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Retro Trailer Analysis #1: Baldur's Gate Bhaalspawn Saga Series
Introduction to Retro Trailer Analyses
The culture of modern videogame trailers emerged with broadband Internet connections. In the days of 56kbit/s modems (and before those days when people had had very limited access to all kinds of different networks) promotional game trailers were shown either at conventions (E3 started back in 1995) or were distributed with games (note that this became a possibility with CD-ROMs, around 1993). I remember watching trailer of Icewind Dale which was present on one of four Baldur's Gate II CD-ROMs. The game was already out at that time and looked nearly the same as BG2.
From today's perspective videogame trailers from late 1990s and early 2000s were facing a great dilemma: either go for a CGI which could help you convey some kind of a story, or choose a gameplay footage which represents the game but doesn't look entertaining or thrilling. I think it is quite useful to go back and see how the genre of videogame trailer progressed (without stating whether for good or for worse) from bizzare videos with giant floating letters to slick action movies which are sometimes more entertaining than the game itself. I have chosen original Baldur's Gate series as our first subject of Retro Trailer Analysis.
Baldur's Gate Bhaalspawn Saga Series (consisting of Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal) is often considered to be the pinnacle of classic western RPGs. In its day it received glorifying reviews and helped to establish BioWare as a major developer of RPG genre. I think we can say that these games are excellent. The question is what about their trailers? Are they also that good? And would we have predicted that the games are excellent based on trailers back in 1998, 2000 and 2001?
Trailer (located at the top of this post) for Baldur's Gate (1998) is a combination of both CGI and gameplay footage. There is no coherent narrative, CGI part is in fact just a juxtaposition of various cinematics from the game. CGI part gives us only account of creatures that should appear in the game. Considering its D&D licence (2nd edition rules) we can identify gnolls, kobolds and orcs. We also get to see the main antagonist Sarevok.
Gameplay parts mostly show various spells (fireball, magic missile, call lightning from 2nd edition rules of D&D). There is only a minimum of melee combat present in the trailer. Important parts like the user interface (with its detailed combat log) or conversational system are missing completely. Quite bizzare are the walking parts. What is their purpose? I think that people can imagine walking in the game when they see combat or spellcasting. So the only information that comes from this part is that it rains in the game.
Overall I think that the trailer is quite misleading. On one side it builds an impression of dark, visceral adventure with lots of fighting (or spellcasting), on the other side it totally ignores the rich conversational system which has large impact on how the game plays. It seems that the trailer wants to promote Baldur's Gate more as hack and slash Diablo (1998) type of a game than as an RPG mix of combat and dialogue. This marketing approach would probably change after the success of Baldur's Gate.
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is considered to be the best part of Bhaalspawn Saga series. Its trailer also does a much better job promoting it than in the case of its predecessor. There are no in-game CGI sequences in the trailer and overall it looks more professional. Gameplay footage shows various aspects of the game: combat, glimpse of dialogue system and rich combat log and even the user interface. There is a lot more going on in the trailer: first we see a slideshow of artwork from the game accompanied by big letters, then there is a fast and action filled series of quick scenes from the game. This time it is not that much about spellcasting, the main focus lies in showing as many enviroments and situations as possible. The impression is more of an organic and frantic gameplay than of the clearly staged presentation of various spells from the first trailer.
Music follows the escalation of the whole trailer from a slow and atmospheric beginning to a dramatic conclusion with shattering cymbals. There is no coherent narrative, only a feeling that you as a player are a part of something very important in the fictitious world of Forgotten Realms.
Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal
Trailer for Throne of Bhaal in many aspects resembles the one for Shadows of Amn. Music is well connected to the visual part of the trailer, there is a mix of artwork, big slogans and gameplay footage. What is different is the urge to describe everything that is going to happen in the trailer right before it happens (e.g. adventure into vast new lands). This duplication of semiotic codes is unnecessary, it gives viewer no new information and it breaks the flow and the rhytm of the trailer so there is no real escalation. Flying sword and flames in the ending are just a trick to achieve at least some kind of a thrill. In fact they have nothing to do with the gameplay, the original artwork or the narrative.
Again, like in the first trailer the main focus lies in combat (there is also a little walking part). This is definitely a step back from more balanced trailer for Shadows of Amn. Throne of Bhaal may look more professional in terms of editing and visual effects but it resembles more a back cover of game (with lists of how many weapons, levels and enemies are in the game) than a modern videogame trailer.
Interplay also made a full cinematic trailer for Throne of Bhaal which is sadly just a montage of in-game cinematics.
The first trailer would have in my opinion led to a prediction of a hack and slash game similar to Diablo. I would have been mainly concerned about clumsiness of combat. Simple showcasing of spells in the trailer doesn't look good and makes an impression of a combat devoid of fluidity or quickness.
The second trailer paints a better image. Combat log and user interface points out to a complex strategic combat experience. There is also a hint of a dialogue. In overall it lookse more like a thrilling adventure with many different locations and situations than just a combat. It is the best trailer of the three and it would have led to a very optimistic prediction.
The third trailer is a step back as I said earlier. But we must not overlook that it was created after the first two, so it doesn't have to repeat everything that has been shown so far. While it could have been done better it would also have led to an optimistic prediction. The biggest success of this trailer is that it conveys an epic feeling which is definitely the right thing to do when promoting a conclusion to a series.
There is a visible progress in usage of various techniques in these three trailers. What is missing even in the third one is a voiceover which is nowadays nearly a must in a videogame trailer. The gameplay footage goes from a clumsy, slow presentation of individual spells to a true record of complex combat situations with many things happening at the same time.