Many of today’s most popular single-player videogames contain short, semi-interactive sequences of tightly scripted, visually spectacular action gameplay, which—despite being generally unrepresentative of a game’s ‘normal’ functions—tend to receive prominent placement in the marketing campaigns that produce desire for the games they appear in. As prevalent as they have become, these setpieces (as they are called in gamers’ parlance) are often critically dismissed as mere eye-candy—proof, perhaps, of the skewed priorities of an industry that would sacrifice the interactive substance of games in favor of surface qualities that enhance only their commercial appeal.
This thesis attempts to place the technique of AAA videogame setpieces within a series of wider technical, aesthetic, commercial, and cultural problematics relating to the contemporary games industry. It seeks to address the question of the setpiece’s artistic merit directly, by understanding the design principles that inform setpieces’ creation, and—for the sake of critical context—the aesthetic, cultural, and commercial imperatives these principles exist to serve. Following a historical poetics approach that relates practices of media exhibitionism to the perpetual innovation economy of digital games, this thesis argues that the setpiece is a meaningful site of fluid agency play within games, enabling complex narrative expression as well as self-reflexive comment about a game’s own relationship to a continuously reimagined technological state of the art.