at actual game play videos before deciding to buy.

Two studios that are doing a great job of proving themselves to gamer’s are Naughty Dog and 2K Games. Naughty Dog previewed almost 8 minutes of its upcoming title “The Last of Us,” which is readily available to be viewed on YouTube. Despite numerous setbacks, 2K has kept fans up to date with new developments and changes to “BioShock: Infinite” through trailers composed entirely of in-game footage. If you’ve ever wanted to see game evolution, there’s your chance. Furthermore, Ubisoft seems to have learned the virtue of being honest as well, previewing 8 minutes of game play from both “Assassin’s Creed 3” and “Splinter Cell: Blacklist.” Parents can also see some of the most intense moments of game play their children will be exposed to (as these are the moment often featured) simply by doing a search through Google or YouTube for their child’s game of choice while including the words “game play” or “in-game” in the search parameters.

As always, stay tuned for reviews and news from us here at iGame Responsibly, where we’re committed to providing you with the most up to date, accurate information possible to help you make you buying decisions. After all, the last thing you want is to be the guy standing in line at GameStop selling back your copy of “Aliens: Colonial Marines.”

 Author: Jimmy W Sharp

Dylan Zellmer

I split time between games journalism and making video games. My love of it’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), fitness and my family define me otherwise.