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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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