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Video Game Setpiece

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Gabe: 'Survival Horror' is a fancy way of saying 'Monsters will come through windows'.
Dinosaur: Would it be scary if maybe I came through a door or something?
Tycho: Give it a shot, we'll be in the kitchen.
Penny Arcade, in discussion of set pieces used by Capcom's Survival Horror series, namely Dino Crisis.

As computer game players have become more and more familiar with the conventions of gaming, so game designers have to work harder to surprise them. One solution that is particularly popular in FPS games but is becoming prevalent in other genres, is the setpiece.

This involves an occurrence (triggered by an internal clock or the player reaching a certain checkpoint) that is not part of the game's typical gameplay/engine mechanics. For example, there is a moment in Half-Life 2 in which the player is racing down a river on a motorboat, only for a massive chimney on a nearby factory to be struck by a missile, causing it to fall over, directly in the path of the player. If he or she has quick enough reactions, the player can then steer towards the middle of the chimney where there is a big enough gap to squeeze through. Alternatively, a setpiece can be something small and non-game-changing, such as seeing a monster scuttle past a window in Resident Evil 2, or having a fan loudly slam shut without warning in F.E.A.R..

The setpiece stands out from other Scripted Events in such games in that it is a one-time deal. If it happens frequently then it's a standard Scripted Event. Additionally, it has to be an integral part of the gameplay rather than a hands-off Cut Scene.

As well as providing the player with some variety in their gaming, the setpiece also helps make the game world seem more 'real', by breaking the established rules set up by the game engine. In pre-setpiece games such as Doom, the player could quickly learn how monsters acted and what the limitations of the game world were. Setpieces do away with these limitations - for example, the player cannot assume that a monster will not break down a locked door, or that an empty corridor is completely safe. Thus, the gamer can believe that he or she is in a real world rather than an artificial level.

There is a skill to making setpieces, though - particularly those that directly affect gameplay, such as the Half Life 2 example above. There must be a balance between spectacle and difficulty. If a player keeps dying due to a setpiece then the artificiality of the game becomes even more exposed than normal and it quickly gets boring. The trick is to make the player look like he or she has achieved something impressive while setting them a relatively easy task. Done well, a gameplay-affecting setpiece can make a player feel like they're taking part in a movie without interrupting the flow of the game. A Chase Scene will often be littered with setpieces, forcing the player to either adapt to them on the fly (good) or memorize the safe route through (bad).

Setpieces are as good as required in Survival Horror and other games with a creepy mood. Knowing that, with the next step forward, something unexpected could jump into view does wonders for keeping up the tension. Setpiece Puzzle and Teleporting Keycard Squad are subtropes. Also see the Savage Setpiece for entities that seem like aesthetic setpieces until you mess with it.


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    Action Adventure 
  • Assassin's Creed has setpieces at various points in all the games, but the stand-out example is in Rogue, where a mission set during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake features a setpiece that lasts a full five minutes, as you sprint through the town with buildings and streets collapsing all around you, sometimes while you're in them.
  • God of War has setpeices as minigames, such as in the opening to the second game, involving the homicidal magically-animated Colossus of Rhodes, or jumping from pillar to falling pillar.
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has some of the most amazing setpieces of any game. The most impressive of these is a level that takes place on a moving train, itself a giant setpiece, and having to battle enemies while pressing forward. Eventually your enemies call in a gunship, and you have to move forward quickly while it shoots missiles at the cars, detaching them one by one. Eventually you get to take it down with an Anti-Aircraft gun. And that's only a small part of what makes the game so fantastic.
  • There are numerous instances within the Silent Hill games where one-time events happen. Some of them are relatively easy to miss, such as in Silent Hill 3 after climbing up the ladder in the Dark Hospital and turn right, you would see Valtiel dragging away a nurse. Even if you exit the hallway and go right back in, it will never trigger unless you start over. Then there is the infamous Mirror Room.
  • The second lap of the podrace level in LEGO Star Wars has Sebulba and another racer ramming each other. Sebulba rams the other guy into a butte, which falls over and blocks the path you took on the first lap.
  • Batman: Arkham City has Protocol 10, where the mercenary helicopters patrolling the mega-prison are launching missiles at the complex in an attempt to kill everyone. The prisoners that normally wander the streets are replaced with corpses, and the normally neutral helicopters will become hostile on sight.

    First Person Shooter 
  • The Half-Life games and expansion packs made heavy use of setpieces - everything from monsters breaking down doors to automated tours of labyrinthine factories. Valve once said that they use so many because Half-Life without set pieces is boring: Valve themselves learned this lesson while brainstorming on Half-Life's level design, sticking every single character, object and set piece they'd come up with so far into a single level and noticing how fun said level was to play. Such is the quality of their set pieces.
  • F.E.A.R. alternated between standard FPS action sequences and creepy horror setpieces featuring weird hallucinations and creepy laughter.
  • Duke Nukem 3D featured occasional setpieces such as earthquakes and collapsing buildings.
  • Doom³: Although the classic Doom games (including 64) predated this phenomenon, this game included several setpieces along with more traditional Cut Scenes.
  • Aliens vs. Predator 2:
    • The game uses several of these, the most impressive being a false scare wherein a ceiling panel pops out, causing a curved pipe and length of cable -which look exactly like an Alien's head and tail- to come swinging out in front of the player.
    • All of the AvP games are packed with these sorts of cheap scares, usually a blast of steam in a dimly lit corridor that sounds far too similiar to an enraged xenomorph.
  • Half of BioShock's creep factor comes from the numerous set pieces in the game. The other half comes from disturbing images while ragtime music from the likes of The Inkspots plays.
  • The Infinity Ward-created titles in the Call of Duty series are famous for some of their incredible scripted sequences. These range from crossing the Volga River in Call of Duty to the first few seconds of the Normandy landing in Call of Duty 2 to a chilling scene in Call of Duty 4 where you live through the last few minutes of a player character's life as he limps hopelessly through a nuclear wasteland.
  • Killzone 2 has a moment were a boarding party smashes through the side of your ship's hull meters away from you in a massive explosion. You then face a Hellghast-style Zerg Rush, a mere second after the level being relatively calm. It also has one later on when a flying unit's bugging you on the last level. It has chainguns and rockets, but can't actually kill you unless you suck. It's cool though.
  • Left 4 Dead uses this as well.
    • Most doors can be destroyed by the zombies and your gunfire and the majority of cars and other large objects can be tossed around by the Tank. A plane crashes in the finale of Dead Air and the wreckage gets scattered across the field and then becomes a part of the level.
    • There's actually an in-game engine called the AI Director that is programmed to create said setpieces and place them in convenient spots, effectively making a different experience every time you play a level.
    • The sequel takes this one further. Not only can it litter mobs and items around the level, it can now alter the level layout based on player actions on the fly.
  • Medal of Honor: Vanguard has sections where tanks blow holes in walls, which is something that cannot happen normally as the game's engine does not feature destructible walls.
  • In 8Bit Killer, most scenery that isn't doors is static, except for two windows next to a Locked Door in the town hall; when you pick up a key, two brutes will jump in through these windows as you approach the door, leaving behind broken glass. Nowhere else in the game does this happen.

  • Sonic Adventure featured setpieces when running through certain areas, such as killer whales leaping over the player.
    • Since then, it has become increasingly common in Sonic games, though it supports the series' stylishness (which has always been the case) and the notion that Sonic lives for thrills. (It also establishes Dr. Eggman's modus operandi as surprise attacks.) It has even recently pervaded side games—Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, for instance, has something happening in nearly every course that changes the layout of the place, such as a police helicopter destroying the highway forcing the racers to take to the air for the final lap.
  • Older Than They Think: Another World from 1991 used setpieces extensively.
  • Owlboy has a setpiece right before the climax of the game, where Otus and company are in Mesos, trying to stop Solus. As this is Mesos, the air is too thin for Otus to fly, leading to some painful platforming challenges. Midway through their climb up to Solus's lair, the leftover effects of the Hex kick in, and the world begins to end, sending the broken platforms Otus is standing on floating into space— where he discovers he can fly again, due to the lack of gravity. The music truly sells it, setting things up for the game's final battle.

  • Arcaea does this for some boss unlock events:
    • Vicious Labyrinth DLC: Meeting certain requirements (a combination of the correct Partner, Partner level, and a high enough Life Meter) on the song "Axium Crisis" triggers what appears to be a malfunctioning of the game itself, with the graphics getting garbled, the sound distorting, and the player seemingly unable to hit notes. After several seconds, a special shutter comes down on the screen to introduce the Final Boss track of the DLC, "Grievous Lady".
    • Luminous Sky DLC: Fulfilling the correct requirements on "Ether Strike" causes the player's Life Meter to suddenly change to a Hard meter (70% pass requirement lifted, but now there is a Game Over if it drops to 0%). The player starts taking Damage Over Time, and as their lifebar decreases the screen gradually fades to white, giving the impression of slowly dying. Should the player make it all the way to the end of the track, it goes on longer than it's supposed to, the player may start getting more points than what is supposed to be the maximum, and visual glitches like in "Axium Crisis" begin to take place, before the song is cut off to introduce "Fracture Ray".
    • Black Fate DLC: Fulfilling a set of conditions will allow you to play the song "Tempestissimo", and should you fulfill specific conditions during that, most of the HUD disappears, Tairitsu appears on the right side of the screen, and the difficulty is kicked up by one level (Past becomes Present, Present becomes Future, and Future becomes Beyond).

  • Fallout 3 has a couple of them. Perhaps more people will recall Liberty Prime's march to the Jefferson Memorial as the most memorable moment of the game, but equally awesome (and far more terrifying) was the arrival of the Vertibirds. You're traveling through an access tunnel, trying to get Project Purity up and running, when you come to a break in the pipeline. You look out, and watch as a fleet of black, insectoid helicopters descends from the sky.
    • Also awesome: every Behemoth in the game. Hell, one of them is triggered by picking up a teddybear!
    • Special mention goes to DLC Point Lookout's set pieces in Calvert Mansion. Groups of Tribals continually take advantage of the structurally-unsound estate by bursting through walls and then proceeding to savage you with whatever they happen to be carrying at the time. This quickly becomes predictable, and a few well placed mines outside a boarded up door or weak looking piece of ceiling can derail these events. Just as the novelty starts to wear off, you yourself fall victim to the mansions derelict state falling THREE FLOORS down through the mansion into a wine cellar and are then forced to fight your way out. Props to Bethesda for finding a way to show off their DLC's new character animations while stopping repetitiveness and maintaining the immersion.
  • Mass Effect 3 makes use of tons of these as a way of deliberately breaking up the monotony from the pattern in Mass Effect 2 of "see waist-high cover, prepare for combat." In the very first level, for example, the explosion of a dreadnought ship in the distance sends out a shockwave that destroys the building Shepard and Anderson are standing on, sending them plummeting and completely changing their route back to the Normandy.
  • Final Fantasy XIII has some of these, mostly in the Hanging Edge and Eden where flying objects will crash and explode on the path. One example that affects gameplay is a large rolling object in the Vile Peaks collapsing an improvised bridge and keeping Sazh and Vanille from following Lightning and Hope.
    • Final Fantasy XV uses them for a number of different reasons. One of the first things you do, in fact, is an intentionally low key setpiece in which you... slowly push your car towards a gas station as your party members complain. By the end of the game, of course, you've had the opportunity to teleport between airships as you blow them up, race a car towards a closing gate while under bombardment by missiles, and summon a 40-story tall dragon god. The DLC episodes introduce even more setpiece moments, like using a turret mounted on a snowmobile to destroy a giant mechanical snowworm and sailing a motorboat around a 50-story tall Titan as it pulls airships from the sky.

  • FreeSpace is a space-sim chockful of these, including one where the ship you were supposed to be escorting gets blown up (to prove how powerful the new alien enemies are.) but launches an escape pod and you're supposed to protect that. Gets dumb when the ship makes it into the jump portal and sits there for a few minutes waiting to die.
    • Most space sims were prone to this sort of thing as a result of the unpredictability of 3D movement and AI limitations. If your objectives are supposed to change mid-flight, you can be sure that something stupid may very well happen to mess things up. If you're lucky, the set piece was just for show and you can finish the mission, otherwise...
    • Using the level editor also reveals that there's two types of asteroid fields: Ones where the rocks just float around (great for dogfights) and those where the field actively hurls rocks towards ships (Escort Missions). Also, all capital ships were internally treated as setpieces: they had little AI beyond shooting with anti-fighter weapons, and capital ship vs capital ship combat was usually choreographed by the level designer.
      • FreeSpace 2 corrected this by giving capital ships gigantic Wave Motion Guns they'd use against each other, providing yet another hazard to the player because said beams would vaporize fighters in an instant, no matter how much health they had. Capital ships were also given shrapnel-spewing flak cannons and pinpoint-accurate Anti-Fighter Beams, making them a serious threat to attacking fighters and bombers, unlike the first game.

    Survival Horror 
  • The Resident Evil games would frequently include setpieces such as enemies smashing through windows to eat the player.
    • Remember the two way mirror setpiece in Resident Evil 2? Cause my dry cleaner does.
    • Resident Evil 4:
      • Very early on, there's a little shack along the road. When you go through the door and turn to the left, say hi to a guy with a pitchfork ready to kill you. This wasn't replicated again elsewhere.
      • Partway through the game, a set piece is used to introduce a brand new type of enemy. Upon entering some sewers, you hear what sounds like something breaking through a metal grating somewhere. Then you hear the sound of something in the distance rapidly scurrying toward you and stopping somewhere right by you, but nothing will be in sight. Although nothing will actually harm you in this scripted event, it's building up for your first encounter with the actual enemies, which as it turns out are humanoid insects with stealth camouflage powers.
      • Perhaps the most notorious set piece in RE 4 is the oven man. To put it simply, it involves a flaming Ganado hiding in a large oven.
  • System Shock 2 does this in spades. It's the little things, like when you turn a corner to come upon the ghosts of two of the crew — one of whom is about to turn the other into one of the cybernetic monsters you've been fighting for the last hour — and it is also the big things, like when you finally get to the person you've been trying to reach throughout the entire game to date, only to find that she committed suicide a while ago — but apparently that didn't stop her sending you voice messages. At which point, you're treated to a nine-minute in-game cutscene which completely changes what's going on. For the worse.. These (generally very well-done and believable) twists make what would already be a nerve-wrackingly scary game absolutely terrifying, and deeply affecting as well.
  • A number of these occur in Dead Space, being as the game is a survival horror piece. One interesting one, however, occurs early in the game where the player will hear the cry of a necromorph as they go to open a door, and see its shadow run across the wall in front of them. Turning quick enough will show a glimpse, and pursuing the necromorph down the corridor will show you one more glimpse only to find the creature gone, likely into the vents. The interesting part is, this event refuses to be triggered deliberately, say by reloading to before it occurred and approaching the door again.
  • The Suffering and to a lesser extent, its sequel tries to spice up the set pieces. For example: Checking on security camera video feeds provides vital information on threats up ahead. Or just imagery. But check on the same cameras two seconds later and... fun... things might happen.
  • The Clock Tower games often rely on this extensively. In the opera house level on one of the games, you do nothing but interact with setpieces in attempts to escape from the killer. Hide in a pipe, wait for him to try to grab your legs. Hide in a closet, wait for the pillar to topple over on his head, etc.
  • As the page quote indicates, this is pretty common in Dino Crisis. Perhaps making the quote funnier is the fact that in some places, if you try to escape the raptors by going to another room, they will follow you through the door.

    Third Person Shooter 
  • Just Cause 2 has a very well done car chase scene early in the game that seems to be what the developers put the brunt of their scripting and programming into, as the rest of the game tends to get a bit bland in comparison.
  • The Max Payne games featured a couple of setpieces, mostly involving collapsing scenery. Most notably, an entire level in which the player is chased through a collapsing building by a fire.
  • Splatoon 2 features several impressive unique setpieces in its Splatfest-exclusive "Shifty Station" stages, but of note is the stage that appeared during the Final Fest: Splatocalypse event. Throughout the match, there is a helicopter above the stage where Pearl and Marina can be seen performing the background music live. When one minute remains, Pearl descends onto the center of the stage where she prepares the Princess Cannon. The first player to tag her — notably the only instance of players in a Player Versus Player match interacting with a Non-Player Character, and a major one at that — gets to use the cannon; after they give the command to fire, Pearl shouts into the cannon, turning her voice into a massive Wave-Motion Gun.
    "It's the voice to end all voices!"