Trailer is the full audiovisual teaser of a promoted product and often the first and only opportunity a developer or publisher has to leave the future buyers with a good, lasting impression. Good editing and selection of presented material are key to a trailer’s success, both as a marketing tool and a piece of craft. Soundtrack selection is crucial as it serves a function analogous to movie and game music — it affects us, „glues” a selection of moving images into one thing and builds up tension, planting the excitement within us (the excitement the game itself may not live up to). Without this musical deception that is used in supermarkets for that matter, one cannot even dream about „I need to play this now” effect. It is images that may tease us, but it’s the music that turns it into pure hype more than we’d like to admit.

Big fishes of the industry frequently provide new material that is bland enough to blend itself to virtually any type of dramatic material and fit into many contexts.

This is where trailer music comes onto the stage. This…branch of marketing music lives in the same vein as Muzak (subliminally manipulative music that tricks you into better mood so that you are more likely to spend money and generally be less critical towards your own purchases). It is inherently torn between perfectly tailored product to use as a soundtrack for a piece of advertisement, and a piece of questionable art that is reviewed critically. As the latter, it profits from disguising itself as „high art” of classical music, even though it is compositionally closer to pop genres and is generally overblown for a cheap thrill, falling into kitsch. Big fishes of the industry frequently provide new material that is bland enough to blend itself to virtually any type of dramatic material and fit into many contexts. They are something I’d call musical chameleons and they are „grandiose” enough to create massive amounts of hype that is impossible to be met by the product. That alone is sketchy.

The case of songs written specifically for marketing purposes or reproducing autonomous songs to fit the trailer better is very similar. They are either awaited by a full orchestra accompaniment playing a simple melody, or a remix into the currently popular genre (such as dubstep some years ago). Remix itself is not automatically sentenced to be bad, but some cases are legitimately cringe-worthy and make us wring our hands. This is the worst case in my opinion, but closer to our industry, a good example would be Bloodborne’s marketing song „Cut You Down” by Hit House with Ruby Friedman vocal. Even though the song itself is simple, has lyrics tailored to the games „feel” and could be great, it is orchestrated into generic trailer music, which is undoubtedly cool, but also cheap.

Most of the film and video-games genres are satisfied with this type of bombastic music for their marketing. However, some hermetic genres, like horror for example, do not require a music to signify great emotions of epic scale, as their goal is to spook you. Horror (games) often limit themselves and use rhythmical editing with loud bashing at each cut, but there are some that can do it subtly and in their own way, waking curiosity within the viewer (something they can’t be spooked without). I hold Outlast 2 as a good example of trailer-making. Creepy environments are showcased to the religious song sang by a little girl. She isn’t, however, full of joyful faith. She is terrified and possibly hounded down, and the game’s hinted themes add another layer of subtext to the song. It is simple, yet unsettling, as it makes you listen to a child that is being tormented in some way. It causes legitimate fear and creeps under your skin instead of deafening you with loud bashing and noises. It also shows how narrative a trailer song could be — it deepens the oppressive religion theme, it suggests a new character, it suggests a dire situation said character will find themselves in. The song has us wondering here so the visuals only complement it with slow cuts of empty, creepy areas.

That’s it for the first part of my trailer music criticism. Even though I am myself bonded with that music (fallen Two Steps from Hell fan), because of the marketing aspect, I just can’t look at it exclusively through the perspective of art. Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler (film music scholars) argue in their book from 1947 („Composing for Films”) that illustrative music encourages us to consume more and more products of culture, making that consumption more pleasurable, lulling the viewer’s attention and their critical thinking for one purpose: to make them think like the material they are seeing is real and flawless. This is what trailers strive for when using „epic” music. Even though their perspective is cynical and devoid of any artistic criticism, they do have a point in times of constant advertisement, and with videogames being an entertainment industry and triple A flops, it is better to have that cynical approach towards the image of a game that the trailer presents, music included.


Jan Szafraniec

Fasicinated by everything that is noisy, minimal and industrial. He spends most of the time writing and floating around in ambient. He's been loyally professing videogame music for a decade and won't ever stop.