Duskers has the Rosetta Stone for hard-to-explain game trailers

Dusker’s trailer gets everything right. It might be one of the hardest games to explain to the uninitiated (as I found when I wrote about it on Gamechurch), but the trailer communicates the game clearly:

Notice the immersive (and instructive) narration

This trailer explains the game better than I think anybody possibly could — because it keeps to its fiction, while telling the player’s story. It ping-pongs between literacy and tension with a masterful arc, but here’s the key: it dips us into the player brain-space with an immersive narrator that exists inside the game’s world. It’s not a high-level narrator telling you “about the game.” It’s “the player.”

If you’re reading this as a primer on trailers for hard-to-explain games, I pulled-out some other key takeaways:

  1. Hook with an establishing framework

    “If there are any survivors out there, please respond.” With this single line, you’ve told players everything they need to know about why they want to play the game. By using voiceover, we’re able to watch and listen at the same time, having a personal voice to connect with.

  1. Establish game literacy

    “I’m dangerously low on supplies, but I’ve re-purposed some salvage drones to explore all these derelict ships.”The voiceover provides context on what we’re seeing (the drones exploring a ship in weird video feed format). This teaches viewers how you play the game and how to read what’s going on.

  2. Establish the core tension

    “I’ve been in over twenty ships now and I haven’t found a single body.” This line clearly suggests something is wrong. It builds mystery, amplifies player curiosity, and further hooks their interest.

  3. Answer player questions — with a press quote

    “Unlike anything I’ve played before. -Charlie Hall, Polygon” This adds credibility to the game and answers two questions we’re wondering: Why doesn’t this look like something else I’ve seen? Do games critics think it’s worth playing?

  4. Ratchet-up tension

    “…useful for when the motion sensors pick up movement… I seem to be running into them more frequently.” This still builds literacy, but takes us into the core tension of the game.

  5. Provide navigational literacy — while concluding on core tension

    “I’m still trying to piece together what happened.” We see a few corrupted ship logs, and the traversal map. This is the high-level navigation detail of the game, showing that it’s big and expansive.“End of File A301. Repeating broadcast…”The player story ends here, establishes the loneliness of the experience, and then also hints at the central mechanic of permanent death and restarting the game often. Then we get the logo screen and call-to-action while the voiceover continues to repeat.

This trailer knocks several birds out of the air with each single-stone-throw. It’s absolutely brilliant, so I wouldn’t fault you for studying it when you make your game’s next trailer — especially if you’re struggling with how to get your ideas across.

Duskers on Steam

INSIDE: Trailer Assessment

Four hours was all it took to finish INSIDE, but I spent more than twice that just thinking about the game — and that was before writing about its player-creator faith connection. INSIDE makes you think. And that thinking goes far beyond the easy puzzles that the game presents you with. It actually made me start to think, “Why are these puzzles easy?” Still, I’m not here to talk about the game’s philosophy, I’m more interested in what we can learn from its trailer. There’s two trailers for INSIDE, and I’m not gonna spend much time talking about this year’s trailer that mostly reminded people that the game still existed; I’m far more interested in what was established in the Announcement Trailer from two years ago:

It’s nearly impossible to avoid a foreboding sense of dread in this trailer; and for good reason. The game’s horrifying — and something you should stay away from if paranoia and fear have a grip on you. But there’s something deeper here and it’s most apparent at the end of the trailer. What image sticks in your mind the most?

For me, it’s the part where the boy and al the adults else are looking at what’s inside (*wink*wink*nudge*nudge) the giant aquatic tank at the end. What is it? That’s the mystery. And with that mystery, you’ve hooked us with a lasting impression that makes the name stick with you. Iconic moments like this aren’t accidental, the’re earned with specific precision.

If you have designed these kinds of iconic moments into your game, you darn well better show them in your trailer. They won’t make sense, and that’s okay. It builds mystery!

The second most important part of this trailer is the sound design. Notice that there’s no music, just ambient sound effects that create a sense of place. First the downpour of rain. Then you hear a rhythmic march that sounds like it’s an army of civilians in cheaply made shoes. Next, the boy’s breathing gets louder and louder; more breathless. His breathing overlaps the shots, while each scene’s unique sounds push through to help you believe each scene is separate — despite the consistent breath track. Then, submersion. Everything else hushes as we only hear water for a moment. Then we hear the foreboding groan of an ambient “song” in the distance.

This is how you create atmosphere.

Steamworld Heist trailer review

If you like tactics games, you must play Steamworld Heist (I wrote an article on why it’s great), but for indie devs, the most valuable lessons are in the trailer. Let’s dive in.

Trailer Review

Check out Steamworld Heist’s trailer. It rightly harps on the unique gameplay benefits of playing the game by showing you the best moments and using a narrator to explain what you’re seeing. It may just look like a features trailer, but these “features” are actually benefits to the play experience.

First, the trailer teaches you how to read the game, then it shows the unique gameplay (the selling point). After the establishing shots, it introduces the gameplay section, then the narrator sells the game’s unique combat element: use free-aiming to line up your shots. Then they sell the game’s MOST unique selling point: pull off ricochet trick shots. Notice how the trailer lingers on this main distinctive.

steamworld

Next, we learn about recruiting a team and how each character uses unique abilities for a tactical advantage (unique selling point). Then they talk about equipment and missions; this is basic game structure stuff that shows players that there’s a lot to do when they get the game. The trailer ends by teasing a few of the game’s bosses and flashing a ton of procedural level designs. This boosts the confidence of potential players that Steamworld Heist will be well-worth their investment.

The trailer gets too long (nearly three minutes for what could be one and a half), but they were smart to fill it to bursting with impressive ricochet trick shots so that you can see how much of your role in the combat can lead to creative solutions—and more importantly, selling the unique gameplay feature that no other game has.

The takeaway for any action game developer is clear: after teaching viewers how to read, harp on your game’s best and most-distinct selling point gameplay—showing it many different ways. Then, build confidence by showing that there’s plenty of game to play that justifies the purchase (show maps, bosses, etc.). Finally, show the very best shot of your unique gameplay one last time before showing them the name of the game—and where they can go to buy it.

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M. Joshua Cauller makes game trailers that leverage the player experience. He offers free consultations. Contact him at mjoshua@mjoshua.com, check out his work at mjoshua.com, or sign-up for his trailer tips newsletter: