This is the first post of a sequence on plotting and interactivity, each taking on a traditional fiction-writing task and then talking about how that task is altered by the presence of player choice. The series is agnostic about whether interaction is through challenging gameplay (solving puzzles, shooting, etc., as in old-style text adventures and modern video games), is expressed through multiple-choice options (as in choose-your-own-adventure books), or is communicated in some other
A set-piece is a big scene the reader can see coming and can look forward to a while, either in fear or in hope, before it’s reached… seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama, and suspense in a story. — Ansen Dibell, Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot
A set-piece needs, more than any other scene, to be tightly paced and move forward quickly. It needs to meet player expectations — deliver information we were expecting to find out, bring in conflicts or connections we anticipated — and yet it needs to provide a spin on the narrative that sends us off looking for something new. Those are the story requirements.
Use Your Existing Mechanics
Whatever mechanics you’re using elsewhere in the game, continue to use them during the set-pieces. If you have a game or story that’s mostly about shooting things and then the big emotional set-pieces are about traversing a dialogue tree or choosing which of two buttons to push, they’re going to feel fundamentally out of place. The impact built by any writing work you’ve done up to that point is undercut by the fact that the player feels less of the thrill of agency when he’s separated from the system he’s already learned for controlling the world around him.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use dialogue as a key component of a set-piece, but if you do, the dialogue needs to be important throughout the game, not just at those moments.
Conversely, if you have a game whose mechanics are mostly about shooting and yet your story demands confrontations that are to be resolved with interpretive dance, there is probably something wrong with either your story or your choice of mechanics.
Portal 2 does an excellent job with this rule. There are several important confrontations with the game’s antagonists. Each time, the confrontation is solved using the portal gun and other skills the player has already acquired — and yet the context of the player’s actions, and the reactions of the characters, makes these moments much more narratively compelling than other times when the player uses the portal gun.
If you’re writing a traditional video game, it’s tempting to correlate a set-piece with a level boss: the level design warns you that something big is coming. The tricky thing here is that really hard gameplay — boss gameplay — may disrupt the pace of the experience because the player has to restart the scene over again. That’s fine if the purpose of the set-piece is to show just how hard it is for the protagonist to get through this situation. But if the set-piece is about something else, such as an important choice or a narrative revelation, it may be better to dial back the challenge a bit and leave the player free to concentrate on this other issue.
Introduce No New Mechanics
The set-piece is not the time for the player to learn how to do anything new. It’s the time for him to apply what he’s already learned in conditions of great emotional stress. There are three significant reasons for this.
First, any time the player learns a new mechanic, the game has to explain it to him. That means that time is taken away from the excitement of the set-piece and put into tutorial guidance or at the very least character dialogue that gives the protagonist some clues. In a set-piece, though, we don’t want to be wasting any of the small amount of time available on tutorial experiences. (It is permissible to use an already-taught mechanic in a new way, with bonus points if that results in some exciting twist to the story as well. Both Spider and Web and Portal 2 do this, with terrific effect.)
Second, if the player is still learning the ropes during a set-piece scene, he’s likely to make mistakes and need to redo things. That kind of interaction is fine during less intense moments, but in a set-piece with a lot of narrative significance, it can kill the pacing.
Finally, a set-piece is sometimes a point in the story where we want the protagonist to be making a difficult choice or confronting some aspect of his own character. If the player has an important decision to make (which of my teammates am I willing to sacrifice? Would I die for the sake of my country? etc.), we want him to be fully concentrated on the choice, not on the mechanism by which he’s going to communicate that choice.
Offer Fewer, More Expressive Choices
During a set-piece scene, it’s likely that every character’s attention will be focused on some important crisis situation: a shouting match, a face-off between the sheriff and the gunslinger, a small child in danger, a tense moment between a man and his estranged wife.
This has several important implications. First, this is not the time for exploration-style interaction. If it would normally be possible within the game’s commands for the player to change the subject, talk to someone else, etc., we need to close off those options in some unambiguous way. That might be by working within the story’s fiction, by having the character trapped in a closed room or tied to a chair; or it might rely on an extra-fictional device, such as simply not offering those affordances for the duration of the critical scene. Either way, we keep the player present and focused on whatever is happening in front of him, or the momentum of the scene is completely lost.
There are compensations, though. The set-piece scene is the perfect time to add nuance to the choices the player is allowed to make.
For example, during an exploration scene we might have options like
— Search the bookshelf
— Open the safe
— Head over into the kitchen
These are broad, general options that might lead to movement and discovery. But they’re not subtle and they don’t communicate anything to other characters; they don’t let the player role-play a particular personality; they don’t in themselves advance the plot or change anyone’s attitude towards anyone else.
By contrast, during a set-piece, we might have options like
— Angrily accuse the suspect
— Quietly accuse the suspect
— Lull the suspect into a false sense of security
Even if we’re not using multiple choice affordances, everything that the player does during a set-piece scene is framed by the intense emotional experience of this moment. That means that other characters in the room should be paying attention, if possible interpreting the player’s actions as a form of communication that’s relevant to whatever conflict they’re currently having. Because the feedback from the game is always focused on the crisis-in-progress, the player is also directed back to paying attention to this situation.
The effect can be obvious or subtle. Heavy Rain applies this general principle to a number of its sequences. During quiet, atmospheric scenes, the player is free to move characters around large areas, opening refrigerators, watching television, and otherwise loosely exploring. If he doesn’t like the affordances associated with one area, he can move on to another — drinking orange juice at the fridge, then going to the other room to look for a teddy bear, say.
But at times of tension, the player’s attention is fixed on specific situations. Instead of moving around to find new affordance sets, he’s presented with one consistent — but important — set of affordances: whatever is necessary to advance this particular scene. Listen to the suspect or shoot him? Show a sympathetic posture to the injured woman, or stand aggressively across the room from her?
Making sure that the player’s possible choices are expressive and that other characters pay attention to them during set-pieces makes these scenes stand out as emotionally engaging: they’re times of heightened contact and communication with other characters.
Don’t Waste the Characters’ Breath
The earliest set-pieces will be the hardest, because they’ll still have expositional chores to do… the later ones can be more streamlined and direct. You’ll have your little world set up fairly completely in all its complexities by then; the reader will already know your characters and appreciate what’s at stake… — Ansen Dibell, Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot
Don’t let your characters explain too much during a set-piece scene. They can tell each other things, sure — but only if doing so is actively advancing the crisis. “I had an affair with your sister!” advances the crisis. “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m a spy for an enemy government…” explains why the crisis is happening, and in this context it’s boring.
This is a more common problem than in static fiction. In interactive stories, just having a character present in the room is often an expensive proposition, because of all the reactions that have to be coded and the assets that have to be created; even in pure-text IF, where there is no voicing, animation, or illustration, there’s still a lot of work inherent in having a character around who might need to react to player behavior.
So it’s especially common in interactive stories for characters to be kept away from the protagonist until the moment of a big crisis scene where they absolutely have to be around. And once they’re finally in the room, there’s the temptation to have them explain a lot, clearing up any mysteries that the player has been wondering about up to this point and establishing what the crisis is about. This can turn potentially intense confrontations into tedious info-dumps. It happens in a host of games, though some of my least favorite examples come from the Myst series (especially with Brad Dourif in Myst III).
I fell into this trap in a big way with City of Secrets. The first 2/3 or so of the game sets up the character of a mysterious rebel leader who may or may not be on the side of right. The player meets her briefly, just once, at the very beginning of the game. He knows that at some point he’s going to have to run into her again, and there are questions about whether, when that happens, they’re going to be enemies or allies. What happens in practice is that they meet again and their set-piece devolves into a long saggy conversation, a scene without narrative drive in which the player has the opportunity to ask every question that pops into his head. It took a lot of work to build, but it impressed no one. I had the idea that the player would want to be rewarded for his hard work getting to that point in the story with the resolution of various mysteries, but it lacks impact.
It would have been much better to cut their interaction short after a few moves and move any further “reward” exposition elsewhere.
Similarly, if the player is scheduled for a late-game set-piece with a character they haven’t met before, make sure that the groundwork for that is laid down in advance in such a way that the player knows who that person is, what their stake is in the situation, and what they hope to achieve in the scene, as soon as that scene begins. The less explanation you need, the faster you can get to the meat of the action.
And if the action is talking, keep it focused. During a set-piece, any conversation available to the player needs to return to the main topic — what’s at stake? who is going to win? — as quickly as possible. That’s easy to control with a menu or conversation tree; it’s a little trickier if there’s a more systematic, freeform dialogue mechanic available. If there are a lot of conversational possibilities and we don’t want to simply make the affordances unavailable, one option is to treat everything the player says or does during these scenes as attempting to advance the protagonist’s main story goals at the moment. If he tries to kiss an enemy during a fight scene, respond to that as an attempt to throw the enemy off, rather than as a genuine attempt to start a seduction instead.
Know Your Ending Conditions
A crisis usually has a limited set of possible outcomes. The sheriff gets shot or he survives. The outlaw escapes with the town gold or he gets taken down. Mechanically, the task is to design a set-piece so that the player has no affordances that will let him end the scene without reaching one of those conclusions. He can’t wander away. He can’t derail the train. He can only go forward.
Conversely, though, thinking about ways that your mechanics threaten the integrity of your scene can be a useful way to brainstorm about twists. So your character has the ability to transport herself instantly to a distant location. Does that mean she can’t be threatened? Or does it mean there’s a way for this escape to go terribly wrong?
Tie Setbacks to Mechanics
A lot of the time in traditional narrative a set-piece before the very end of the story will leave things in a worse state than they were in to start with. Ron’s arm is splinched and the three heroes are on their own alone in the woods. Frodo and the ring have been captured by the enemy. Maybe it’s that the stakes are raised (it’s now possible for things to go even more wrong than we initially anticipated) but maybe it’s that our hopes are lowered (it now seems less likely that we’re going to be able to win).
At the same time, most game structures present the player with an escalating set of abilities (more gadgets for Batman, new portal gun features for Chell, new sneaking skills for the hero of Assassin’s Creed, whatever the player happens to invest skill points in during Fallout). That means that a lot of game narratives tend to focus on raising the stakes, or else on external menaces. The player is moved to a new, more dangerous location. A cutscene or a voice over the loudspeaker lets you know that the villain has something more in store.
Applied judiciously, however, the most powerful of all setbacks is one that changes what the player is actually able to do — one that uses the mechanics and affects the play experience in some way from that moment forward.
This is risky design business because players enjoy becoming more and more powerful during the course of a game, and mechanics that seem to take away earned rewards or make challenges less fun to play may trigger people to quit in frustration.
Echo Bazaar handles this inventively: in addition to positive stats, the player can gain menace points — Nightmares, Wounds — when things go wrong. Accumulate too many of these, and you go into a section of the story that’s specifically about how you deal with the damage you’ve taken. You can play through that and come back; it’s not a death condition. But rising menace points mean you want to play a little less riskily if you want to avoid the detour.
But it’s also possible simply to take away some advantages, as long as the gameplay afterwards remains fun and fluid, and the player feels more like he’s being challenged than like he’s being punished.
Other related posts: denouement, part of a series by “blogs of the round table” about denouement in games; Plot, Scene by Scene, which categorizes scenes by the kind of interaction the player is involved in during each; and the complete set of posts in the plot and narrative structure category.