Breath of the Wild

Trailers, themselves a medium that is part-promotional, part-artistic creation, also serve as a meeting point for video games as objects of play and objects of cinema. The launch trailer for the latest entry in the Legend of Zelda series, "Breath of the Wild," offers a classic case in point.

At well over 9 million views as of this writing, the Nintendo Switch Presentation 2017 trailer for the game is remarkable in many ways. For reference, the launch trailer for Metal Gear Solid V, the latest in a similarly storied series of video games, has garnered less than half of the Zelda trailer’s viewership.

Video games as a medium have only been around for roughly fifty years, with the first game arriving in 1958 and commercialization as well as the availability of technologies to produce "video games" as we recognize them today not arriving until decades later (the Atari 2600, in 1977). While text-based adventure games and vide-based media have been available throughout the 1970s, it was only in the 8-bit era that developers and artists were able to co-create imaginative worlds with a sense of depth and cohesiveness that would foreshadow the cinematic heights that “AAA” games enjoy today. With a budget and labour force rivalling any major studio, todays games are easily (re-)presentable as a cinematic experience, in tandem with the base experience of play that they provide.

At nearly four minutes in length, the Zelda launch trailer is unusually expansive, befitting of a game that promises an essentially limitless, open-ended experience. As part of a particular tradition in this video game series of rigorously-executed musical motivic development, the main, five-note motif for the theme of this game is first heard on the upper register of the piano at twenty-three seconds in, preceded by plaintive ocean waves juxtaposed by ominous bells and strings.

At the :50 mark, the intimate shot of the forest accompanied by oboe gives way to a mélange of percussion, strings, and epic choir that almost sounds cliché within the milieu of epic trailer music, albeit entirely appropriate for the high fantasy setting of the game. It is an introduction for a lengthy score that expertly interweaves themes old and new and permeates nearly the entirety of the trailer.

At 1:15, we hear the first of many voice-overs that hint at the story without necessarily giving away any real sense of the plot. At1:46 there occurs a boisterous battle-theme montage of gameplay shots, switching perspectives from the cinematic to one that diegetically positions the viewer as imagined player with agency in the world of the game. This is suggested by the camera angles which are predominantly shown behind the protagonist of the game, Link. 

However, a brief interlude in the music breaks the pace, leading to a second section of this theme now laden with heavy brass and a series of cinematic moments, presumably from the game’s cut scenes. A second interlude at approximately 2:50 introduces dialogue overlaid on the music, which adds further orchestration and introduces the three-decade-old theme familiar to Zelda fans everywhere, calling upon previous experiences with the franchise as effectively as the recent Star Wars trailers.

The trailer ends with a title card and a short epilogue, followed by a silent presentation of the release date and subsequently logos for its game consoles, and finally the Nintendo logo, bathed in its instantly recognizable tone of red.

Taken together, the actual gameplay is deeply embedded in the trailer, confined mainly to a couple of segments that portray the gameplay experience, but this is effectively blended seamlessly with the more cinematic shots thanks to a relentlessly building epic score. This trailer may be remembered as a particularly convincing promotion for one of the key markers in the ongoing evolution of video games as an art form and as a medium for storytelling. 

- Curtis Perry