After an admittedly uneventful launch of a new generation of consoles, it became rather clear that developers around the world are still working on their visions of a true next-gen game. This was made abundantly clear by the avalanche of games that were shown off at E3 2021, the gaming world's largest marketing event and greatest depository of flashy promises. There were plenty of gameplay trailers that actually showed a glimpse of what the new standard of gaming might look like from both AAA and indie developers alike, but there were also no small number of pre-rendered trailers that offered the world... if you can wait for another year. That's not to say that E3 2021 wasn't a rather fun event, especially for those who enjoy seeing all the new and creative ways that game developers intend to push the medium, but it does bring up the question of whether there is any practical reason to be excited.
By now, it's probably safe to assume that plenty of older gamers are familiar with the potentially misleading nature of pre-rendered E3 trailers. As the name suggests, such trailers are effectively just fancy ways to show off an upcoming game. As the hilariously tongue-in-cheek trailer for The Outer Worlds 2 pointed out, pre-rendered trailers often contain elements that have nothing to do with the finished product, largely because the developers literally have not finalized anything other than a game's title. They exist purely to generate hype, oftentimes for games that will not be released for a very long time. As one would expect, this has created a bit of a stigma surrounding pre-rendered trailers as it is now common knowledge that a lot can change after a year of development time.
Particularly egregious examples of how pre-rendered trailers are not indicative of the quality of the final product include Cyberpunk 2077's 2013 teaser trailer, Halo 5: Guardians' story trailers, and practically anything related to Fallout 76 prior to launch. Given the benefit of retrospection and time, many of the pre-release trailers for such games were stretching the truth at best, especially if you aren't particularly familiar with the nature of the gaming industry as a whole. That's not to say that gameplay trailers are any more truthful per se given that Cyberpunk 2077 had a decidedly doctored gameplay reveal, but at least you have a very basic idea of how a game will play out. With pre-rendered trailers, you can't really trust what you're being shown. Doubly so if you have to wait for a year or longer before the game comes out (looking at you, Breath of the Wild 2 with your vague E3 2019 teaser for a trailer that only just recently got shown off at E3 2021).
On the other hand, there's a good number of pre-rendered trailers that rather accurately hyped up a game while being enjoyable to watch too, such as Halo 3's pre-launch ad campaign or some of Titanfall's early trailers. Ironically, the aforementioned Outer Worlds 2 trailer was memorable because it poked fun at other trailers, so in that sense it was an astounding success. Then there's cinematic trailers for games like The Elder Scrolls Online, which are fantastic in their own right though they barely have any resemblance to the actual game. In that regard, pre-rendered trailers are fantastic for raising hype for a game and, when properly done, can keep a game in people's minds even if they have no interest in the game itself whatsoever.
For a more modern example, take a look at Starfield's E3 2021 trailer. It's a very neat in-engine trailer, and it is very understandable to be hyped beyond comprehension at what is being promised. A next-gen open-world space RPG made by one of the most prolific developers on the planet? Time to pre-order 10 copies. But does the trailer actually tell you anything relevant about the gameplay? For example, are you able to tell what kind of leveling mechanics, if any, Starfield will use? Will there be crafting, and if so, how will it impact loot progression? What will the nature of the weapons or combat be like? Is the ship going to be an actual vehicle you can pilot, or does it exist purely as a fast-travel mechanic? Realistically speaking, our knowledge of the game hasn't really been enhanced by the trailer, outside of perhaps confirming what most people have already inferred. With a year-and-a-half-long wait before anyone actually gets their hands on the game, the trailer may as well not exist for all the relevance that it may soon have. Still, there's no denying that it's a very cool way to officially reveal the game's release date and upgraded/new engine.
Redfall's E3 2021 reveal brings up even more questions since it is seemingly a completely pre-rendered CGI trailer. There's no indication that what was shown is in-engine, so as far as we know, the actual game is a cel-shaded VR RTS that uses a dance pad as a controller. Of course, that's an outlandish exaggeration, but the thing that you should be asking is, "What does this actually tell me about the game?" If you consider the fact that there's probably going to be another E3 between now and Redfall's release, it seems evident that the trailer exists for the sole purpose of telling people that this is a game that exists. It's not much of a loss if the goal is to get people to draw up vague comparisons with conceptually similar games for a week, although it really depends on people being aware of Arkane's work to begin with. On the bright side, we can all probably agree that an over-the-top CGI trailer is an infinitely better way to announce a game compared to a dry press release or some "leaked" images.
That's not to say that all pre-rendered trailers should be illegal and that E3 should only be for games that are being released within the year. Indeed, there is no shortage of masterfully done trailers that beautifully convey a developer's vision. In the same way that concept art can be very fascinating to analyze, pre-rendered trailers offer a glimpse of what developers intend and what developers ultimately implement. If you consider games to be an art form, then this creative bridge can be almost as intriguing as the finished product. In some ways, when you think about the role of hype (i.e. marketing) in the gaming industry, pre-rendered trailers are one of the least harmful and most "enjoyable" ways that a developer can show off their upcoming projects. It helps to view them as they are, with a critical eye but leaving just enough room to be excited at what might be possible.
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