Games Are Not Movies - Stop the Three Act Structure

Games Are Not Movies - Stop the Three Act Structure

Storytellers in Hollywood have used a simple structure to deliver a story that's satisfying to the viewer, but games just don't work that way.

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This applies to some genres, and some gamers, but not all of them. To kill the three act structure in all games is as shortsightedly arrogant as slapping it into every game.

Some of my favorite experiences were linear narratives. Persona 4, Final Fantasy X, Uncharted, God Of War, etc.

I'm sure plenty others will agree with me, as well as plenty will disagree. There is no single blueprint for good story structure in a medium like video games.

FloodOne:
This applies to some genres, and some gamers, but not all of them. To kill the three act structure in all games is as shortsightedly arrogant as slapping it into every game.

Some of my favorite experiences were linear narratives. Persona 4, Final Fantasy X, Uncharted, God Of War, etc.

I'm sure plenty others will agree with me, as well as plenty will disagree. There is no single blueprint for good story structure in a medium like video games.

Pretty much this. While I can agree that a linear 3 act story might not be the best thing suited for non-linear games, to say "Games aren't movies and therefor shouldn't have stories built like movies" is a bit much. It's essentially saying "Movies aren't plays so they shouldn't be built like plays".

A story is a story, and until a better format than the 3 Act Structure comes around, the 3 Act Structure makes for the best template for story building that we have. When you break that structure down to the basic definitions of each part, you get simply "The Beginning", "The Middle", and "The End" of the story. You can't get away from that and have a coherent, enjoyable story regardless of the medium. If you cut out "The Beginning", you leave the audience wondering who the hell these people are, what the hell is going on, and why the hell they should give a damn. Cut out "The Middle" and it's essentially like saying "So Cecil was a Dark Knight who was having regretful feelings about stealing the crystals from innocent people, yadda yadda yadda, he used his holy power as a Paladin to kill an ancient alien on the moon to save the world." Well what happened in between then? And you obviously can't cut out "The End" because then you leave people without the catharsis and closure necessary for a good story...that's why a lot of people don't like cliff hanger endings because really all it means is "That story that seemed full and complete all the way up until the end? Yeah, that was just "The Beginning" of a bigger story."

Quite simply the ability of a story to maintain a person's attention depends fully on the skill of the writer, not the structure of the story itself. Rather, the structure of the story is simply a symptom of the skill of the writer. A poor writer will structure their stories poorly, while a good writer will have good structure to their story. Coming up with good, memorable characters is part of being a good writer because its through the characters that we experience the story. You could have the greatest plot for a story in history, but if you can't come up with good characters to live through that plot then you're not really that great of a writer. And vice-versa is also true. You could have the most brilliantly written characters in history, but they're completely wasted if the plot that they're living through is garbage.

FloodOne: You make a valid point, but my takeaway is a very much needed step in the proper direction. Of course to make a dramatic 100% instant shift would be bad. I am wondering if perhaps you have misinterpreted "Linear Narrative" and "3 act structure?" Something can be linear and have more or less than three acts. Absolutely some stories will work great with a 3 act structure - but the vast majority [of videogames] not.

I think that open world sand-box games could benefit the most from a Short Story Formula. In the Elder Scrolls, there are always many, many individual, unrelated quests laying about the world. Occasionally, one of them is even interesting or enjoyable due to some nice writing. But mostly they are fetch quests, or a cave with Wizard-Zombie-Bandits out for your Kneecaps. The times when you get an engaging story that stands alone, is a large part of WHY these games are popular.

In fact if given a choice in Elder Scrolls, I would far prefer a higher caliber of quest story all around, than I would
Like NPCs that were full of emotions.

((Puts on Mask, pulls out 4 foot Dildo-Kendo and marches back and forth crying "Emotions! Emotions! Emotions!"))
***can somebody PLEASE make a GIF of Jim doing that? PLZ?!***

YES, the creepy NPC thing is awful. It truly is. But id prefer it to somebody giving me an Oscar-Winning performance, full of tear inducing sentiment, with a Lump in his/her throat and a quaver in their voice: "Go collect me 5 wolf pelts for a new scarf."

Compare this with the "Whodunnit Murder" quest from Oblivion. An excellently executed quest of executions, involving stealth, role play, and use of the RagDoll physics to hide bodies. This quest is loads of fun, and despite the Emotionless Manikins for NPC's, you get the sense that you are steadily increasing the terror of a group of people, slow watching their paranoia and distrust fester, making your job easier.

The narrative of this story is entirely based on the actions of the player, and any scripting of this would have destroyed the fun. It could even be viewed as a 3 act story, but with the key difference being in where the writing is. If you will: Act 1: getting the quest. Act 2: ???? ((player determined actions)) Act 3: Profit! (quest reward and story ends)
By leaving the "How" up to the players, you have an effective quest, with hundreds of stories to be told about how it was solved. You also have to do less ACTUAL WRITING. Something I learned as a DM: shut the hell up and let the players play.

This is strictly to do with sandbox titles as a post. I will leave it to somebody else to tackle longer, narrative driven games.

Also @ Greg Tito: Awesome Faith +1 pic :)

When I was playing Portal 2, one of my friends asked me how it was going. I replied "I just hit the end of the Second Act." The Three Act Structure works perfectly in that game, and it's very clear where the boundaries are -- this coming from someone who never took a class that taught story structure.

The Three Act Structure applies to the Hero's Journey, which is the basis of quite a number of stories around the world. True, not all stories use it, but it's hard to imagine any well-rounded media collection without a great number of retellings of the Hero's Journey.

As for completion rate -- the Kotaku article decrying the low completion rate of Portal 2 came out *nine days* after release. At the time of that article's publication, the original Portal had been offered for free to any Steam account several months previously, so now there are people who own the game who have no financial interest in getting their money's worth by finishing the game.

I can't access the stats currently, but there are a number of factors that could go into those numbers being explainable, from achievement bugs to timing of when you look at the numbers in relation to when people acquire the game.

So a guy from Riot Games that basically ditched all opportunities for lore in their own IP multiple times is basically trying to tell other developers and writers how to write their narratives.

I know GDC is where you are supposed to network but honestly these conventions have just gotten worse and worse where the stuff being spewed isn't even educational or talking from experience. Instead it is people just saying what they want everyone else to do because they believe what they think is right.

Hell the best DICE talks from this year weren't pie in the sky stuff but simple straight talk and talking from experience and using clear cut examples to support their topic of discussion.

Tenmar:
Hell the best DICE talks from this year weren't pie in the sky stuff but simple straight talk and talking from experience and using clear cut examples to support their topic of discussion.

Eh... at a lot of Game Conventions/Summits they get various people who have had a recent success to talk about their experience. The problem is that these people present what they think were the key factors that lead to their success... but then often can't replicate their success themselves.

People in general are pretty bad at being able to separate correlation and causation. Even those people who achieve multiple successes have difficulty identifying what caused that success (although that doesn't stop them talking about what they think caused their success - see: people who inherit money and "hard work"). If 10,000 people wears blindfolds and throw basketballs at hoops, the chances are actually pretty reasonable that one of them may actually sink a basket.

It's great to hear people talking about their experiences and what they have learned, but I think the gaming (and tech community in general) needs to take a step back and critically ask whether someone who had a Hit Product actually knows anything special about management/marketing/design, or whether they just got lucky.

I think that to talk about any kind of "story structure" in a videogame just misses the point completely. Gaming is an interactive medium, not a narrative one. It can't possibly be both.

Take "Half Life 2". A game I absolutely love and have played through many, many times. I think it's a shining example of how to completely immerse a player in a videogame character. It's completely linear. You basically have no decisions in terms of where the story goes, yet it's still completely driven forward by the player. Everything you see in that game is from the point of view of Gordon Freeman, including the cutscenes (of which there are very few, and they all fit perfectly into the game's world). If you don't act, the story won't move forward. And your actions feel as though they contribute to the story in a meaningful way.

There may be many fixed points in a videogame "story", but in the end, it should be driven by the player. If you have to take control away from the player in order to progress the narrative, the game has failed. If the player's actions are of no consequence to the story, the game has failed.

In the end, I don't particularly care about "acts" or about linearity. "Fallout 3"'s main quest, for example, kinda sucked - I didn't feel as if anything I did "mattered". And this was in an open-world game! In the sequel, I felt as though I was in the driving seat, making the decisions. And while the execution wasn't spot on - some of the "decision points" in "New Vegas" were badly telegraphed - in the end it was ME making the decisions, and me who cared enough about the world and the characters within it to be "invested".

Or take "Bastion", a game with a completely linear three-act storyline. The game constantly made me feel as though I was in control, gave me decisions about how to play it, and had the narrator react to many of the things I did. This is a near-perfect example of storytelling in an interactive medium.

TL:DR version:

1) Interactive mediums are the opposite of narrative ones. You can't "set" a fixed pace of a story when you don't have full control over its protagonist.

2) It's not about how many acts there are or what the story "structure" is. It's about how the game allows the players to interact with the story and immerse themselves in it.

I couldn't recall offhand who Riot Games were, so I googled (League of Legends, btw). Then I scratched my head in befuddlement as to why someone from there is discussing storywriting. I mean, its not my thing, though I don't begrudge those who play it their little corner of the world. Its prettymuch the story equivalent of playing Magic the Gathering while randomly throwing in your Pokemon and Yugi-Oh cards for the heck of it.

I don't think the act structure particularly fails, though a lot of games are lacklustre at the second act (which often feels like they took the start and the finish and stuffed the middle to meet an hour quota). Their inability to chart Fallout 3 isn't helping credibility. It has two storylines (Finding your father, then the Purifier/Enclave issue), but they both fall fairly readily into the structure. Maybe thats what they're advocating, but if so, it seems to be fairly prevalent already.

The beautiful thing about games is that they are the single most diverse art form ever created. You can have an amazing narrative game like Mass Effect, or an amazing world building experience like Fallout 3. In fact, I would argue that they look at Fallout 3 in the wrong light. I would compare Fallout to an anthology of short stories, not a film with an arc.

To say that we need to get rid of the three act structure, though, is ridiculous. To then claim that a television structure is superior to a three act structure is almost insultingly bad. Use whatever fits your narrative/game. That's like saying the Heroes Journey should be retired. It exists because it works, and while it's by no means necessary, and many advanced story tellers are able to work outside of the three act structure, it's by no means bad.

"Why worry about the third act of your game's story when the majority of players will never see it?"

*grabs shotgun and shoots self in head*

 

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