Friday, August 8, 2014

Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games

In this article, game writer Sande Chen muses about the Three-Act Structure and whether it ought to be the dominant structure in video game writing.

If you're a writer, you probably know about the Three-Act Structure.  It's a popular yet arbitrary format for Hollywood screenplays.  It's a great framework to learn, especially if you want to know more about screenwriting, but it's not a One-Size-Fits-All solution.  Video games are not always going to be like Hollywood screenplays.  That's like trying to hammer a square peg into a triangle.  If game designers don't use the same design pattern for each and every game, why should every video game be written like a Hollywood movie?

The latest console blockbuster shooter isn't going to be designed like a free-to-play Mahjong Solitaire social game.  There are different target audiences, different genres, different technologies, different play patterns, and of importance, different business models.  Many times, the business model does inform the aims of the game designer.  Coin-operated arcade designers back in the day knew that the goal was to get customers to plunk in quarters.  Episodic game designers naturally want players to keep on buying episodes and free-to-play game designers would like to maximize sales on virtual power-ups and goods.

This situation is not unique to the game industry.  Writers, too, understand the whims of the market. TV writers use cliffhangers to entice viewers to return after commercial breaks.  Charles Dickens often wrote his novels in monthly or weekly installments and would even modify plot and character development based on reader feedback.

My point here is not to slam the Three-Act Structure, but to get people to realize that the needs of a game writing project may not be the Three-Act Structure.  There are plays with 5 Acts and screenplays with 4 Acts.  Evaluate each game writing project carefully and understand how the writing fits into the overall scheme.  The Three-Act Structure is useful, but there's no need to apply it to everything.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


Joseph Asphahani said...

Hi, Ms. Chen. I first saw you post this on the game writers SIG. I don't at all disagree with what you're putting forth, but I do want to raise some counterpoints.

For starters, I think the square peg / triangle hole is completely apt. What works with success in one format cannot be applied to work in other formats as successfully. There are cases when that is proven wrong, though... For instance, the first thing (game) that came to mind was Ninja Theory's DMC (Devil May Cry). I think it was fairly clear that the writers there followed the Hollywood-style 3-act structure to pace the stakes and structure the flow of missions from one to the next. (Also at work was the hero's journey, and character archetypes, etc. etc. but that's a different subject.) I think it turned out great! I loved that game not only for its action, but the story was really solid.

And there are examples where shoe-horning the 3-act structure doesn't work - or WON'T work. Massive games with massive stories - RPG's particularly - will never work because of the free agency the players ought to have over the path(s) of the story. (And if the structure does work, then I'd say it was never an RPG to begin with.) Games like Fallout, or The Witcher (which I love, by the way!) break away from the traditional 3 acts for sidequests. Even along the main path, there might be side activities that are required between milestones. (A guy in a village will tell you where to go next if you get the diamond idol from a witch nearby that can only be defeated by first defeating the ocher golem and finding the sword of ruby.... etc. etc.)

The actual point I want to make here, though, (finally) is that ... working AROUND the 3 act structure in ANY game story - be it Hollywood-style action or even branching RPGs - is of vital importance, because it sets up a pace / rising stakes ... The point of 3 acts in a movie is to keep the audience engaged the whole couple of hours. I feel the same way in a game. When I am presented with too much to do - even if it's completely optional - I feel my engagement start to wane. What I mean is, when the King himself has tasked our hero with rescuing the princess because if the evil wizard should complete the ritual with her blood in three days time... the world is doomed! Why then would the hero start kicking chickens back into a fenced-in area for a local hag to earn a couple of gold coins? That kind of stuff doesn't happen in a movie for a reason.

Now don't get me wrong. I love a good chicken-kicking sidequest as much as the next guy... So I think my bottom line point is this: the 3 act structure needs to inform the MAIN storyline of every game because doing so is a tried-and-true method of maintaining an audience's engagement with the story.

Sande Chen said...

I think the problematic part of the 3 Act Structure in video games would be the midpoint. It dovetails with the Hero's Journey when the hero's spirit is crushed. This makes for an emotional story while watching it, but I think in general, video game players get frustrated when faced with a crushing defeat, mostly because no one likes to play through a crushing defeat.

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