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  • Resurrect (But Reinvent) The Three Act Structure

    - David Kuelz

  • 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 afterthey 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!


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