The art of the trailer: how videogame trailer editors hook us in

Trailers are every video game developer’s the first line of offense when it comes to advertising their new game. They are every potential player’s first introduction to the gameplay, the story, the artstyle, and the characters— which is a challenge. It can be a tall order for a trailer to accurately convey everything that a game is about.

“It has to be perfect, absolutely perfect because it’s watched by millions,” said Kuldeep Shah, Senior Trailer Editor at Hammer Creative. They’ve cut trailers for major franchises including The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Bioshock Infinite, and Batman: Arkham Knight.

As games compete with the countless other hours of media we consume on our cell phones, TVs, and other devices, a trailer may be a video game’s only shot at getting itself onto your hard drive. In order to break through the white noise, a trailer needs to create an emotional impact or narrative impression that stays with viewers after the trailer ends.

When freelance editor Derek Lieu took on the task of creating the E3 trailer for Firewatch, he tried to create a story that emphasized what made Campo Santo’s wilderness adventure stand out. He decided to use Firewatch’s humor to grab viewer’s interest with a cold open.

“I wanted to have the opening where Henry’s in the cave and he’s joking with [Delilah], pretending he’s in trouble, he’s like ‘Woah! But seriously it’s fine in here,’” Lieu said. “It tells you a lot about the characters, a little bit about the gameplay, and it’s funny.”

That moment took up 12 seconds of a 60 second trailer. How was he going to give viewers a meaningful taste of the game with the remaining 48 seconds?

Firewatch puts you in control of Henry as he takes on the Wyoming wilderness as a fire lookout during the summer of 1989. It weaves a convincing friendship between two lookouts as strange occurrences convince them that something mysterious is hiding in the forest around them.

Lieu wanted to show some of the game’s exciting moments without misrepresenting its calm and suspenseful tone. He recorded moments from all parts of the game that were ambiguous enough to leave viewers hungry for more.

“You can’t tell a specific story in a trailer, [and yet] the story beats in the trailer have to match the original property,” Lieu said. “You need to give a broad view and tell them the premise with a little plot twist to leave some suspense.”

We see Henry pulling an axe out of a tree, running into a downed power line, and taking in gorgeous Wyoming landscapes. The trailer creates tension as bits of dialogue and music build, leading up to Delilah seeing someone else standing in your lookout tower.

“We kind of cheated with the ‘there is someone in your tower right now’ moment, it’s technically not in the game,” Lieu said. “In the game you’re in the woods [when Delilah sees someone else in your tower], and it wouldn’t be very dramatic if you turned around and saw trees.”

Lieu worked with the developers to select a moment specifically for the trailer so it wouldn’t spoil it for the full game. Giving Henry a direct line of sight to his tower gave the moment more weight, ending the trailer on a high note.

Millions watched Firewatch’s trailer during Sony’s E3 press conference, many of those viewers were seeing the game for the first time. Lieu captured a balance that provided just enough mystery to convince those viewers to check the game out.

Other games don’t have the advantage of using a mysterious narrative to build tension. They have to rely on the raw emotion within their game to convince viewers that it’s worth exploring.

“The goal of the whole trailer is to capture a person’s curiosity and create an emotional impression,” said Joshua Cauller, the trailer editor for That Dragon, Cancer. “One of the most important things is creating questions in people’s minds.”

That Dragon, Cancer follows the story of a child’s battle with terminal cancer, based on two of the game’s creators’ real life experience with their son. It captures the emotional highs and lows of going through that traumatic experience.

How do you represent a topic that many may find overwhelming? “By capturing the emotional journey of the game, the players’ emotional journey,” Cauller said. “And that can be hard because you have to bring them to a point where they can read what is happening.”

Cauller urged the player to understand the world he was exhibiting by presenting its solemn tone with the introduction of Joel, the child in question, in front of Jon Hillman’s emotive score and various pieces of narration.

“It all came together around one scene where [Joel’s] doctor says, ‘I’m sorry guys, it’s not good.’” Cauller said. “But at the same time using that as a bridge to the game’s emotional core: joy. Which is really hard to get to with a game about terminal cancer.”

The mood slowly becomes more optimistic, showcasing moments of parental joy where Joel is bouncing up and down in his crib and giggling as he swings back and forth on the playground.

That Dragon, Cancer’s trailer is a unique example of a beautifully constructed trailer conveying the emotion found within a completely unique experience not often seen in gaming. And at the same time, nothing was spoiled. Few moments felt like they would have less effect when playing the game after being seen in the trailer. It had players asking questions about the game.

“That’s the whole essence of a good trailer; you’re creating the impression that [the viewer owns] the question of ‘what is this game and why do I want to play it?’” Cauller said. “But you’re actually building that question within them.”