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!

Trailer-first playthrough of The First Tree

The First Tree snagged me with its trailer and concept, even though I don’t know that I fully got it. So I recorded my impressions on the launch trailer, talked about its takeaways, and then stepped into the first several minutes of the game, to process how the trailer and the game frame each other.

Hopefully, this will be a new series from me? Lots of fun to produce. Lots worth talking about. Enjoy!

Six terrible tips from our NEO Scavenger mobile trailer

[Transcript:]

NEO Scavenger mobile trailer may be the trailer I’m most proud of producing [scripting and editing]. That said… most advice I’d offer from the project is terribleSeriously, it’s awful. But it worked for us. So, hopefully you at least you find it funny?

So, here it is — Six Terrible Tips from our NEO Scavenger trailer:

1. Encourage the developer do his own (half-naked) cosplay

NEO Scavenger starts with you wearing nothing but a hospital gown (and a necklace). Then you venture out into the cold and unforgiving world — alone. So when the game’s creator, Daniel Fedor, said “hey I wanna act all of this half-naked hospital-robe-wearing stuff out in real life.” I said, “Of course! Let’s do it!” 

For added fun, think about what it would look like to cosplay for your own game’s trailer. Like I said, it’s probably a bad idea. Though it might be a useful practice If you’re showing your game at an actual trade show like PAX?

Terrible advice number two: show… Wait, no.

2. Tell, don’t show  (live action)

Here’s the thing: NEO Scavenger is… hard to make sense of at first glance. Heck! Even after a good number of glances, you might still be lost. The game really plays up that “tell, don’t show” angle, especially in combat where it’s mostly about what happens in your imagination (and not on screen).

This was where we identified the perfect way to employ Dan’s half-naked cosplay: acting-out a scenario from the game!

NEO Scavenger takes place in a “slightly” crappier version of our world. Plus it was winter when we started this. So a simple backyard in late Winter looks like it’s survived an apocalypse.  Dan was close with a cinematography team, Digital Cyclops — who was amazing, by the way. And even more conveniently, Dalias Blake showed up.

Dude’s a master of looking intimidating.

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But yeah, seriously. “Show, don’t tell” is the right way to go with a game trailer 99% of the time. Except for when your game is literally the opposite. We did the live acting thing because it was the best way to put unfamiliar audiences into the mindset of the game.

3. Crowd-source your script

So, this might be the worst advice yet. Never ask your players, “what should I say in the trailer?” You’re gonna get a whole lot of useless garbage that you’ll have to wade through. Glad we didn’t do that. Well, we sorta did. 

If you ask “What precise experience in this game captures this full emotion?” And you really curate the question? You might be able to focus people towards one sentence responses — you might get something usable. You might even find something perfect! Now we actually had players to ask. We had over a hundred responses. So, that’s a lot for me to pick from. But seriously, crowd-sourcing your script is usually such a bad idea.

Now I’m gonna stop right here and show you the trailer. Then we’ll get to the last few pieces of terrible advice. Cool? Let’s check it out.

Cool. Final pieces of bad advice?

4. Shove players’ words into onscreen actors’ mouths.

Nobody likes it when you put words in their mouth, but we did it anyway. You couldn’t see our actor’s mouths because they were (like characters in the game) wearing rags that covered their mouths as rudimentary air filters. So,we made sure our actors acted like they were talking, with the plan of putting another actor’s voice on them.  We did this, because it was important to me that the players of the game really gave voice to the experience. But because players aren’t typically voice actors, I went for the uber players: those who love the game, but also create their own content.

I’m not 100% sure that the we did this perfectly. But I am sure that it was the right call. Because when you share player’s voices, you can actually capture their passion for the game. These guys, Nelson and Phil — they really really love NEO Scavenger. So I was like, “Yes! I’m-I’m going to use you guys because you really really get it!” Usually people can tell if somebody’s just hired help. But passion transcends.

If you dare try this kind of approach? Go for it, but go for the passionate.

5. String random players’ experiences into a singular story

This is the weirdest one: we took all these player testimonies, the half-naked cosplay, voice actors, and glimpses of gameplay, and we brought it all together — in a way that’s… clearly not for everybody

The best trailers are just one clear story. It starts, it ends. You feel like you’re along for the ride. This is a universal truth. You can keep that in your pocket. But we had like over a hundred stories. And we wanted to link it into a single one.

That took first writing a modular script — designed with targeted emergence. This modular script had one goal: extract the stories, and assemble it into one single story.

Like I said, you gotta be super specific to make any of this work. This was really just planning — that mostly worked because NEO Scavenger just kind of automatically naturally generates these kinds of stories, and because of the pre-existing audience.

6. Leave viewers with a sick taste in their mouth

NEO Scavenger’s tone is so weird! Like normally? You want people to feel smart, powerful, capable of doing anything! And excited when they end the trailer. Maybe itching for a fight! Instead, we figured it was better to make people feel icky!

You’re welcome to copy the idea if you think it might work for you. But because we wanted to hit the distinctives of the game, and what made it what it is, we ended on the creep-factor.

If you’re looking for something actually usable here, I’d say that’s it: focus on your game’s distinct one-of-a-kind feeling.

Also, it’s worth noting that we lightened-up the whole “bleak as hell” thing. At least a tiny bit.

So yeah, this is all terrible advice because it’s really specific to NEO Scavenger.

So once again, those tips are:

  1. Encourage the developer to do his own half-naked cosplay
  2. Tell, don’t show (Live Action)
  3. Crowd-source your script
  4. Shove players’ words into (on screen) actors’ mouths
  5. String random player experiences into a singular story
  6. Leave players with a sick taste in their mouth

So yeah, all of this is terrible terrible advice. Don’t do these things unless you’re sure it’s going to work for your game. It’s terrible mostly because it’s so specific to NEO Scavenger, but I want to leave you with…

real useful takeaway

Consider your game deeply. How people play it, how they talk about it, what they dream about after playing it before bed time. Then craft your game’s trailer around these experiences.

~

I’m M. Joshua. Find me at mjoshua.com. And feel free to subscribe, for the next time we look at some Game Trailer Takeaways.