With games like Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune sweeping us off our feet this holiday season, gamers are getting spoiled by video game “set pieces.” These are the crazy, over-the-top, movie-like action scenes that make your jaw drop. Like when Nathan Drake gets in a firefight on a cargo airplane with the ramp open and everything is being sucked out of the plane. As a player, you’re trying to get a bead on somebody shooting at you, but that damn wind just keeps blowing off your aim.
These kinds of scenes are usually the most memorable scenes in a game. But it was interesting to hear Justin Richmond, game director at Uncharted 3 creator Naughty Dog, describe how the developers went about creating these set pieces in our recent interview.
“One of the touchstone parts of Uncharted as a franchise is that you feel like you are playing in an action-adventure movie,” Richmond said. “What we try to do is we have these big amazing scenes that you would see in an action movie. In the previous game, it was a building falling down as a helicopter shot at you while you were inside the building, or the scene on the train where you were walking in a wobbly way on top of the train and were trying to shoot at the same time. In this one, it is the scene on the cruise ship where you are outrunning the rushing water and the scene on the cargo plane where you are trying to shoot while people are getting sucked out of the hole in the plane.”
Uncharted 3 doesn’t have just one or two of these scenes. It has one after another. The developers figure out the different elements they need from the characters, the environment, the physics, the game play, and the cinematics, or animated movie-like scenes and then put them all together for the net result: You feel like you are in control of the character as you play through a spectacular scene with many eye-popping scripted moments. They envision the set piece, and then build everything, including the story, around it. Hell, they might envision a set piece, and then tell Sony what kind of game console to make in the next generation.
That is exactly the kind of thinking that enables game developers to reach the top of their art form. They can entertain the daylights out of someone by stacking enough action into a game for 10 movies. That was how I described Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, which has set pieces such as a wild ride on a rubber speed boat as an entire fleet of Russian ships are attacked with missiles from one of their own submarines, or a scene where people are being sucked out of a damaged airplane and, in the midst of near zero-gravity, you have to shoot at terrorists who are floating in the air, just like you, before they get sucked out of the hole. (It’s interesting that the developers at Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games, the makers of Modern Warfare 3, chose the same kind of airplane-based set piece as Naughty Dog.)
In realistic games such as Electronic Arts’ recent Battlefield 3, there aren’t as many set pieces, and consequently, fans aren’t going as wild about them. In a Battlefield game, soldiers might jump off a helicopter and run into battle. But in last year’s Call of Duty Black Ops, as a soldier was sliding down a rope from a Huey helicopter, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter’s rotor and sent it spinning around. The soldier on the rope was swung around in circles and then crashed right through the window of a building. Then the soldier had to get up and get into a firefight with an overwhelming number of enemies. Which game would you rather play?
Set pieces have become a vital part of games that want to be like action movies. But if game developers push them too far, the audience won’t believe the experience. Or they might think it looks stupid. It’s a fine line. If you show a scene to a gamer that looks fake and feels fake, you’ll get a backlash. Sometimes, it pays to create tension without action, like in the scenes from the original BioShock, where you see shadows moving ahead that signal something bad is about to ambush you. Maybe the industry will swing in a different direction and get tired of over-the-top action scenes.
But this year, these set pieces are the difference between games that might sell 10 million units and games that might sell 20 million units.