Fast-paced action and detailed environments are what we’ve come to expect from the polished trailers we see at E3 events. But sometimes, you might see something that stands out, simply because it’s less flashy. 12 Minutes immediately intrigued me—not just because it contrasted with the other titles in the Xbox/Bethesda lineup, but because I’m a sucker for a great story. I want to get lost in another world and, if there are things to figure out or there are plot twists and surprising or heart-breaking endings, all the better.
12 Minutes’ trailer does an excellent job of hinting at all of that. This ‘interactive thriller’ sees you playing as a man stuck in a 12-minute time loop which you must find a way to break out of if you want to save yourself and your wife. This strange set-up is what immediately interested me about the game, rather than the impressive voice cast. But I started thinking about a few of my recent—vaguely disappointing—experiences with story-driven games. So how can you tell if the subject matter will appeal to you, or if the game as a whole will live up to your expectations?
While trailers are undoubtedly the best way to figure out whether or not you’ll enjoy a game before its release, they can often be unintentionally misleading. Developers will only show you the most riveting gameplay or the story’s intriguing moments, after all. But those that don’t rely on their story to sell themselves can show you gameplay mechanics and systems via demos or additional trailers. Unfortunately, story-focused games generally don’t have that luxury, and even a promising demo is still no guarantee that the plot will be wrapped up well or you’ll get the emotional payoff you’re looking for.
A good story certainly isn’t essential in every game. Good mechanics or gameplay can more than make up for the lack of narrative cohesion in many cases. Sometimes a story is just a fine layer sprinkled on top to help give purpose or meaning to a series of actions or mechanics, while narrative games rely on pulling you into their worlds and making you care about the characters and the outcome. Both types of games are appealing in their own right but if the gameplay doesn’t live up to its promise, or you can’t relate to the story or the ending is fumbled, it can ruin the entire experience.
Sometime last year, I picked up What Remains of Edith Finch—a game I’d been meaning to play for a while, and I was aware of the praise the game had received. But somehow, it wasn’t what I expected. Oh, I enjoyed playing it, and I’m glad I got to experience the many lives of the Finch family, but it felt like I spent much of the game waiting for that “oh shit!” moment that never quite happened. And I had a similar experience when I played To The Moon.
In both cases, it feels like my preconceived ideas—which were mainly there because of what I’d taken away from trailers and friends’ recommendations—made me enjoy those games less than if I’d just picked them up and played them without any expectations at all. But of course, the same can be said for most entertainment. You can’t know for sure that you’ll like a movie, TV show, or book until you sit down with it. But you don’t have to fork out as much cash for the privilege either.
And there have been occasions where trailers have misrepresented the tone of a story or simply allowed us to make inaccurate assumptions based on the footage. The Dragon Age: Origins Marilyn Manson trailer is a good example of this. While it may have appealed to a different audience, the tone it sets is so far away from the high fantasy, character-driven adventure that the game is known for, it’s almost laughable. And then there was the Metal Gear Solid 2 trailer which was way ahead of its time visually but forgot to mention that we weren’t watching the true protagonist, disappointing Snake fans everywhere.
Perhaps we put too much stock in trailers and the expectations we derive from them. They’re created to sell a product after all, and developers can’t give away too much without ruining the experience for players. No game will appeal to everyone, and even the best trailer can’t tell you everything you want to know about a game—and certainly not whether it will meet your expectations when you sit down to play it. But it’s hard not to draw your own conclusions from the tone and atmosphere portrayed in these brief glimpses when you decide whether to make the leap and invest your time.
So I’ll wait for the release of 12 Minutes with a lot of hope and a little trepidation. It wasn’t the storytelling itself that I found disappointing in both Edith Finch and To The Moon; I just wanted more from both games’ endings. But perhaps there’s something to be taken from that. Maybe I need to put aside my expectations and just learn to enjoy the journey.