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  • Resurrect (But Reinvent) The Three Act Structure

    - David Kuelz
  • 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.


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