Dimension Drive’s Trailers: new eyes to new mechanics

One of the most fun challenges of my job (as a trailer craftsman) is when a game has original mechanics that are tricky to communicate. They lead to a difficult question:

“How do we show this?”

That conundrum was the biggest reason I loved working on multiple trailers for Dimension Drive: a game that splits your attention into two halves (and eventually unifies into one dual set of realities). One half is where your ship is, the other is where your ship will be. Each dimension is separate, but connected. And your core arcade shooter rules apply: avoid enemies and their fire, shoot them when possible. It’s not the hardest thing to describe verbally, but showing it effectively required a little bit of editorial gymnastics.

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Today, the game is out on Nintendo Switch.

Since the game has a great story mode, I wanted to bring all of its parts (story, differentiating mechanic, and core mechanics) together in a single opening scene. We ran into a lot of hurdles along the way — not the least of which is that cutting away to other shots in a dual-screen visual is particularly tricky unless there’s some background contrast. So, we changed-up shot-distances, faked a few transitions, and tried to make it flow evenly and quickly.

In those early draft stages, I didn’t find that the unique mechanics were coming across. So I got a bit didactic to make sure the framing narrative worked. Fortunately, we had amazing voice talent to carry my “boil it down for me” script. But I may have dialed too far into “let’s make sure they get this.” While we turned-down the explanations for our subsequent trailers for the game, I think this “Over-Explaining” approach was essential for moving forward. If you’re trying to figure out how to showcase what’s special about your game, I think that’s a key takeaway:

“Go full kindergarten teacher, before you trim your candy-coating”

You can see in our Early Access trailer, how I didn’t pull any Kindergarten teacher punches (er, maybe gentle repetitions is a better metaphor), but the hyper-emphatic gameplay framing makes sure that the audience really gets it.

Players take at least half an hour of playing Dimension Drive before they’re able to really see both sides of the screen in unison. But I wanted to somehow simulate that sense of control, by giving just a hint of camera focus, and precise cuts to make sure it feels like your eyes aren’t darting all over the screen (more than they should). This camera-and-cut granularity worked with the voice acting and boss battle sequence in a way that added-up. As a result, we ended up with a pretty meaty trailer (over two minutes long).

When  Nintendo gave us the thumbs-up to make the Switch announcement. It was a perfect time to ask:

“Okay, what can we trim-off of here?”

We only shaved off 18 seconds by shaving-out some of the more didactic explanations of the mechanics for the Switch Announcement version. A lot of comments on the YouTube video still questioned how it worked. So it confirms for me that still, some people won’t get all of what the game does unless you spell it out for them.

Nevertheless, we got what we came for. We needed to move on—and highlight what’s really important:

“SHOW ME THE ACTION!”

For the launch trailer, we wanted to get to the good stuff as fast as possible. So I had to quickly find shorthand for the mechanical framework. Again, I drew from my inner Kindergarten teacher: and said, “Let’s just repeat the opening mechanic eight times!” But we did this to the stylish beats of José Mora-Jiménez as a bit of a charge-up action before the real stuff kicks off. Essentially, we framed the differentiating mechanic in 6 seconds and then let the action drive itself.

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José soundtrack turned into the trailer’s spine for my edits.

José was a real pro. I probably sounded less like a kindergarten teacher and more like a Kindergartner explaining an action movie — describing how I thought the trailer should sound. He just nodded and smiled as I did all this, me not knowing if he was just thinking I was a crazy kid or if there was a method to all my literal ramblings and vocal sound effects. But somehow he knocked it our of the park! Satisfied my vision perfectly, brought his amazing talent to the table, and made the perfect base layer for the action story we were showcasing. The key for me was nailing that intro so it feels like we’re able to set the mechanical foundation in 8 seconds. But he made something perfect and complete in every way. So it mostly started to just fall in place after that.

Other trailer editors may disagree with me, but this is what I believe:

“When you fill your literacy gap, your edits can flow from instinct.”

You kind of just feel where things go—how to smack hard, into the action—or where to force a point. You can kind of just let the music drive, and place the shots where the rhythm lead you.

There’s always more refinements from there, but when you have your core edit, the fine tuning is all you have left (though that often is “the final 90%”).  Still, I think that captures how we assembled this final Launch trailer.

That should help you out if your game is hard to show: just put all your eggs in the literacy basket until it fully resonates with new audiences. Then, feel free to go wild!

“But don’t forget about the fun.”

There’s a bit of a test at the end of the process: does the game still come across as fun? As I discussed in my Echo article yesterday, capturing fun is an elusive task. Every player’s tastes vary: one man’s fun can be another’s torture. But playing the game now that it’s done, it’s clear to me that the game delivers a tension that made me want to lean-in.  I have had so much enjoyment with the experience, and I can see that gleaned-at in our trailers. It’s more than enough to abate my fears. 

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It’s been a long journey for the 2Awesome Team. It takes a ton of effort to make a game with such a distinct mechanic — that really stands-out in the minds and imaginations of players. I hope it catches your eye if you see it on Steam and the Switch eShop.

ECHO’s amazing launch trailer—and the difficulty capturing “fun.”

I just finished Ultra Ultra’s ECHO this morning, and wow! It’s something special: there’s truly nothing like it. The closest thing you could say is that it’s if a bunch of Hitman developers really loved the film Moon, and managed to build an entire science fiction universe using only one on-screen character—who is also all of the enemies.

I bought it because the trailer was so great:

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the game as much as the trailer. When I say I finished the game, that’s a partial truth: instead of playing through the last two difficult chapters, I just skimmed them on YouTube and watched the ending. Because everything about the game is great, except that, it wasn’t as fun as I had hoped.

The stealth survival horror mechanics are tight, and everything you hear and see in the game has an elegant beauty unlike anything else. But I lost my draw to completing the objectives in the game. Maybe it was one too many cases of, “Find all thirty-two blue orbs to unlock the gate, while being hunted by your echoes.” Or how the plot lost its lure of, “Why are these echoes here and why do they look like me?” Also, I never got an answer on “What really is this place?” Instead all dialogue between your character En, and her AI companion, London, focuses on her relationship to an off-screen (and off-script) character named Foster, who we only hear her talk about. It’s not much of a carrot on a stick.

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The trailer is still a front-runner for my favorite trailer I’ve seen this year. I’m here to talk about what makes the it truly exceptional, highlight that elusive secret sauce it may be lacking, and how devs can learn from this trailer / game relationship. So here we go!

“What are the trailer’s two strongest hooks?”

There’s two: (1) the beautiful framing mystery, and (2) the fresh new mechanics.

The mystery framed in the launch trailer is among the best of any game trailer I’ve ever seen. Right off the bat, we’re wondering why any of the things we’re seeing are happening, and where the story is going. The voice of the AI, London, makes it sound like he’s a trustworthy companion. And when En says, “It seems familiar, somehow…” that line evokes a powerful twist and reveal that we as the would-be player just want to unearth. Then there’s empty space of just taking-in the beauty of the mysterious palace setting. The mystery gains an extra potent layer when En meets the forming echoes of herself that then attack her. Color me intrigued.

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The new mechanics get framed through this mystery (another brilliant choice) where you discover “they do what I do, the learn from me.” while we’re punctuated with shots of all the mechanical verbs. The action takes over, the music ramps-up. And we have just enough time to realize that this “teach your enemies” gameplay is really special.

The trailer then alludes to En’s ambition with restoring this Foster fellow (which I never remembered). I’m more interested in seeing how the gameplay verbs play out. The trailer ends on a creepy mysterious blank stare coming from En while she asks, “Foster, are you doing this?” Her pupils contract. And we land on the feeling of “WTF is going on here?”

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This was enough for me to get the game and want to play through all of it, even when I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to find out where the mystery led. So, for that: the trailer is beyond excellent. It’s what kept me playing the game, even when the game itself lost its lure of mystery.

“What’s the trailer missing?”

In a word: fun. Admittedly, this is a terrible and elusive word that can mean next to nothing, but that’s why it’s so hard to get at—especially with a trailer. The trailer certainly captures tense and gratifying moments from the game: pulling off a last-minute shot, getting away from enemies, and enjoying mechanical tension. But I don’t know if it effectively says, “you will enjoy this game.”

Truth be told, most game trailers don’t—or can’t—effectively convey this. But that’s why trying is so important.

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Many developers say that their games aren’t fun for most of development—and may never get to that fun factor at all. Even more difficult is making sure that a game is continuously fun.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with Echo. It’s earliest teaching moments were where I had a big goofy grin on my face. But I fear Echo is more innovative than it is enjoyable. As such, it’s incredibly difficult to nail down the brief windows of fun in the experience overall—especially in the trailer. But I think that Ultra Ultra did the very best that was possible with what they had.

“What’s the trailer takeaway for devs?”

I don’t think mystery and innovation is enough to secure the confidence in your audience for your game. I used to think that differentiation, quality production, and emotional impact were enough to grab your would-be players’ attention in a trailer, but now I’d suggest that if there’s any way to really ensure the most-fun parts of your game are what we land on, maybe there’s a stronger way to convey this.

It’s a long hard question that’s not easily solved in the trailer crafting process, but one that should effectively haunt you: “How can we show that our game is fun?”

Thoughts on Axiom Verge (and its trailer)

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What makes Axiom Verge great

Axiom Verge sits near the top of my list of Switch games for two reasons: It subverts what powers you’d expect to get next, and it turns a video game essential into a framing device. First, it turns its unique save system into a major plot point. No spoiling, but imagine the potential of an egg shaped save station. Any time you die, the egg regenerates you: the “you” who just died. You remember everything up to your death — and get to keep all your new progress since the last time you saved.

In other games, death is a rewind or a “No, no, no. That’s not how it happened.” Then the story picks up as if your last actions never happened. In Axiom Verge, it did happen: you died and were reanimated in a Rebirth Chamber. That death is a part of your story.

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Shadow of Mordor uses this similar kind of death-remembering mechanic to frame its famous Nemesis system: while you are reanimating from death, the orc who killed you got a major promotion, maybe changed the whole orc hierarchy / ecosystem. Axiom Verge’s deaths don’t change everything, though: they go for something far more subtle.

Subtle implication seems the chief aim in Axiom Verge: the 8-bit-inspired graphical language suggests definition of every unsettling alien creature in the game’s hostile world. And of course this fares more loudly when you get your reliable secondary weapon: a wave of pure-glitch that reduces enemies to their bugged-out state. That’s all well and good, but the most disquieting element of the game is your monolithic alien-village-sized allies, the Rusalki. In fact, much as Axiom’s greatest mechanical influence is Super Metroid, it goes over Metroid’s head, direct to its inspiration: HR-Giger’s work in Alien. Thus, every encounter with life forms aches at a subtle sense of horror.

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Tools and weapons serve-up this same trend of subtle subversion: Want to turn into a ball so you can fit into those itty bitty tunnels? How about a “cute” mite drone. See that ledge just out of reach? Need a double jump, right? Nope. Here’s a weird grapple claw shooting out of your body (I think). Need a new gun to bust through that wall in your way? Nah. You get a brown trench coat with a short two-tile teleport. You’re welcome.

Axiom Verge subverts whatever new mechanic you’re expecting. That’s the chief reason why I kept playing.

What makes the trailer great

Let’s take a look at what Marlon Weibe did with the PS4 Launch trailer (which was used as a foundation for the others):

I just want to draw attention to a few moments. The first is the establishing shot: three simultaneous close ups of a bunch of science devices—with sound effects. This defines the “Axiom” name subtly by saying “it’s science stuff…” Narrative puzzle solved. Next, they establish the Egg save pods and perspective of the game—very smart, subtle way to establish the game’s genre. But that’s not enough, so there’s some basic jumping right after that. Genre established. Now you can do whatever. And that’s what Marlon does: focus on the game’s cut-scene art and press quotes.

The smartest thing about this first Jeff Gerstman quote is how it establishes that narrative surprise with better words than they could ever use. Gerstman says, “You think you know how Axiom Verge will play out. You don’t.” This is gold, because it adds credibility to the game that it couldn’t say or establish on it’s own. It’s undoubtedly why Happ and Weibe elected to go the press quote route. If you can’t say things well yourself, use other’s voices.

My biggest takeaway is the purposeful use of over-zoomed shots. The 300% zoomed-in shots where we see the player drilling, launching and activating a mite drone, or using short-range teleport to hop through walls. These mechanics don’t make sense to new eyes from a distance, so getting super close like this says, “You might not get why this is special yet, but trust me, it’s really a special tool that’s super different.”

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The last several shots (from 0:40-0:50) are ten shots in ten seconds. They’re far too quick for you to wrap your mind around them, but they’re there for one core reason: variety. They subconsciously say, “This game has a lot of action and variety.” And it’s relatively easy to throw a ton of shots into a trailer quick and call it a day, but Marlon’s composition here shows a deep understanding of shot-pairing harmony. It takes time to get this right, but it’s essential if you want to communicate depth and longevity to the game experience (the viewing player’s question of the value proposition).

The value proposition is an excellent place to end the trailer before the logo reveal, because it’s a close direct link to the viewer’s wallet. There’s other valuable ways of addressing this (I’m a fan of the “make them feel a powerful emotion they want to feel” approach), but this “Variety and Value” approach is Old Reliable for a Reason.

Axiom Verge is on just about everything, so if you have a way to play video games consider this a recommendation!

Thoughts on Tacoma (and its trailers)

If you’ll indulge me, I’d love to talk about the game, Tacoma. After completing the game a few times, talking to Steve Gaynor, writing about the game’s relationship mechanics, and reading-up on Derek Lieu’s process for both trailers, I think I get what’s really special about the game.

Tacoma’s critical consensus seems to be, “it won’t make the same impact as Gone Home.” But it would be a shame if we didn’t celebrate Tacoma on its own terms: that of its unique medium for connecting with the characters.

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An article

In Introverts Welcome: A reflection on Tacoma, I said:

Tacoma’s body-frame recordings are so special to me: I can engage, rewind, process them. I dream of the future where I can receive a recording from a friend or loved one that I can watch over and over, feel connected while not feeling like I have to immediately know what to say.

This creates an imaginative playground—that opens my mind to the possibilities of this new form of interpersonal communication. While I’m more-present with this in-game character than any game experience I can recall, I’m also daydreaming about the future of communication preferences for introverts like me.

There’s something beautiful about being able to feel connected to others, while also not being forced into being present with them, but rather electing to be there.

You can read the full piece if you like.

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An interview

Motivations for designing a game like this really matters to me. So I was deeply excited when my buddy Drew told me Steve Gaynor wanted to come back onto our show to talk about what led to the design of Tacoma after his team’s work on Gone Home — and how his beliefs affected that. I was curious how they wove a story that diverged away from popular “Us vs Them” narratives. Be sure to add that interview to your podcast player of choice.

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A trailer-crafting reflection

Since trailers are why you’re here, and what you want to think about, I’ll say that first-person narrative games are clearly Derek Lieu’s wheelhouse (especially after his work on Firewatch). So his writeup on the game capture process is pretty valuable, especially since it highlights what made Tacoma’s Launch Day trailer such a joy to craft. In Derek’s words:

At any point during playback you can pause, rewind or fast-forward the recordings. It’s necessary to do this because you can only hear conversations in your immediate vicinity. For game capture purposes, this meant at the press of a button I could rewind a scene, change the camera angle, and get a new take with a different shot composition.

Derek goes on to highlight the unique way he applied the Rule of Thirds, and some physical solutions for recording gameplay that way. I recommend reading his whole post.

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Derek also had the opportunity to make a shorter Launch Trailer for the game, and provides some sage advice for rapid turnaround, that largely comes back to game and project familiarity. Derek says:

I managed to do this on a Sunday in about 7 hours (with some breaks for food/cats etc.), with only a few small tweaks the day after. My familiarity with the game greatly expedited my edit/capture creative decisions, otherwise I never would’ve considered taking on a project with so little time available.

That blog post is also very worth reading, as he details a bit more about giving the audience “a bit more about the universe, and set it to pretty images and music.”

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A recommendation

I loved this game, and I would encourage anybody thinking about a first-person-narrative game trailer to study this game and the trailer resources around it. Tacoma is available now on PC and Xbox One.  

A game trailer craft overview podcast

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I recently had the pleasure of showing up on the Wardcast, a game business podcast hosted by indie game dev, Dylan Ilvento (Peak). We talked about a lot of things, but I’m recommending it for anybody who’s starting to think about their game’s trailer. I talk a lot about the importance of capturing a players emotional journey — and how one does that.

Listen in to this episode or subscribe to the Wardcast.

Topping out at one hour and seven minutes, it’s a listen ideal for a drive or a workout. But Dylan is a great host, so he draws the best trailercraft information out. Plug it into your Podcast player of choice. Let me know if you like it!

Humility: Quick Tip (The Mortician’s Tale)

[Transcript from the Video above:]

The gameplay trailer for A Mortician’s Tale is brilliant for one easily repeatable reason: Humility.

Welcome to Game Trailer Quick-Tip. I’m M. Joshua. I make game trailers, but I also like to celebrate other’s great trailer work. Today we’re looking at one quick tip that’ll be helpful for you making your game’s trailer.

Trailer Quick Tip: Humility

Humility might be the weirdest ambition of a hype-train. But I would suggest it’s the most powerful tool in making a game trailer. Just humbly offer a transparent representation of your game. This will speak volumes on what your game is actually like. No superlatives. But no self-deprecation. Just an honest look at what your game is actually like to play.

We’ll take a look at the trailer now. Then we’ll explore how that can translate to your game’s trailer. Cool? Let’s check it out!

So, not every game is as simple as Mortician’s Tale. The game clocks in at just over an hour, and only has three or four different scenes—to really show different variety of gameplay. But that’s the brilliance of the humble approach: you show the simple core interactions of the game and as long at they look readable, it reads as “real”

And let’s be honest, that’s what players want from a video game trailer: for things to feel as real to the experience as possible

Who’s This Approach For?

Since this is a simple point and click adventure, it translates well to the humility approach. If your gameplay isn’t easy to read, you might need a little more of an elaborate explanation of what the game even is and why people want to play it. But once you get them there, you can continue to build on that core—and stick to the humility approach. This lets your audience draw their own own conclusions. And that’s the core. You want to build an environment that lets people draw their own conclusions about your game.

Again, this isn’t for everybody. And sometimes you need a way more “over the top” kind of approach. Because let’s face it, game trailers aren’t a “one-size-fits-all” kind of thing.

A key to the humility approach is to just observe how players naturally experience your game. And if you can just represent that as faithfully as possible—without getting in the way—this can work really well.

That’s it for this quick tip. 

~

I’m M. Joshua. Find my trailers at mjoshua.com. And feel free to subscribe, for the next time we look at a Game Trailer Quick Tip.

Tormentor X Punisher trailer-first commentary

Being offensive is sometimes a wonderful asset in the world of games. Tormentor X Punisher throws all the gore, vulgarity, and explosive sound that it can muster in your direction, and then frames the trailer around the framing ambition of the game: the score.ere’s my commentary on the gameplay trailer, and how that relates to the core experience (latter half of the video):

Special thanks to Joonas Turner and Roland Smedberg for their ferocious trailer!

Can Cuphead’s trailer hype be reproduced by others?

[Transcript:]

Can Cuphead’s trailer hype be reproduced by others? I think so. Let’s explore how.

I’m M. Joshua. And I started this whole things because I just love trailers. When I’m not making indie trailers, I’m playing games — and thinking about how their trailers should go.

Cuphead is out today!

You know why it grabbed your attention: that subversive Early-1930s animation art style. It got you on the hook right way. But here’s the thing, that’s not why the game’s successful. Hear me out. But first? Let’s watch the game’s first trailer, which first debuted in 2013, four years ago:

That’s it. That’s all, and it’s not saying a lot.

Weirdly, it starts with this tell, don’t show approach, that doesn’t really give you much information about what the game is actually like to play. But it tries to tell you instead of showing it : “run and gun fighting game hybrid” and it overtly states its stylistic inspiration. Then it shows the controls before jumping into the most basic gameplay, barely hinting at the “run and gun.” This is boring. And it shows everything you shouldn’t do with your trailer.

The funniest part? “Coming 2014” Haha. Clearly they changed their plans. And it’s a good thing they did.

They revised their plans to develop more of an audience before launch.

1. Style isn’t enough — You need to stoke player interest.

So Studio MDHR did some deals with the devil (err Microsoft), pushed back their launch date “a little bit”, and at 2014’s E3, they stole the show with this piece:

That’s it. Just 29 seconds — that’s oozing with style — at the world’s biggest gaming venue (E3). And of course, ending on the subtitle: “Don’t deal with the devil.”

That’s point number 2:

2. Yes, deal with the devil — Look for a publisher with a world-stage

This is pretty easy to do if you have already built the groundwork of your distinct style. Remember Studio MDHR already had this style in the can before anybody heard of the game, but nobody cared until they sold their game’s soul (for probably like 70% of the game’s revenue).

Now, we’re all thinking, “I want to see more.” 29 seconds just isn’t enough. We had to wait a year until the next E3, in 2015:

There they go: give the people what they want: much more gameplay. And it kept people satisfied… for a while.

3. Give people a pacifier — A teaser trailer to retain interest

Then, we didn’t hear much from Studio MDHR for two years.

Not until E3 2017.

There’s two things I want to point out in this trailer. First? This barker text, reminiscent of 1930s carnival barkers: “A special announcement for a thrilling game…” This is more style than necessary information. But the part here, “…the likes of which has never been seen before?” Oh man. You could study this concept for a long time. And it’s always been there from the start.

But it’s grown.

4. Be a REFINED kind of distinct — Grow into a MASTERFUL “never seen before”

While the game really thrives on this style that’s fresh and new, they’ve refined it on the world stage and really pushed for an APPEALING quality. The distinctness. The style? It’s not enough. They had to hone the sales pitch, to really make sure it’s resonating with people in the right way.

5. They took their time building an audience.

So that’s it. That’s how Cuphead did it. Obviously they found their one of a kind style first. But then what they did with it is what turned it into a hype cycle. So after the style is set?

  1. Find a way to Stoke player interest
  2. Devil-deal: Get a Publisher with a world stage
  3. Stick a pacifier in your audience’s mouth: Tease interest
  4. REFINE that “one of a kind style”
  5. Take your time building your audience

So keep that in mind building-up your game’s marketing approach through trailers, so that you see it’s a grand strategy thing and never a one-off tactic.

~

Keep up with me, by following me at mjoshua on Twitter. My trailer work is at mjoshua.com. And subscribe on YouTube if you liked this commentary.

I may follow-up with a quick play shesh on Cuphead, if I’m not so terrible at the game that it’s painful to watch. Thanks again. I’m M. Joshua. Til the next time we look at some indie game trailers. Bye bye!

Steamworld Dig 2 trailer-first commentary

Howdy, travelers! Steamworld Dig 2 sat at the top of my list of anticipated Nintendo Switch releases. And BOY, if it doesn’t make good on my hopes!

While the launch trailer for the game took me by surprise (with a tiny bit less of the legendary finesse that I’ve come to expect from Julius Guldbog and Tombias Nilsson), it captures everything essential about the game. This trailer serves as perhaps the best illustration of how to make an extremely strong trailer — humbly representing the experience.

After a brief trailer reflection, I jump into the game’s core loop — and get carried away. IT’S JUST SUCH A FUN GAME, GUYS! Stick around as long as you like.

Feel free to subscribe on YouTube for more trailer-and-playthrough reflections or check out my work at mjoshua.com.

Trailer-first playthrough of Mystic Melee

Mystic Melee sits right inside the sweet zone of my ideal 4-player brawlers: it’s got physics-driven air maneuvers that invite tons of experimentation — while being easy to play.

So how does the trailer fare?

Just after a brief introduction, I watch the trailer — for the first time. This was one of the rare times I bought a game before watching the trailer. Then I dive into the game, offering a sampling of the experience itself.

You’ll get some of my real reactions as well as some (hopefully) useful takeaways for making trailers that also sit in similar (local-multi, 2D platformer) genres.

Massive thanks to the Serenity Forge team for bringing this to my attention, and to Ben Hopkins for making a game with such exceptional precision!