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Story structure gets a bad rap in the game world.
And that rap isn’t entirely unjustified, but the baby-and-bathwater mentality we often have actually works against us.
To start with: yes, there are a lot of ways in which the traditional use of plot structure just isn’t a fit for what we do. Gameplay hinges on the player’s ability to create meaningful change in the state of the game, and story structure has often acted as an ironclad prescription for “what happens next”, all but screaming to the player that their choices don’t actually matter. Side quests and optional content can sometimes wreak havoc with pacing.
Plus, let’s face it: sometimes we don't like structure because no one likes being told what to do. I'm the same way. I resisted the Three Act Structure for a long, long time because I didn't like the idea that there was only one way of telling a story.
It’s true that game design - like any artistic process - has no rules. Game design isn’t science, and neither is storytelling. But, ultimately, human interest is science. Human interest is biology. It’s psychology. What catches and retains our attention (and what doesn’t) is fact. Our mind operates in specific and predictable ways because we evolved that way, and there’s not much we can do about it other than understand it and take advantage
The Three Act Structure – whatever else it may be - was our most optimized model for taking advantage of the science of attention. While it might not work the way we need it to in an interactive medium, the underlying forces behind why the Three Act Structure works are still in play.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that the Three Act Structure doesn’t need to be our rote solution to all games and all stories everywhere. But it is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves the right questions about what our players need from us before they can care.
Because that’s really the point - the Three Act Structure works because it provides all of the things your audience needs before they can get emotionally invested. It isn’t the structure itself that matters - it’s what that structure provides for your players.
Before we get started:
Story structure often feels impossible to apply to games because story structure is inherently linear.
And games... well... aren’t.
It can feel impossible to try and force Three Acts of linear, stringy commandments into a freedom-loving sprawl of endless possibilities. People often and understandably push traditional structure away because they feel it doesn’t fit the skeleton of their game. One is linear. The other isn’t.
But here’s the trick: even if your game isn’t linear, the player’s experience is. Always.
Games may not be linear, but the way we experience time is definitively linear. Any game - open world or rail shooter - is absorbed by the player as a sequence of events: first “A” happened, then “B” happened, then “C” happened.
(The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game with an entirely non-linear structure. Players can go wherever they want in any order they want…)
(…and yet the way players experience the game is, literally, a line. They do one thing, one place, one step at a time.)
The non-linear nature of a game’s structure doesn’t make the player’s experience nonlinear, it just allows them to customize the linear experience they’d like to have: first “A” happened, then “C” happened, then “F” happened. It allows players to chose what order they’d like to experience your content in; it doesn’t grant players the ability absorb content in a nonlinear way.
The sequence of events that the player experiences is how they’ll absorb your story, regardless of what your game’s structure is. The player’s experience is always linear, which means it’s also your opportunity to use the guidelines of the Three Act Structure in a “linear” way. What The Three Act Structure has to teach us should be applied to the player’s individual experience, not the structure of the game itself.
…but we’ll get to that.
For the moment, I urge you: don’t think about how the player’s needs should be arranged inside of an abstract structure. Think about the player’s needs in terms of the linear experience they’ll have. Curating that experience will help you learn how your game’s structure really influences any one playthrough, and that’s your opportunity to use what the Three Act Structure can teach us about player attention.
We’ll come back to some tools for how we can do that in just a second. For now, let’s talk a bit about the dread beast itself.
What the Three Act Structure teaches us:
Let’s try looking at structure, not as a sequence of rigid events we’re required to force our players through, but instead as guidelines for what we should be offering them in response to their own actions in-game (if you happen to be curious about that, you can also read an article I wrote a few years ago which includes the subject).
Each “section” of the Three Act Structure is meant to fulfill a specific, psychological need that every player has, and which needs to be filled before they can emotionally invest in your story. Before players can care, they need to empathize; before they empathize, they need to understand. That sort of thing. Our goal in studying plot structure is to understand which “player need” each section of the structure fills. Once we understand what the player needs, and when, we can deliver something that furthers our story in a way that’s more organic to our gameplay than old applications of the structure.
Basically: once we understand why the Three Act Structure works, we can reinvent it in a way that works for us.
To walk through this, I’m going to use something called “The Plot Clock”. It’s just a lesser known variation of the Three Act Structure: all the important bits are the same, but the visual is going to help us see our story as a progression of player needs and how they flow into each other. It’s an oversimplified version of the structure, and beats that I haven’t included (like the midpoint, the catalyst, the first and second plot points, etc) are worthy of study – but this article is already way too long, so I can't cover all of them here.
When looking at the visual, imagine the story starting at 12:00 noon. We move clockwise through the beats of the structure until the story ends – at 12:00 midnight. We’ll talk both about each “Act” (complete with ironic-hipster “air quotes” because I don’t want you to think of them as an abstract commandment, but instead as something your player needs) and then we’ll break each “act” down into subsections.
(Side note: it’s worth nothing that, the longer an experience is, the more Acts 1 and 3 shrink in size and the more Act 2 grows.)
Now let’s get our hands dirty! Let’s talk about what our players need from us before they can care about our stories.
“Act 1” - Context
Stories are ultimately about change. They’re about the way that conflict forces your characters to evolve, and how that process alters the world around them. But players can’t really understand change until they have a good grasp of what it is that’s changing. Players can pick up on the fact that something is “important” without context, but they can’t get emotionally invested in change without context around why said change matters.
That’s really what the beginning of your story is about: why what’s about to happen will matter. That’s the need that the traditional “Act 1” satisfies, and by dissecting it a bit further, we can learn what those needs are in greater detail.
By analyzing sections that are traditionally known as “Setup and Debate” or “Ordinary World and Refusal of the Call” we can diagnose what it is that your player actually needs: Exposition and Stakes.
When we hear the word exposition, most of us cringe. Exposition, like structure, has a bad reputation - not because it isn’t necessary to good storytelling, but because we generally only notice it when it’s done badly. We’ve all cringed at a graceless line of dialogue that exists solely for ‘teaching-time’ (“But you’re my half-brother on my mother’s side, Steven!”).
But the unfortunate reality is that players need exposition. Without being exposed to the world and the characters before the conflict really kicks in, the player will never be able to understand how the conflict actually affected anything. They won’t have anything to compare all that change to.
In the Hero’s Journey, this section is called “The Ordinary World” because (in that version) it’s essentially a dictation to watch your hero on an average Tuesday. The point is to see what their life is like before the conflict enters, so that when the conflict does enter, the player can see exactly what that conflict means. Players might understand the story intellectually without exposition, but they won’t ever really grasp it emotionally. They might ‘get’ it, but they won’t be able to feel it.
Before players can really feel change, they need context. Don’t think of it as the first cutscene you need to have - think of it as the first thing you need to provide to your players, regardless of how you provide it (more on that towards the end).
By now, the player probably understands the change your story is about, but they won’t care just yet. Even if they understand what’s happening, they won’t get emotionally invested until they are introduced to why it all matters. They won’t care until they know what’s at stake.
What happens if the hero succeeds? What happens if they fail? What’s at risk if the player loses, and what’s to be gained if they win?
This section of the structure is generally known as “The Debate” or “The Refusal of the Call”. And this is one of those areas where the ironclad prescription of different versions of the Three Act Structure aren’t super helpful. Does the hero really have to refuse the adventure? Do they really need to debate what they should to do next?
Honestly: probably not.
But the reason those commandments were laid down is because those two sequences can’t help but cover what does matter. It’s impossible for the hero to refuse the adventure without the stakes of the story rearing their head. You can’t talk about ignoring the story’s main conflict without covering what the consequences will be if you do.
So. Do you really need to follow the tenants of your Creative Writing TA from college, verbatim? No. But will your player ever actually care about your story without a concrete understanding of what’s at risk and what could be gained? Also no. Your player needs to know why they should care.
We’ll continue to see this more and more as we get deeper into structure, but hopefully you can start to see why the order of each section is important. Players need to understand stakes before they can care about the conflict, but they need exposition before they can understand the stakes.
“Act 2” - Building Investment
Now that we’ve given our players exposition (so they can understand what’s happening) and a sense of stakes (so they understand why it matters), they’re finally fully equipped to actually care. Which means that, from here on out, it’s all about a buildup and release of dramatic tension.
Now that your player is invested in the story, that investment needs to be maintained and reinforced. If you aren’t actively encouraging your player to become more engaged, then their interest will actively dwindle. Your focus is now on both maintaining your players’ investment in the story and providing a buildup to the eventual payoff.
Section: Dramatic Tension
The most effective way to maintain and deepen your players’ investment in your story is the creation of dramatic tension – which really boils down to raising the level of conflict and creating a sense of momentum.
Rising conflict is pretty self-explanatory. The hero realizes that the adventure will be even tougher than they thought. They realize that the stakes are even bigger than they’d thought - if the stakes aren’t actively growing each minute. The journey gets tougher, and the outcome grows more uncertain.
A sense of momentum can be a little bit tougher to pin down, but it generally revolves around two things:
The traditional tenants of different variations of this section - “Trials and Challenges”, “Tests, Allies, and Enemies”, “Approach the Innermost Cave” - are only important because they provide that dramatic tension by raising the level of conflict and creating a sense of momentum.
Section: Emotional Counterweight
We don’t experience emotions in a vacuum. Our feelings have extra weight when we compare them to each other. That’s true both in the grand, existential sense, but it’s also true when it comes to stories. Lows become lower following great heights. Highs become higher after truly dark times. If you don’t believe me, try watching Game of Thrones.
Especially in stories, our emotions are defined by contrast. This comes into play, in full force, in our finales and in the buildup to them. An epic, awesome climax will only be epic and awesome if the player has something contrasting to compare it to - and the fresher that comparison is, the better. That’s why the Three Act Structure contains a section for all the things a finale is fueled by - uncertainty, darkness, failure – and that’s why it’s placed immediately before the climax.
Mechanically, it tends to function exactly like the section before it. It raises dramatic tension even further, it continues to build momentum, but it does so while also preparing the player for victory by providing failure to contrast it to. It’s everything we’ve already been doing, but with an extra edge of severity.
Does the mentor really need to die? Does all really need to be lost? Not necessarily, but those guidelines fill the right need. They give the player an emotional counterweight to the epic, killer finale that they’re about to experience.
“Act 3” - Payoff
We’ve already covered the fact that emotions don’t exist in a vacuum, and this final act is all about a correlated fact: emotions also aren’t very fun until they’re resolved in a way that’s satisfying.
I don’t know about everyone else here, but I can think of plenty of experiences that I can describe as “emotional” but that I’d also have rather avoided altogether. Emotion for the sake of emotion isn’t the goal. Payoff on those emotions is the goal - it’s what everything else we’ve done has been leading up to. The goal isn’t emotions, it’s a satisfying resolution to all those emotions, which includes both the resolution itself and also a climax of tension beforehand to make the resolution even sweeter.
This section is normally known as “The Climax” or “The Finale”, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. All that conflict we’ve been cultivating comes to a head in dramatic fashion. Lessons are learned, people are changed, explosions are abrupt, et cetera, on and on.
But, again, what really matters is payoff. What really matters is that all of that dramatic tension we’ve been building for hours and hours now finally comes to a head, so by now our players should be edge-of-their-seats eager to find out what happens. The conflict that we’ve given context around in “Act 1” and have built up the player’s investment in during “Act 2” comes to a peak, and is concluded as a result. It can’t happen too early, because too much empty space after the climax and players lose interest, but we also need space for all that resolution. Hence the placement and relative size of this section.
Pretty straightforward, really: all the remaining emotions that the player has get resolved.
What that resolution looks like isn’t for me to say, because resolution is unique to each story. Maybe it involves tying up any remaining plot threads and unfinished questions, maybe it involves seeing what happened to all of the individual characters in the player’s party, maybe it’s just a little taste of what’s to come now that the conflict is over. Resolution looks different for every individual plot, but getting the player all hyped up and emotional and then dropping them on the sidewalk usually isn’t the best call. Emotion without resolution it isn’t satisfying - it’s frustrating.
Cool! But now what?
Really, this entire article has just been my long-winded attempt to build up to this one point:
When you understand what your player needs are, when they need them, and how the nonlinear structure of a game defines the players’ linear experience, you can still take advantage of the wisdom that the Three Act Structure has to offer. You just need to reinvent the way in which you apply it.
If we’re being perfectly honest, it depends on the game. Every game is unique, and so the way that “all games” create their players’ experiences are impossible for me to define on paper. Each and every game has solutions that exist specifically for that game and nothing else. But there are a couple of general strategies I can offer:
Physical space: Even if you don’t want to dictate to your player where they need to go and when they need to go there, physical space is still a good way of guesstimating how long a player has been playing and, therefore, which “need” within the Three Act Structure they need you to provide. Wherever the player begins the game, whatever story content exists in the immediate area (NPC dialogue, in-game artifacts like audio diaries or letters, environmental clues) should probably be primarily about exposition. Territories connected to the initial area should probably be most concerned with developing stakes. And on and on.
A fantastic example of this strategy in play is Subnautica. The wreckage in the player’s immediate vicinity (and the audio logs that the player is first drawn to) focus on developing an understanding of where the player is, their situation, and how it all came to be. The player is near where their ship crashed – and in fact, one of the first gameplay challenges is deactivating the reactor of said ship so it stops poisoning the area with radiation. In the process, they learn about the ship, about who they really are, and what they’re doing on the planet.
(The Aurora is the only landmark the player can see from where they begin the game, and it’s most players’ first objective. The radiation leaks blocks the player from exploring critical areas of the world until the ship is fixed.)
Once the player explores outward enough to reach the edge of the world - and the few islands that exist - they start learning more about the stakes of their adventure. They learn that the planet is more than just dangerous; it’s diseased, and they’re contaminated. The player can’t just escape the planet, they need to cure it, or they’ll never get out alive – if that’s not stakes, I don’t know what is. But because of the way the game is structured and the way in which the map is laid out, players generally learn the stakes after they already have context around who they are and why they’re here.
(Around the ring of the map, previously unknown islands reveal the ruins of other survivors from a different ship. You weren’t the first humans to visit this planet, but what happened to the old survivors?)
From there, the player starts to actively dive into the ocean, and the deeper they get, the further into the Three Act Structure they go, from building dramatic tension in middling depths and the first few encounters with leviathans, down to the absolute victory-contrasting depths of the terrifying ocean floor. Even though the world is open, Subnautica develops its story by understanding which areas players may travel to at different points in their personal “linear” experience, and it places different pieces of its story accordingly.
(Once the player gains the ability to dive deeper, they uncover, bit by bit, the story of the older survivors, why the Aurora really came to this planet, and the aliens who were here long before.)
Objectives Completed: A surefire way to measure a player’s progress in the game, even if the game itself isn’t linear, is to simply measure the bulk of how much the player has done. Creating a variable that tracks a player’s progress (four quests completed, versus ten quests, versus thirty seven) is a great way of understanding “where” a player is in their experience, and as a result, what they currently need from you.
Dragon Age: Inquisition’s “Power” mechanic works a bit like this, and Far Cry 5 uses a similar model. You can let players do whatever they want in whatever order they want, but you can also use hard numbers to measure what type of story content your players should be rewarded with.
(Dragon Age: Inquisition uses “Power” to block you out of main plot quests until you’ve done enough side-content, but it the same principle can be used proactively rather than preventatively. It could be used to automatically progress the player between otherwise invisible “Acts”, defining alternate dialogue and which versions of what text the player should be finding.)
Time: If worse comes to worst, you can always flat-out measure the raw amount of time that you player has played for. Façade was famous for it. Regardless of what the player chose to ask about, the tension between the characters slowly boiled up to the surface depending on how long the player had played.
(The tension always boils up over time, but the conversations the player chooses to have define how and why the tension occurs).
It’s as simple as if/then logic checked against an ongoing timer. Between 0 and 30 minutes - it’s version A of the scene, which focuses on context. Between 30 and 70 minutes, it’s version B, which focuses on stakes.
Those are far from the only tools you have to measure where players are in their linear experience, but they’re often good places to start.
But the final goal isn’t just to measure your player’s experience. The goal is to understand how the unique structure of your game influences the player’s linear experience. Then, with that knowledge at your disposal, you can arrange the way your story is told so that player can get what they need, when they need it. You don’t need to funnel them through a linear structure– you just need to understand the details of how your nonlinear structure works so that you optimize the players’ personal, linear experience to be the best it can be.
We don’t need to ignore our traditional solutions. We need to reinvent them.
This is a repost of an article on my website and part of an upcoming string of in-depth educational articles that's really just a thinly-veiled attempt at searching for my next contract. If you need a freelance writer/narrative designer, hit me up! Otherwise, check back in a few weeks for the next article in the series!