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!

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!

Indie trailer lessons from the Nintendo Switch announcement

You already saw this First Look trailer. You already know whether or not the Nintendo Switch will have a place in your life. But do you know why you have this already figured out in your mind? I would suggest it’s because of how this trailer is produced and edited.

Can you remember any of the faces of the people playing the Switch in this trailer? I can’t. But I can remember their emotional reactions or their looks of concentration, and I felt connected to the experiences they were having.

I could see myself in their shoes. 

This is game-trailer gold.

You may have had a different experience with this trailer, but I, for one am really excited to discover the price-point on this device — there’s a chance I’ll be there day one. The key is that I felt like I was having these same experiences with the Nintendo Switch as I watched. That may be because I love playing games on the go and with others, so the mileage may vary. But here’s the key: When you show people in an experience that they can insert themselves into, you grab your game’s audience.

It also helps to hand your game off to players and see what they do with it.

How do players prefer to play your game?

When you’re showing your game at a PAX or Gamescom event, you control the setup and you control the experience — it’s not authentic to how player actually play your game. This can be very hard and scary — since you have no idea what players are going to to when they get their hands on your game. But try this out: just give a few regular players (not developers) your game. Then see what they do with it.

What do players do with your game when you give it to them? This leads to a whole litany of questions from that experience:

  • How do they sit?
  • At a desk?
  • On the couch?
  • On a plane?
  • Do they share it with their non-gaming family members?
  • Is any of that special?
  • What surprises occur?

You’re going to be surprised. That may be because of how foolish their play experiences seem to how you intend. Or they may come up with something you never thought of. When I shared That Dragon Cancer with my game group, we had fourteen people cram into my living room. We found ourselves passing the controller from scene to scene — meaning everybody got to play and feel connected to the experience. We didn’t plan that; it just happened naturally — and it worked perfectly. These kinds of discoveries only happen when games are given a proper chance to be put in players’ hands.

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These player-surprises can make your marketing material story. Who wanted to play Skyrim on an airplane? I don’t know, but give that person a medal. That created one of the most powerful selling points on the system — and I could easily play the game on my laptop in a flight right now, but the idea of playing it with a controller on a personal sized screen that sits in front of me (and not overheating my lap)? That’s attractive.

Put your game in player’s hands.

See what they do with it. Make note of the surprises. It doesn’t have to be an open alpha event — just a few friends are fine. This will tell you so much about what actual player experiences are like — and most importantly: how to show your game.

Local multiplayer and co-op games have the biggest advantage in this department — it’s why Nintendo Switch’s strongest trailer moments relate to player interaction. But there’s still benefit to trying this out if your game is, say an RTS or a hidden object puzzle game. There’s this thing about heartfelt player reactions that tell a story even greater than that which is grasped on-screen.

Consider showing your players in your trailer.

The most powerful tool in comedy is the human face. Since they’re the first thing we learn to connect with after we’re born, it’s amazing that there’s so few faces in trailers. We connect with emotions by seeing them on somebody else’s face.  I would argue it’s the standout feature in this Move or Die trailer. And again — you don’t remember any of the actual faces, but you remember their emotions.

Your connection with your players can come through those sincere reactions of player’s faces. And when they’re not sincere, players recognize that immediately. The tricks to capturing honesty is an art unto itself — we’ll get to that in a future post. For now I’ll leave you with a reflection:

Did you connect with a moment in the Nintendo Switch trailer?