A recent article on Kotaku by Jason Schreier discussed some of the things that made older Final Fantasy games special to him. As he says:
There’s in fact a name for this type of thing: The “set piece.” The concept of a set piece has its origin in movies. It refers to a type of scene planned for a movie that’s in some way special and out of the ordinary, and so requires a dedicated set to be built so that it can be shot. It’s a piece of the movie that requires its own set - a set piece.
Video games don’t have sets, but they do have their own foundations in their programming. For a typical game, a code base will be set up that handles how the game normally functions, perhaps coded from scratch, but more usually based on one of many pre-built engines. There will be code to handle the menus, code for combat, code for dialogue, code for exploration, etc. Every common part of the game will have its own section of the code to handle it, with each instance of it requiring only the specific details to be changed. Each possible battle in an RPG doesn’t have to be programmed from scratch; it only requires setting up the different possible enemy encounters.
But if you want to put in a unique scene in a game, like the duel event at the beginning of Final Fantasy IX, none of the existing code is going to cut it. You have to build up the base from scratch. Just like in movie production where you have to make a set for just this one scene, you have to write code for just this one scene. Hence, it’s the video game equivalent of a set piece.
Obviously, putting in events like this is going to take work, and some set pieces will be easier than others. The duel in FFIX was probably pretty easy to implement. It could be based off of the dialogue system, with a bit of code to handle the randomization of the button you’d have to hit next, keeping track of the score, and timing to see if you pressed the button on time, too late, or not at all.
But other systems are more difficult. Let’s say you want to put a motorcycle chase into an RPG, as was done in FFVII. There’s nothing at all like it in the normal flow of the game, and so it requires almost as much work as creating a motorcycle chase game from scratch. It hardly seems worth it. But Square did something clever in the case of FFVII to get double benefit from the set pieces - they put them in as key parts of the story, and then gave players the option to replay them later. The motorcycle chase, snowboarding, and submarine battle sections of the story all reappear in Golden Saucer, along with other minigames that appear nowhere else. The game gets the benefit of unique set pieces to provide a break from the action, and then anyone who enjoyed them can replay them later to their hearts’ content.
Is it possible to go too far with set pieces? It doesn’t seem so. As long as a sliver of normal gameplay connects them, a game can be filled to overflowing with set pieces and not suffer for it. For the perfect example of this, look at Undertale.
Undertale has been praised for many things, but its elegant use of set pieces is one that hasn’t been brought up much. To list all of the set pieces in Undertale would be an article in itself, so I’ll just list all of the ones that are in the game before the first boss fight (those who are spoiler-averse might want to avoid even this):
- The tutorial battle with Flowey
- The practice battle with the dummy
- The disappearing-spike puzzle, and Toriel’s literal hand-holding
- The opportunity to wait for Toriel to call your cell phone after she leaves you alone
- Pushing the rocks onto switches, including the 1 out of 4 rocks who doesn’t recommend you push it
- The “don’t walk above leaves” puzzle, and the failsafe where the puzzle solves itself if the player is very bad at it
- The spider bakesale, with its hidden connection to a boss fight near the end of the game
- The rotating room puzzle
That’s a total of eight set pieces, in just around an hour of gameplay - an average of one set piece every 7.5 minutes. And after all that, we get to the first boss fight. Even though it’s the first boss fight in the game, it has its own unique twist to it that doesn’t apply to any other boss fight: This boss will actively avoid killing you, making attacks that can’t possibly hit you after a certain point in the battle.
The game continues this pattern afterward, with every region being filled with unique set pieces, and every boss (and even some minibosses) having their own unique twists. Yes - every boss. There isn’t a single boss in Undertale that doesn’t have something unique about it, from the different soul colors affecting how your heart behaves, changing up the interface in new ways, and of course providing unique music for each boss.
The end result? A game with incredibly memorable moments. For most people who played Undertale, I could refer obliquely to a boss as “the one with the blue attack,” and not only would they know immediately who I’m talking about, but they’d even get that boss’s theme music playing in their heads.
It’s worth noting though that Undertale works with so many set pieces because there’s a common core of gameplay running through it all. Outside of battle, you explore and try to solve puzzles in the environment to progress. In battle, you avoid attacks while attacking or sparing your opponents. This doesn’t change, but all the details of how you go about it do.
As a result, the player will go through Undertale knowing the basics of what they’re going to have to do, but not exactly how they’re going to go about it. There’s no chance to get complacent. You might figure out how to get through a certain boss fight without killing the boss, but the next boss you come across is likely to have a completely different sparing mechanic. One might require talking to them and choosing the right actions, another requires running away, another can’t be spared until they’re on the verge of death. The gameplay never gets boring.
Of course, there’s a cost to this in the amount of extra programming it requires to put in all these unique touches. But when done right, it can really help raise a game up above the herd, elevating it from simply “good” to “a memorable experience.”