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'Plot is overrated': Game narrative is all about your characters
'Plot is overrated': Game narrative is all about your characters
March 17, 2014 | By Mike Rose

March 17, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design, GDC

"Plot is highly overrated... focus on the things that users will retain - focus on character."
- Tom Abernathy, narrative lead at Riot Games, and Richard Rouse III of Microsoft Game Studios, discuss structure for narrative in video games.

In a GDC talk titled "Death to the Three-Act Structure!", the pair compared Hollywood's Three-Act narrative structure to storytelling structure in video games, and mused that it really doesn't work in games so well.

The Three-Act structure splits a movie plot into three parts -- the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. The second act (Confrontation) is usually far longer than the other two, and contains high points, low points, and often a climax.

Some game developers attempt to use this structure in games to varying success. Take Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2, for example -- it follows the Three-Act structure fairly well, but certain elements such as when Nathan Drake is feeling at his lowest mid-game, don't translate so well to an interactive media.

But what Abernathy and Rouse really focused on was the simple question: Can you remember the actual plot of the game, or the general story arc? You can easily remember the plots of your favorite movie or TV show, but for your favorite video games? Probably not.

"People remember characters, and they care about them... Focus on character first, and align character motivations with player motivations."
What you most likely can remember, however, are the characters. Abernathy and Rouse note that in games, when we say that a game has a great story, we're usually talking about how great the characters are, rather than the plot itself.

"People remember characters, and they care about them," the duo said. "User data proves that players don't remember plot. Focus on character first, and align character motivations with player motivations."

Apart from a focus on characters, are there other structures besides the Three-Act structure that could work in games? Abernathy and Rouse note that serialized TV dramas work in a variety of different ways, from plot arcs that play out over entire seasons, to smaller stories that play over during individual episodes -- and games have done a good job recently of adapting to this model.

Take Telltale's The Walking Dead, for example. Each episode throws new characters and scenarios at you, keeping the plot fresh, but there's also the underlying story of Clem and Lee coming together and becoming stronger.

The Last of Us also ditches the Three-Act structure, with tons of peaks, climaxes and low points all the way through play. Resolutions are often denotes by the changing of the seasons.

There are plenty of games which have no conventional structure too. Games like Papers, Please! and The Stanley Parable throw structure out of the window, while many open world games simply cannot force a set plot on the players. Once again, focusing on great characters is the way forward in many of these cases.

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Joan Recasens
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I think it may be exageratting a little bit the idea. In my experience, people will remember fondly not the plot per se, but the effects and ideas the plot bestows on the characters. It's easier to connect with someone through characters than plot, so the plot shouldn't be the main focus but the drive of the narrative, and the actions characters and players take, while influenced by what we call plot, are the true focus of a history.

Andrew Haining
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If we design Characters who react according to their personalities, stories will emerge from their interaction with the player(s). Story like that will fulfil the true potential of the medium rather than the baked stories we have now.

Michael Wenk
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To me, story is the most important part. Without it there's no game. If there's no good story I won't play. Plot is a major part of that. Get rid of that, I have no reason to play. This could be one reason I don't play or pay for anything Riot puts out.

George Menhal III
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I couldn't disagree more. Story is important but without gameplay that is just as good you may as well be watching a film. Games are INTERACTIVE by nature, so developers should nurture this aspect of games which makes them so unique.

Gameplay first. Always.

Saurian Dash
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I also couldn't disagree more and feel that this attitude is highly damaging to game design and the gaming medium as a whole.

This notion that games are nothing more than passive entertainment - narratives that you sit through - seems to be a relatively recent development and it is something game developers very urgently need to address. A large part of the gaming audience have been conditioned into thinking this way, all they look for in games is bigger and better (and more expensive to produce) spectacle, they don't seem to have any idea at all that masterfully crafted game mechanics are actually far more engaging than any plot can ever hope to be.

Look at how often the press treat games as movies, very often gauging the value of a game on the total duration of its narrative (just as a film has a "running time"). It is this nonsense which feeds into the damaging attitude developing within the audience that games are passive entertainment. You need to show the audience that game mechanics, not narrative, is the aspect which truly makes the player part of the experience. Game mechanics are timeless, the most beautifully crafted systems can be played indefinitely, the player can actually grow and develop as he/she attains ever greater mastery of that system. It's a journey which the player is an active part of, not some pre-scripted narrative which you sit through passively.

A narrative does not change, but a really deep game system does change and it changes because the player is able to bend the system more and more to his will as his skill increases. In all the best game systems, each and every time you figure out a new technique it completely changes the way you play the game. Narratives cannot do this, narratives do not empower the player nor give the ability to create the events or action the player wants to see.

With game development costs going through the roof, now more than ever we need to show these people that games are games. We should celebrate game mechanics and do more to bring people around to understanding that all the best stuff is what's built mechanically not narratively. After all (going back to the notion of value = total time playing); mechanics can keep you playing indefinitely while narratives cannot.

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Dave Bellinger
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Well, there's not much to "disagree" with Michael's original statement: to him, if there's no good story he won't play. I don't think it good to pretend that this market of gamers doesn't exist and/or isn't a large part of your audience.


I do disagree with your statements, the idea that this 'attitude' is damaging at all to game design or the gaming medium sounds like old-timey paranoia on the scale of silent films and 'talkies'. You're right in that it's a rather new development, and well it should be as gaming has technologically risen to a point at which it can support more interesting and complex narratives.

It doesn't have to be a bad thing, take Papers, Please as an example: certainly the gameplay is a huge boon for that title, but if it were wrapped in different paper, I doubt you'd see the success it has. A core component is the dystopian soviet-influenced setting, the depressing characters, the broken english, and the stories and motivations refugees press upon you to gain entrance. Without these elements, this title would have seen mediocre sales and be lost in the sea of largely 'gameplay focused' work.

I don't even disagree with Michael on the impact this has on the industry: it's a little selfish to demand from (some) consumers in this day and age to sink 10 hours into your game with the only reward as being better at the game and a sense of accomplishment. Some customers want a definable experience that takes up a few hours of their time so they can move onto the next.

The idea that this is 'conditioning' gamers that would have otherwise committed time to and enjoyed more gameplay oriented titles is a little disrespectful to your audience; I look at it more as capturing that demographic that wasn't satisfied with the level of narrative possible in older titles: a new demographic really. That said, you're probably right, I'm sure there are some lost audience members, but I also think the door swings both ways on that one.

Patrik Kotiranta Lundbeg
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Some games are fondly remembered because of their stories and others because of their mechanics. To say that stories are overrated is simply wrong, some games live on them the same way other games live on their mechanics.

What matters is quality. A good story will be remembered and a bad story will be forgotten. Mechanics and gameplay also live the same way on their quality. Then there are stories and mechanics that are of so poor quality that we remember them with a shudder and wonder how we could waist valuable minutes of our lives on them.

The Fallout, Metal Gear and Final Fantasy series are just a few examples of games where I cannot forget the stories, especially the Fallout games with their two headed cows, exploding outhouse and all the other things that happened and caused discussions in the school yard. Ah, good memories.

There are also games that are remembered because of their simulations, strategies or experience. Some games got second rate stories and mechanics but you cannot stop yourself from playing them because you want to explore and experience the world a moment longer.

To sum it up. Know what you are good at, polish it and deliver it to the audience that enjoy it the most and you will find customers that will remember the game.

Amir Barak
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"Can you remember the actual plot of the game, or the general story arc? "
Yes well the answer to this question might say more about the quality of games in the industry than the importance of plot/story in games...

Narrative is actually the most important aspect of games since that's how we interactively construct our own plot. I think games have the potential to finally allow stories to break away from the three-act structure by allowing players to engage and change the structure themselves. This of course would mean that games will need to put more emphasis on interactions than graphics/cutscenes. This is exactly why praising a game on the merits of its "story" rather than the way it lets players express that story is detrimental to the craft.

Luis Guimaraes
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Your characters and your worlds. Characters include the players.

And agreed. Plot is just a chain of actions and reactions. Good stories are not about what happens, but about why stuff happens (cause relationship) and how the characters react (consequence relantionship).

Cause and consequence are things computer-assisted games can do better than anything else (with actual simulation). Yes, if a tree falls in the woods in a video-game and the players doesn't see it it still falls, it falls for a reason (cause) and at one point or another that event (plot) will have an effect (consequence) that leads to something that affects the player or other agents (characters) down the road.

Matthew Casseday
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Am I the only one concerned with how they dismissed the surface level traits of three act structure in favor of the mechanics of three act structure?

Abdullah Kadamani
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So what the article is saying is that it doesn't matter what your characters do, so long as your audience care about your characters? That feels... incredibly short sighted. Plot (the sequence of events in a story) and character are interconnected, inseparable from each other really. Also I know plenty of others have hit this point but I'll say it any way). Tom, just because you can't remember what the hell you did in the games you played doesn't mean people at large don't.
One more thing, who actually overrates plot? I can't tell if gamasutra were trying to come up with a catchy tagline or if Tom really believes that. In all honesty i personally think plot is underrated in modern gaming. How many games did we slog through just to get to more talking or character moments, where its clear the designers hardly gave a damn about what the player was doing and only cared about the characters?
Bioshock Infinite, all three Mass Effects (outside of the conversations), almost any single player FPS campaign in the past 8 years. No I am not confusing plot with gameplay.
All that said, I do like the advice about not adhereing to the three act structure, games have a unique pacing and structure all its own. Yes sometimes the three act structure is appropriate, many other times it isn't so yeah good on him for recognizing this.

David Kuelz
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The statement about keeping plots simple resonates a lot with me, but I can't say that I'm wild about the rest of the implications. I think keeping a plot simple is a huge advantage when it comes to video games and, yes, the player has enough to do without remembering a million different details and complications to figure out what's going on. That said, even if you're focusing on your characters, the plot is the actions of your characters, and your characters take action because of a specific set of circumstances. My initial instinct is to think that throwing your plot under the bus isn't going to help anyone. You're going to get more out of your characters with a well constructed plot and vice versa. I think the issue with what gamers "remember" has to do more with the fact that movies are two hours and games with stories are generally at least ten hours, sometimes lasting up to eighty or more. The plots in movies and even TV shows are easier to remember because they're shorter, and the characters in games are more vivid because you spend more time with them, not because one suddenly became more important than the other.

Also, The Last of Us did certainly NOT throw out the three act structure: it fits three acts perfectly with Tess's death as the movement into Act 2 and Joel's conversation with Ellie during the Giraffe sequence as the movement into act 3. I'm not entirely certain where that's coming from. I'm planning going through the narrative vault and listening to all of the speeches once GDC is done, so maybe the claim that it doesn't fit will make more sense to me once I hear their explanation. Either way, it's an interesting point of view and I look forward to seeing what they make with it.

Ron Dippold
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I've been given at least 3 pieces of advice:

1) You need a good plot to tie everything together.
2) Plot doesn't matter, just characters.
3) Characters don't matter either, just the gameplay.

Suspect it depends on your game and the studio strengths... though it's always interesting to see a defense of one or the other.

Joshua Hawkins
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I agree w/ the premise. It's true most the time when gamer says a video game's story is good they almost always give examples of good character development, and sometimes good game design. It almost never has to do w/ the story itself.

I think game writers need to take more logical approaches to their writing when transferring over to games. One major reason the 3 act structure is just too hard to stretch out into an 6 hour story. Of course your audience is going to lose interest if you're stretching it out that thin, and a 6 hour story is considered fairly short in game terms.

Developing a story in game development is it's own battle. Rarely are writers given the luxury of saying "ok I made this story design a game with it", or "Hey we've got this game we just need you to insert a story." Most the time it goes like this.

"We've got a few concepts can you write an outline?" The writer then creates a highly detailed universe over the next 3 months. "Ok we're completely changed some of the concepts in meetings can you rewrite your draft?" 5 months later after several drafts. All right our designers have laid out their levels but they don't match any of your story we need you rewrite it again. Two months later you get this "we've cut 3 of the levels re-right the story so it still makes sense." Six months later "here's all the feedback from marketing, make sure they're included" One month later "why isn't the story finished? We've got a deadline!" The writer finally gets everything in working order, and somebody on the internet goes "this is shit I could of written a better plot that this."

This is why I'm pretty sure video game writers quit, eventually become crazy, or are raging alcoholics.

David Lin
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I have another way of thinking though ~

A good story requires good character development

and good character development requires a good story to happen

they go hand-in-hand

Maria Jayne
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"You can easily remember the plots of your favorite movie or TV show, but for your favorite video games? Probably not."

I can actually recall the plot in most games I play, this is because even if I don't really like the plot, I'm engaged with the gameplay and the reason why I'm doing it.

If I don't really like the plot of a movie or tv show, I just stop watching because there is nothing else to it. This means I remember the stuff I watch, because I switch over/off when I don't want to watch.

Adam Bishop
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I hope one day we'll stop talking about what's good for "games" as though they're one monolithic entity. What's good for one game isn't good for another. What one audience appreciates, another audience is bored by. Developers should adopt the plot structure, mechanics, UI, and whatever else that works best for the particular experience they're trying to create. That's going to differ quite significantly from game to game.

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Lihim Sidhe
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Patrik Kotiranta Lundbeg said, "What matters is quality."

There is a lot of back and forth between gameplay vs story but Patrik's simple statement trumps all. Ask yourself how many mechanics, stories, or games as a whole you enjoy that are devoid of quality? Okay are you coming up with a big fat zero for your answer? Exactly.

As far as the debate goes games are about solving problems and that requires interaction. If that aspect is taken away the media in question is no longer a game. So as far as games go, gameplay>story. By how much is up to debate and varies from game to game.

Quality is usually a byproduct of passion. Hideki Kamiya said that each of his games is like his children so no wonder that the original Devil May Cry left behind a legacy of gameplay. Final Fantasy VII had a mission of telling an epic, cinematic, story and while I can't recall all the Materia I still have discussions about Jenova's origin to this day. My conjecture is that story came from a passionate group of people.

Passion begets quality. Quality begets memorable gameplay and narrative. So whether it's a traditional three act structure, a collection of narrative legos, or a new innovative approach if one's heart is into it 100%, others will find their heart singing along with yours. It's really that simple.

I'm not debating whether it's easy to follow one's passion in a given environment. I'm sure whoever wrote the story behind Call of Duty: Ghosts could have done better if they didn't have Bobby Kotick's serial coded IPO Stock Wang firmly inserted into their soul. What I am saying is given the opportunity to follow one's passion unfettered most people can exceed the expectations of others and themselves.

Passion and quality don't always equate to financial success. And really that's just life. If you can show me a path that leads to anyone's dream that isn't beset on all sides with risk, I will show you a dream not worth having because there was no struggle to obtain it.

Quality. Passion. Wealth. Security. Life. These and many more factors all play a part behind every game we have ever seen or will see.

Philip Minchin
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I agree that the Three-Act structure is often a bad fit for games (though agree even more with those who are saying "it depends on the game"!) but I think that's because Three-Act structure is often a bad fit for stories in general. Saying every story has to have a before, during and after (however you want to label them) is true in the same way as saying every line you draw has to have an origin, length and endpoint. Anything that happens sequentially ALWAYS has a beginning state, a transitional state and an end state. Yes, I understand that McKee prescribes which parts of the stories should be told in which parts of the film, but there are way too many successful films that ignore this structure, whether by mixing up the sequence, by separating the audience's knowledge from the characters' and giving the audience an independent emotional arc, or by having way more than 3 "Acts". Further, there are way too many films which become predictable and boring by slavishly following it.

The point about character to me reminds me of one of my play-throughs of the original X-COM. In it, I had 2 male soldiers with the same surname, so predictably enough I decided they were brothers. One of them was the first to kill an alien and so got a promotion before anyone else in the squad. However, thereafter, through no conscious effort on my part, he always ended up scouting the part of the map where no aliens were, whereas the other guy always ended up in firefights and became a highly efficient soldier with a ridiculous number of kills under his belt. Both of them survived into the early midgame, but due (I think) to a quirk of how the promotion system worked, the one who was promoted first was always the highest-ranking soldier.

This is all boring statistical information, but on top of this I - completely unprompted - grafted this hilarious relationship between the two, where the officer guy was this well-intentioned incompetent (it didn't help that when we started suffering psychic attacks, he was very prone to panicking) who had an insane knack for staying out of trouble, showing up to mop up the final alien, and accidentally looking like the hero of the piece, whereas his brother was the long-suffering one who stalwartly resisted alien control and plowed through the invaders, all the while aware that he would never get recognition for his heroics. It got to the point where I would laugh out loud every time this pattern repeated itself (the commander found no aliens while the brother landed in hot water), and started imagining comms chatter between the two: the commander would be making these amazing, inspiring heroic speeches totally undermined by clangers that revealed his utter ignorance, while the other brother would be gritting his teeth, dodging plasma fire, and co-ordinating the actual combat.

Admittedly I'm a writer, so I'm prone to this sort of thing, but my point is that character can emerge from actions (as Hemingway knew) as well as from communication (dialogue, facial expression, etc). I know perfectly well that that game wasn't sophisticated enough to intentionally generate this kind of character arc, but I'd love to see games that work on this kind of ensemble scale venturing more into this sort of territory - not scripting events per se, but being able to recognise patterns which emerge as this one did and play on them, whether by continuing them or subverting them, or simply responding to a game event that happened after the pattern had been established. For instance, if X-COM had a more detailed morale system that could recognise and respond to this sort of thing, when the commander guy died would his troops actually be relieved while his brother went berserk with fury? Or would they feel like they lost a mascot?

Even without that I still managed to get a great story and entertaining (and even slightly inspiring) characters out of the semi-random fluctuations of what is essentially a spreadsheet with an interesting UI. I think there's a lot of incredibly exciting work to be done in this space - character and narrative expressed purely in terms of action. Games are about verbs, after all...

Thomas-Bo Huusmann
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Interesting debate and one that is needed.

As a former Story-Artist my say would be:
Story is in all and we search for purpose (plot). It is what what make our mind search for and bring emotions into our life.

Which in return gives character in a good/bad way to living beings.
So to say that we can do without story plots, are as to say that we enjoy limbo.

And as the classical Diamond plot system. Friends, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Game of Thrones, you name it. This has been tweaked for Film and TV excellence.

But Games with their ever newly added platforms, are still being developed as the interactive world of play is ever-growing both in terms of gamedesign and technology. Here there are many examples on good and bad choices.

It is a great time we live in as developers and one simply enjoy being part of the creative community in this development and racing down the bumpy road of mad interactive science.