By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
The neglected art
ne of the most overlooked and under-appreciated elements of the cinematic experience is the fine art of the preview trailer. Some people consider them a nuisance, something to be ignored as one engages in conversation with one's neighbor while others, including myself, would gladly sit and watch two hours of trailers, happily devouring popcorn. There are even those poor rapid editing starved wretches who will pay to get into a film just because they heard a particularly interesting preview is accompanying the show. (Yes, yes I admit it...I paid to see Alien:Resurrection a second time only to watch an X-Files trailer, leaving after it was over.) There is a happy medium between these two positions and that is too simply understand the trailer as an art unto itself with its own specific conventions of form.
Even the casual viewer can notice the difference between a well designed trailer which manages to genuinely intrigue the viewer and one that feels simply slotted into an industry clown suit, a prefabricated guidebook of how to reach the lowest common denominator. For those who have seen them a good example might be the differences between the trailers for Dark City and Practical Magic. Dark City's trailer maximizes its use of image, music and text while the Practical Magic preview drowns in cliched gags and cheap sentimentality...replete with the latest radio chart topper for all the kids to swing to...
Now what does this have to do with videogames you might ask? Well the fact is that cinematic videogames often have a trailer-like sequence either as the main attraction, as in last weeks game Wipeout XL, or as a subsidiary of a narrative storyline, a la Resident Evil 2. They are a quick, effective way of situating the player, occasionally providing narrative information but usually going for the one-two visual punch. The very best trailers, in both videogames and film, really challenge and work with the various tools at their disposal.
A good trailer understands its own unique temporal constraints. It can be long or short, sparse or epic; length and scope is relative. What is important is that the overall feel suits the material, sets a specific pace and approach to best present the concerns of the game/film. For example the Dark City trailer mentioned earlier makes a choice not to use voiceover narration until the very end and then only to ominously intone the title; it does not telegraph the action, editing images and text in a vague pattern to mimic dreams, something which fits the material perfectly. Whatever one's opinions on the film, most people who see the trailer are at least slightly intrigued if only because everything feels so integrated.
Tekken 3, developed by Namco, leans heavily on film trailer tricks-of-the-trade but also manages to find its own voice. The game is a fight simulator, a martial arts war of contesting characters caught up in a strange little quest. The cinematic sequence is a trailer, the main purpose of which is to introduce the characters. The first pieces of text remind the player that this is a game in a series, the next piece of an odd narrative progression the understanding of which seems just out of reach. The text elements are pulled directly from David Fincher's but are still effective if only because their derivative nature is superceded by the inventive overall approach.
The characters are introduced in pieces of various length and at various stages of coherence. The intriguing thing about the cinematic sections of Tekken 3 is that the designers know that most of the players are somewhat familiar with the characters already. Therefore they can just show the menacing spiky gray haired crime boss intercut with brief flashes of the greater evil, a character called The Ogre, to set the old associations up and running. We watch a series of scenes unfold at a rapid pace. Some scenes are mere tableaux in which the character strikes a pose and others create mini dramas in their own right, showing things not even addressed in the overall contest "narrative." The one example that stands out is the sequence depicting the character Eddie's escape from jail.
As Eddie awaits a beating from the guards a strange old man, obviously rehearsed in the martial arts, comes running into the frame eliminating the guards. This old coot, although on the screen for half a second, seems to hint at a deeper story, something the game will not talk about but which increases interest in character. A skillful preview raises questions. The gang who worked on this Tekken 3 trailer also understand their temporal boundaries. The show slides by at a pace appropriate to the subject matter, the speed of martial arts combat. The entire piece feels well integrated, a fragment hinting at so much more.
By deciding to copy the trailer format the cinematic section of Tekken 3 was buying into a proud heritage. It more than lives up to the standards which separate the common grasp for stereotypes and cliches and the piece which understands itself enough to manipulate the common strands into something beyond the ordinary.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.