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.