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Set Pieces: Lights. Camera. Inaction?

Just to get a few things clear before we start... Setpiece:

In film production, a setpiece is a scene or sequence of scenes the execution of which requires serious logistical planning and considerable expenditure of money. The term setpiece is often used more broadly to describe any important dramatic or comedic highpoint in a film or story, particularly those that provide some kind of dramatic payoff, resolution, or transition. Thus the term is often used to describe any scenes that are so essential to a film that they cannot be edited out or skipped in the shooting schedule without seriously damaging the integrity of the finished product. Often screenplays are written around a list of such setpieces particularly in high-budget "event movies." WIKIPEDIA

In Video Games, "setpiece" refers to an object in any given level that is unique or is not part of the level's default object set. These pieces more often than not have no effect on gameplay, and simply serve the function of building atmosphere. It can also refer to scripted (non-random) events of significance in the game, such as an encounter with a major antagonist. WIKIPEDIA


If you've been following this blog you know that there are two genres of video games that I generally dislike. I have nothing against the core ideas behind each. It's just that the conventions these genres adopt put a great stress on their core design that most developers aren't skilled enough to overcome. These genres are shooter and RPGs. RPGs because of their low level mechanics, high levels of abstraction, lack of adequate variation, and high amounts of static space. And shooters because of the inherent lack of interplay with guns and the strained visual connection due to the remote nature of guns compounded with the limited perspective.

Despite it all, I'm a big Gears of War and Halo fan if only for the core design and the multiplayer modes. The single player campaign in either game are far behind the quality of the multiplayer modes. In fact, the campaigns pale in comparison to the single player of Perfect Dark, a FPS for the N64 that was released in 2000. 

Recently, I played Resistance 2 and Gears 2, and one part of these modern shooters that stands out in my mind as holding the experiences back is the setpieces. Many games enthusiasts, reviewers, and so called journalists detail the merits and impact of single player campaigns by describing their setpieces. Unfortunately, the majority of these descriptions are cursory and cosmetic at best.

Perhaps the best way to describe/analyze a set piece is as if it was a game mechanic. This means one must analyze a set piece on its control, intuitiveness, and dynamics. For example, if a shooter featured a set piece where the player mounts a gun turret you should consider what advantages and disadvantages it has compared to the normal abilities. Does it turn more slowly? Does it have a huge clip? Infinite clip? Does it overheat? Does it activate and deactivate slowly making the player vulnerable to attack? Is it similar enough to shooting a normal weapon as to not jar players? Is it more dynamic than a really powerful machine gun that you can't take with you?

My favorite part about some of the mounted turrets in Halo 3 is players have the ability to dismount the turrets and walk around with them. What you lose in maneuverability, you gain in fire power. This dynamic alone adds an interesting twist to what would otherwise be standard turret section. MGS4 and Gears of War 2 feature turret setpieces where the players must shoot while traveling on a moving vehicle. In both of these games, enemies attempt to mount your vehicle from the sides. Unfortunately, the scenarios are heavily scripted leaving little room for the potential dynamics of the turrets to be realized. Instead of using the powerful new weapons to change the dynamic and the tide of battle, you're simply ushered into an amusement park ride like set up where all of a sudden, big enemies/hoards of enemies are conveniently lining up in front of you. Instead of figuring out when to best use the turrets and playing around with the possibilities, the design of these setpieces says "use it exactly as we've specified or it's game over."

If the setpiece isn't a weapon, powerup, or some other kind of player controlled mechanic, then it's probably some kind of environmental event. An effective method to analyze these setpieces is by using the same techniques for analyzing variation and counterpoint. How does setpiece/level design influence and/or change the way the player plays compared to other levels? How does the setpiece develop these influences? Does the setpiece add any lines of contrary motion?



Remember this level? Flying Cheep Cheep spring up from the bottom of the stage. And according to the same gravity dynamic, what goes up must come down. The arcs these fish carve out of the air are unique in how they match the arcs that Mario makes when jumping at top speed. Unlike the falling Spiny enemies or thrown hammers, these fish can keep up with Mario as he scrolls through the level. The set piece starts off simple with a flat bridge. But before the level is over, Mario must make ascending, descending, and tricky jumps crossing paths with the unique contrary motion created from the Cheep Cheep's vertical and rightward lines of motion.

When you look at set pieces this way, setpieces seem like nothing more than cool things that you put in your levels to create unique gameplay. This means Super Mario Galaxy, Bros.3, and New Super Mario Brothers are filled with set pieces where each level (or at least most of the levels) contains some unique element that keeps the gameplay fresh.

It's important to design set pieces with the core interactivity of the game in mind. After all, form fits function is a powerful tool. If you design a gun battle against a giant monster, it's better to design the monster to take damage whenever it's hit instead of in designated suspenseful moments like right before it's about to bite the player. Setpieces work best when they set the stage for the player to make the significant actions and contributions by playing around.

Just about every epic setpiece in Resistance 2 fell way short of the mark. It's a similar story with Gears 2. I must say that I was disappointed by the moving cover Rock Worms setpiece. It was so unique and interesting, but implemented so poorly. Such is the nature of gunplay.

So next time you're playing that next AAA title, be aware if you're riding along a set path as the events are triggered around you, or if you're actually in control.


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Reader Comments (9)

Excellent read dude, I'd never considered that before. Personally, I believe the sign of a brilliant "set piece" or forced interaction with the game in a particular way is how much room the game provides for improvisation on the part of the gamer and the stories that come from these interactions.

For instance, the Big Daddy encounters in BioShock provided the player with a choice to fight or flight. If you fought, then it was capable to use any of the overarching gameplay elements to bring them down -- including the use of all your plasmids. They made for dynamic encounters that were never the same.

In games such as Call of Duty 4, World at War and especially Resistance 2, however, the set pieces are set up in such a way that there is generally only one solution, correct path, or funnel which the player need find to progress. The developer is trying to coax the same experience from every player by restricting their movement or weapons and they are genearlly out of context with teh game as a whole, confusing for the player who doesn't understand which pathway to take (especially if it's not obvious).

In CoD4 there is a moment when you have to make your way from the top of a hill to the bottom, through waves of enemy reinforcements, to escape via a helicopter. Enemies always spawn from exactly the same position, always know where you are, and unless you figure out precisely the right set of cover to move between then you die and have to start again. It's boring and restrictive. Same thing occurs in World at War, where AI scripting was so poor, you'd make it to a position ahead of the group, then have to double back to trigger them to move up.

Not sure if you're talking about the same thing but this is something that frustrates me about many single-player first-person experiences.

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Purvis

@ Daniel Purvis

Good points.

With bad set pieces, the player is often confused and resorts to memorization to get through extremely restricted scenarios.

Your BioShock examples are pretty good. I remember one battle where I lured the big daddy up a set of winding stairs where I had planted mines. It was hilarious listening to him get angry, run up, explode, and repeat.

The battle under the boardwalk was neat as well.

December 11, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

I'd be interested in what you thought about the Big Daddy encounters in Bioshock. I think they're better than most set pieces, but they remain fairly static throughout the game. Even though you can approach the battles differently, they don't change significantly so one strategy could be used over and over to defeat them.

On the other hand, the set pieces in No More Heroes, or Shadow of the Colossus, the bosses, do create unique gameplay.

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTravis Megill

The idea of set pieces in movies seems to create a climax for tension, and it seems the same way in games. Like Daniel mentioned, the Big Daddies were bosses and most bosses are used as set pieces.

I agree that set pieces need to be developed with a critical mindset, be organic, and add variation to the game.

Have you talked about tension and climaxes before? This seems like it should be a part of the Mario Melodies series, especially with the idea of adding more complex variation throughout a game.

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

@ Travis Megill

The Big Daddy's were so close to being excellently designed/implemented setpieces, but ultimately fall short.

The good... they're organic in how they patrol around the environment. They engage player and enemies alike. They are a method of adjustable difficulty in how players can engage with them or steer clear safely.

The Bad.... they are static. And I blame guns. Whether by bullets or plasmids, the player mostly attacks with gun like weapons. The interplay of guns (gunplay) is inherently low, and fighting Big Daddy after Big Daddy makes this obvious. Yes you can fight them different ways, but ultimately, you'll be shooting things at it. There's not much more you can do besides circle strafe and keep shooting.

Also, the vita chambers allow players to abuse the death penalty of any battle.

Even the Shadow of the Colossus bosses grew stale. Though I'm a big fan of the game, I have to admit that the gameplay never reaches a high level when considering contrary motion, variation, and counterpoint. Regardless, the game repeats too many of the same strategies/types of colossus.

@Bryan Rosander

I haven't written anything about tension and climaxes directly. Part of me agrees with you that such topics would fit right along inside of the Mario Melodies series.

I could use a musical metaphor to talk about how to build a gameplay idea/ design a level that builds (tensions), climaxes, and resolves.

Or, I could use a creative writing metaphor and treat gameplay ideas/level design like sentences or events in a story.

I could connect the topics of tension and climax to the Designer's Workshop series on Gameplay ideas.

Hmmm. You're right. These are good topics that need to be articulated. I'll see what I can do.

Thanks all.

December 11, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

I like the music connection much more. Most people reading about tension and climax in the context of a story will see a games as movies connection.

Meanwhile, you are really good at communicating music from the perspective of the person playing the music. You've also already made the analogies of layering together game concepts like music in the variation and counterpoint articles.

The story idea wouldn't be so bad if we were creating or participating in it.

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

Cool post. I haven't read it in a while but its good to know that I can always come back to read something engaging and thought provoking.

This idea of set pieces is somewhat of a new idea to me and I do agree that it has a great deal in altering the dynamics of game play. So here is my question to you.

I know you are a big Nintendo fan, so how does the Metroid Prime series for the Wii and Game Cube live up to these set piece designs? Do they meet your standards or do they lack because they are somewhat of a shooter game? Give details please.

December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJrhee

@ Jrhee

Welcome back my friend.

Good questions.

The Metroid Prime series has a lot of different kinds of setpieces. Let's take a look.

Let's start with a simple cinematic set piece. Remember in Prime1 when you enter Phendrana Drifts (the ice area) and then the game makes you look at a huge shadow of Ridely moving across the ground? That was a good example of a non interactive, cincematic setpiece. It was designed to remind players of Ridley's presence and show off some cool tech with the shadow. There are other setpieces like this that involve creatures or other level elements reacting in a certain way right when Samus/the player enters an area. Remember those "rat" like creatures in the very first space station in Prime1. They scurry away from you somewhat dramatically the moment you enter the room. At the same time, they reveal a small secret area that's accessed through a hole in the wall.

When talking about interactive setpieces, we can simply look for game elements that are specially made for special areas/challenges. In Metroid Prime's case, all the enemies, puzzles, and bosses are setpieces. Remember Thardus the huge ice rock boss that players have to scan to discover its weak spot? That boss was specifically designed around using the scan visor.

There are also specific morph ball puzzles/secretes in Prime 3 that are good examples of setpieces. I remember one where you had to let yourself get covered by little bugs that crawled on the wall. These bugs would drag you to areas you couldn't otherwise access, but you had to remember to blow them up with bombs before they fed you to their symbiotic partner in crime.

Remember that room in Prime 1 where players had to activate generators to lift up the mechanical platforms? The entire room was set up with unique elements to make that challenge a setpiece.

And how can we forget the classic Metroid setpiece... escape from the space station/planet before the timer runs out and the whole place explodes. That's a dramatic setpiece that's hard to forget.

When you think about it, most of the gameplay and challenges created in the Metroid Prime games feature unique elements and are designed specifically to influence the player. By definition, this makes the majority of the game sections setpieces even if the examples greatly vary between interactivity and non-interactivity. Because the Prime series is more about exploration than shooting, most of the` interesting parts of the game have little to do with shooting down the baddies. This is why it's no big deal to have unlimited ammo with all of your guns (except missiles). Because at the end of the day, the enemies in Prime are mostly designed to provide a bit of a challenge, create some contrary motion, and make the world seem alive.

December 15, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

I love your style of posting, very interesting.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPPK

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