195: A Videogame, in Three Acts

A Videogame, in Three Acts

Most moviegoers know instinctively that movies are formulaic. But it might surprise you to learn just how rigid the formula can be. Jeff Tidball examines the movie's three-act structure and how it could help game designers make their creations more emotionally involving.

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good read & some good points. For myself, my experience with most games is they suffer quite hard from Michael Bay syndrome. By which I mean its all well & good when theres big explosions & loud noises to distract you, but the moment it quiets down for a bit you realize that theres nothing particularly interesting about what your experiencing beyond the fireworks.

I think this is a trickier topic than just borrowing from film methods because any narrative structure you impose on a game is going to inhibit its ability to be a game. For as much as we can accuse developers of only asking "Will you win?" you have to acknowledge that the main thing on the player's mind is "I want to win." How is someone going to impose the second act? A forced loss like in a JRPG? A cutscene? No matter what, you're still slapping an illusion on their progress or diverting the flow.

I think we're all becoming aware of how limited the current plots of games are, but it's a question of player motivation, not what else you can shove down their throats. You have to make them want something besides just victory.

Good article.
I find that in most games that rely on or feature a compelling narrative, the "what then" act will be presented as a short cutscene at the end and so not really a part of the actual game, just an emotional wrapping up in movie-form. That is also the problem because games are based around the interactivity and the player being able to make something dramatic and ationpacked happen - it's hard to present the third act as interactive without it being unsubstantial gameplay-wise.

I'm not a big advocate for telling stories through games. I think gaming itself is good enough. That does not mean, however, that I don't appreciate a game that establishes an extensive fictional universe, has a narrative that runs in the background but is engaging none-the-less, or that uses its narrative as a game play element (Braid, Portal).

The biggest difficulty with applying the three act structure to games is this: the best movies, the ones that break the mold, are tragedies. The answer to the question "Will the hero succeed?" is no, or they may succeed but at a great cost (such as the death of a loved one, or them self).

How can you apply to games and not frustrate the player? In a game, the pay-off is victory: you can't get around that. The closest one can get to this in a game is the noble sacrifice (most recently, the ending of Halo Wars). Giving your own life for the good of others sounds most heroic and, in a sense, rewarding; but game after game with this ending just makes a whole new formula.

Birth, Death, Rebirth.

What should definitely not be forgotten is that many stories begin in the act: James Bond finishes up some smaller job or maybe the first episode happens at a time in the mid-season, etc. This is to give the viewer the immediate impression of "this is what you'll get". Games don't do that, many games mess up by including a completely unengaging beginning that merely explains to you how to operate your character and what all those symbols on the screen mean. That fails to grip the player unless he already knows he'll like the game once this boring beginning is over.

Yes, a game's beginning should establish why you should care but a game is about interaction first and foremost so the beginning needs to establish this with interaction and about the interaction. Nothing is worse than a 24 minute intro with nothing about the interactivity happening. If you want an interactive introduction maybe some buildup sim like Anno or Dwarf Fortress could fit, you build something up and when the problems arise you want to deal with them because otherwise the things you built up will be lost. What these games do NOT have is the third act and really, why would they? Gamers aren't likely to leave any business unfinished, they'll not only kill their opponent, they'll burn their city to the ground and then pour salt on that ground. There's no next. Either the player is dead or everybody else is.

Well, there we have our problem: Players. How do you get an engaging story when the main character is a pragmatic munchkin? Railroad him? Yeah, that's going to make for an interactive story, whenever the player doesn't follow the script the designer wrote for him he'll get punished, great interactivity. Doesn't matter if you can make stuff emotionally engaging and characters genuinely likeable, at some point the player will want to see what happens if he stabs them in the face and if it's just on the second playthrough. It gives a bigger sense of accomplishment to do something unconventional, to do something only you did, to write your own story rather than merely following the rails set by the designers. I guess by that metric we should be praising ToadyOne instead of Hideo Kojima because the goal of Dwarf Fortress is to create emergent stories naturally and if they're just the story of a megalomaniac who built a tower out of flesh and bones while flooding the oposition with magma.

Players: Give them a hand and they'll take the whole arm, then use it to anally violate a nearby donkey.

Yeah, I know we'll probably not want to transplant the three act structure verbatim anyway (old plays had five acts and TV didn't take all of them) but we should be careful about making the wrong moves, especially in the beginning when we have to establish more "why should I care about this game?" than "why should I care about these characters?".

Act 1: Hello and again, welcome...
Act 2: We pretended we were going to murder you...
Act 3: Well, you found me, congratulations...Was it worth it?

This fits extremely well to the Half-Life Episodes. SPOILERS for those who haven't played the game.


The first act establishes a dramatic problem.
-Half-Life 2 Episode 1: There is a massive portal brewing over the citadel

The second act resolves the dramatic problem.
-Half-Life 2 Episode 2: The science team successfully closes the portal over the citadel with a missile.

The third act answers the question, "What then?"
-Half-Life 2 Episode 3: what then? we don't know yet.


Careful guys, I am getting my notes out of my backpack.

You are using Field's 3 acts structure of the classic Hollywood movie but what about the 5 acts structure from Thompson: Setup--->Complicating action----->Development----->Climax----->Epilogue.
Let's use Bioshock as an example.

Setup: The introduction cutscene in the plane, maybe we can even consider the title screen and the selection screen where you decide new game/load/options as a part of it as it gives you info on the game and actually gives you a form of interactivity.

Complicating action: The plane crashes and you go down to Rapture, you meet Atlas. The first level in a way.

Development: Most of the game. The development is divided by levels, or chapters.

Climax: The final fight against Fontaine.

Epilogue: The final cutscene.

Of course, as opposed to Thompson's theories, the first 4 acts are not about the same length with a shorter conclusion. A way bigger percentage goes to development, 50% and up. I still think games should find their own structure but nothing stops us from using movie theories as a base.

Games are completely different to movies. I don't see how this screen writing formula is more useful than the monomyth concept especially since movies are so short and lacking in participation. I suppose that more high definition games that had little interactivity would benefit from being short and formulaic. Would they be able to differentiate themselves from movies in a positive way though?

Cleanest example of the three act plotline: Independence Day.

Per the billboards:
Day 1: they arrive
Day 2: they attack
Day 3: they day the Earth fights back

This fits extremely well to the Half-Life Episodes. SPOILERS for those who haven't played the game.


The first act establishes a dramatic problem.
-Half-Life 2 Episode 1: There is a massive portal brewing over the citadel

The second act resolves the dramatic problem.
-Half-Life 2 Episode 2: The science team successfully closes the portal over the citadel with a missile.

The third act answers the question, "What then?"
-Half-Life 2 Episode 3: what then? we don't know yet.


Hahahha. That's very good, besides the spoiling it for people.

I've seen plenty of films that played fast and loose with the system. By and large, they were better for it. Then again, the overall introduction/question->resolution->climax/what then? provides one more good reason why Indigo Prophecy is jarring. It follows the formula perfectly (thus building expectations) until it goes bananas and then restarts somewhere after the beginning. It's like switching channels between two drastically different films on TV.

Interesting theories, but little more. As it's been said before, you can't apply the theory of movies and cinema to games, at least not directly. Your article mentions that you can't make the game more compelling by adding to the gameplay. To that, I say: Yes, you can. Play NetHack. The story fits in a small box of text. It's not compelling because of that, it's compelling because of the ridiculous depth of gameplay, far beyond most of the deepest games out there. It may be a special case, but even if you make the story more compelling while ignoring gameplay, it won't work - the gameplay has to help you out here. After all, it's what makes a game a game.

Another strike against it is that games are much longer than movies. A three-hour movie is long. A five-hour game is short. If you develop something in the first minutes of gameplay and hold it over the players' heads for the hours and hours of gameplay it loses its power over time. There are ways to reverse this, mostly renewing the conflict (also know as 'there goes the city again') but a better way is to solve issues while creating new ones.

One must seperate the game that just trys to be a game (like tetris) and the game that is trying to involve one emotionally.
I think there is a few games that have revolutionized story telling but one in particular that must be noted is MASS EFFECT.
I think that game ( the main story anyway) is everything that the writer of this article could hope in a plot that ties one emotionally to the game.
Ive played many games in my time (im oldschool) but not much have made my jaw drop as much as MASS EFFECT
I havnt really felt that way since i first played a game like say landstalker on the genesis :)
So i think this new form of story telling mass effect has given operates so well because the gameplay doesnt feel slow in anyway and you feel like your playing your part in a movie ( which you have a bit of control over).
Im really looking forward to how they are going to push this form of story telling cause i think it go a long way :)

The problem right now is that video games haven't really established a formula that works for them. With a few exceptions, a video game will either take a story and play out most of it in cut scenes, as an imitation of a movie, or it will ignore a story and just keep placing the gamer into random scenarios w/ little explanation or reason besides "He told me to." Something that is not easy for everyone to grasp is that video games are not movies where you play the central character. Just like comic books are not just movies with the central images printed out. And just like the fact that books are not just a screen play for a movie. They are separate mediums and for them to work properly they need to be approached from a different POV.

I always thought the game industry needed better writing in general. But I never thought of it that way...

Sweet, he mentioned Dawn of War II. :p

3 act structure is okay but remember that acts 1 and 3 should not be cutscenes. For story driven games:

Act 1: Exploration- drop the player into the gameworld, introduce him to game mechanics, some bad guys etc.. make the player care about the world he/she is saving. At the end of the act introduce the dramatic question. "the world is in danger, you need to save it"

Act 2: Escalating Challenges- The player completes a series of escalating challenges until he answers the dramatic question. "I've purged the world of evil"

Act 3: The Final Boss- Story driven games need this. "With the world purged of evil all I now need to destroy the devil"

Epilogue/Credits: A cutscene running alongside the credits is okay here because it's hard to play credits(flower and katamari damacy are notable exceptions)

an example of a game that uses this structure(among many good games) is god of war.

Act 1: The Agean Sea- you are thrown into Kratos world and the game explains its mechanics to you. you are not fighting for anything, just fighting and exploring.

Act 2: After the Hydra fight Athena tells you your mission is to fight Ares, and a series of challenges leads to you to him.

Act 3: The Boss Fight: Ares. Epic fight

Hl2 also notably follows this formula.

Ahh, three act screenwriting. You have to love these things.
however, as has been noted above, it does not translate properly to a game. Games are a newer medium than film, and are just now coming into their own as a narrative style, ("Half Life 2" and "Mass Effect" being notable for their driving stories) The thing is, these games are just that; stories. They have conflicts, resolutions, and new conflicts all leading to a finale. But the main thing the player sees is "Ok, how do I solve this one?"
In movies, the plot is the main driving force the viewer asks themselves "Ok what are THEY going to do about this?". It moves the show along. In games, it is the player that moves things they ask themselves "How am I going to deal with this?". Some of the best games are ones that allow for exploration while leading to an overreaching plot-line, things like Morrowind, in which the game presented you with an empty book, with a good plot-line to start out with. But how you finished the story was entirely up to you.
They give you a story, and tell you to run with it.
Morrowind barely even has an opening act. They start you on a ship, where you get to name yourself, then move you through character creation, and then put you into the world to do whatever, and be whatever. The conflicts the game presents are resolved by the player in the way they see fit, and then a new conflict arises.

However, I do agree that most good games have a structure to them. What that structure is, I do not yet know, hell... I doubt even the game designers themselves know yet. The thing about games is that they are so... open, the myraid ways of writing them so diverse, that a strict formula to making one just won't work. After all, try using the three act formula for making Tetris and it detracts from the game, but if you do not have a well made framework for a story driven game, even the best story will suck.
And never forget that game-play will define it all. Because the game-play is the vehicle that the story rides in.

You know a game that implemented the 3-Act Structure?

One of the best games of all time (in my opinion): The Secret of Monkey Island.

However, Monkey Island was a point-and-click adventure game; player interaction was merely solving puzzles which advanced the story. There was no health, and no freedom to do anything other than progress the story, which makes the advice in this article easier to implement.

In other genres which rely more on player interaction, it gets a little more complicated.

For myself, my experience with most games is they suffer quite hard from Michael Bay syndrome. By which I mean its all well & good when theres big explosions & loud noises to distract you, but the moment it quiets down for a bit you realize that theres nothing particularly interesting about what your experiencing beyond the fireworks.


Substance Abuse Center

The three-act structure has been attempted and bungled in some games, but that's not the same as it not being a viable option for game design. It's a tool, it has its uses.

For example, the structure as represented in one of my favorite games ever, THIEF: THE DARK PROJECT (with spoilers):

ACT I: We are introduced to Garrett the thief, the medieval-industrial game world, and the core components of stealth, detection, and action that define its gameplay. The game riffs on this core model with a few largely self-contained levels that build the character and atmosphere. We rob Bafford, free Cutty, and plunder the Bonehoard.

ACT II: Victoria shows up and hires Garrett (i.e. we the player) to obtain The Eye, which it turns out will require more than one mission to accomplish. We even get within site of the prize in one level and have to leave and prepare, over the course of 2 or more levels (depending on the edition of the game you've got), to come back and complete that mission. This confounds our expectations of how game levels typically interact, and feels a little non-linear, even though it's completely linear. Eventually we gather the necessary MacGuffins and capture the prize: The Eye. But when we turn it into our patron, he turns on us, reveals himself as an evil god, steals our eyeball (!) and leaves us to die.

ACT III: Garrett spends a level escaping, continues shifting and altering loyalties established in the first two Acts, and embarks on climactic revenge missions against the revealed arch-villain. It's more than a boss fight, and establishes a new tone for these final missions that wasn't present before.

We get three acts divided over something like a dozen levels, drawing on classic and filmic narrative structure and traditional level-based game design at the same time to create an experience that allows a ton of player freedom within the individual story beats of an otherwise fixed tale of crime, betrayal, and revenge. THIEF didn't surrender game for story or vice versa.

So I don't think it's accurate to say the structure *doesn't* translate to games. It's more accurate to say it often hasn't or that it doesn't translate well to all genres of games. It's absolutely accurate to say that the formula is fallible -- confounding expectations can be vital to good game design and good storytelling. Some great games tell terribly tired stories and are none the worse for it, while others tell enjoyable stories through solid but not groundbreaking gameplay. These are both fine outcomes, provided they are not the *only* kinds of games we're making.

This is a very well done approach to narrative structure in gaming, but I want to point something out:

"You can't deliver emotional impact with more devious puzzles and three more kinds of assault rifles; looking for the answer there is just plain stupid, even if it is the common wisdom."

I agree with this point, but I do not find it 'just plain stupid': good gameplay will be the foundation of that holy grail game, unless you want the player crying at the end because it was such a thankless, boring task to get through it. And new guns and puzzles aren't the solution in themselves... but how these puzzles and weapons lend themselves to the immersiveness of the game. You'll need solid gameplay, good handling, and absolutely engaging simulation to pull-off that masterpiece... the biggest thing that drew me to half-life when it came out in 1998 was that unlike the other narrative games of its time, it wasn't constantly shattering the 'illusion of interactivity' by pulling you out of the playing perspective: it told the story within the playing environment, through scripted characters and events. Removing the player's perspective by taking us into a cutscene will always diminish the experienced immersion, but then you have the problem of players missing these crucial scripts which outline the story to begin with, and the solution to that problem is in good level design which encourages a specific linear movement. That's why I feel there's too much emphasis on the cinematic aspect of game design, and not nearly enough on the architectural elements. It's an understanding of these architectural aspects that made the Half-Life games so great, and also brought us some of the most successful multi-player titles of all time from the same camp.

Writing in games is generally quite bad. Even games like baldur's gate, which is for a good deal about the writing, has rather lackluster writing. There are exceptions, though.

Planescape torment. Last Express. Star Control 2. Grim Fandango. If you make a list of games with good writing, it will not be a very long list. It's curious that games with good writing rarely sell well. That's not that good writing makes a game sell less well, because the cult following these games create gives amazing amounts of free advertisement, it's rather, the market for well written games is not as big as it is for games with good replayability or good graphics.

What I found missing in this well written article is applying the three acts to games. Because I don't find it too aplicable. Yes, games can borrow a leaf and start thinking about dramatic structure, but they also have their own conventions, which are different from the "page 29" convention.

Game design of good FPS games is a good example of the first conventions for videogames forming. If you listen to game design commentary of team fortess or left 4 dead, you can hear the subtle clues that players receive. The trailer of left 4 dead intentionally subtly teaches players about gameplay elements. That is amazing. That means that a trailer isn't just a CG presentation and not just a gameplay presentation, but a combination.

And a trailer like that can significantly improve the amount of fun a player will have with the game, lowering the entry level. That is the kind of 'game writing' that is important to video games. As much as I love good writing and especially good writing in games, it's rare for a game to have it.

That's ok. Games are about play experience and the enjoyment of a game depends more on playability than it does on emotional investment.

Loved the article. Wish it were applicable to more games. Wish it would inspire some people to make games based on good writing.

If I ever win a million dollars, I'm going to fund toys for bob to create any game they want to make. These fantastic talents are making disney games.

I agree with this writer for once. You need context for without it you have no game at all but freedom and you need freedom for without it you have no context. I think we can point to multiple endings as an a good example of this. Games like Oracle of Ages give you things to collect and activities to participate in with the end result being a new ending. This kind of thing is what makes the choices meaningful. It isn't when you end up being a bad guy for looking out for yourself like Fable and KOTOR do or when you're stuck in a car waiting for instructions like in FEAR but when you're choices create an effect without any judgement like in GTA games.

Great read, very good points. Engaging storyline and lovable characters that we truly hope and fear for can take a good game and turn it into something incredible.

For example, take Bioshock, (debatable but if you ask me) a relatively samey shooter. If it was anything else, the first two levels of the game are "generic melee weapon" "generic pistol" "generic shotgun" "go here, go there, kill this, kill that, move over here" and so on. Most of the RPG elements are nothing incredibly unique. I mean, how many times have we been able to shoot fireballs with a blue bar under our health bar?

What takes something like this and turns it incredible? Setting, plot, characters, and presentation.

Would Bioshock be half as good if it didn't take place in Rapture? Or if it didn't have Andrew Ryan? I say no. Would it be as charming if it took place today as opposed to 1960? I say nay!

The wonderful 50's music, the steampunk (for lack of a better term) architecture and technology, the hackable sentry turrets, the eerie atmosphere, the lawlessness of NPCs (scripted events but like I said, presentation), and the motivation behind all of it is the most beautiful part.

good read & some good points. For myself, my experience with most games is they suffer quite hard from Michael Bay syndrome. By which I mean its all well & good when theres big explosions & loud noises to distract you, but the moment it quiets down for a bit you realize that theres nothing particularly interesting about what your experiencing beyond the fireworks.

Very true. This is all to common.

The three acts of dramatic storytelling says absolutely nothing about whether your movie/game will be any good. Besides, some of the best movies/games/tvshows/books have no clear structure at all.

But really, you can take anything and divide it into a "problem", "action" and "result" if you try hard enough. This isn't just found in entertainment media. It's as elementary as every sentence having a "subject", "object" and "verb".

I think games have the potential to incorporate three-act storytelling and still remain an interactive medium. The dramatic question shouldn't be "will you win", but "how will you win?"

Right now, games are either linear, with ultimately only one route to victory (though there might be different ways to get there--even Super Mario Bros. on the NES did that); or are completely open-sandbox with either no ultimate resolution or again, only a single route to victory. And to quote Yahtzee, games with multiple endings based on player choices during gameplay generally boil down to "Mother Theresa or baby-eating".

I agree with some of the above posters that story should generally take a back seat to gameplay in games: after all, if I wanted to see a movie or a play, I'd see a movie or play, not fire up my console. But right now, story tends to be the lowest priority of game developers. Not every game requires more than a basic story premise. But if you want me, the customer, to pick your game out of the three dozen other variations on FPS/3PS "space marine versus the aliens" sitting on the store shelf, a compelling story might be the way to do it. (I remember painstakingly repeating failed level after level of Ninja Gaiden on the NES just so I could see the next cutscene.)

While I can't completely agree with the three-act motif in all games, after all, where does that leave MMOs that go on and on and on? Of course those have other means in place to emotionally relate to your avatar, including but not limited to the participation of other Real People, not to mention the amazing escapism MMOs provide. And honestly, Will I win/Won't I win? is really the only question I need answered when I'm playing Civ 3 or Heroes of Might and Magic 5... there's not all that much depth required.

I think the one game that exemplified the article's premise (for me at least) was Final Fantasy VIII. I haven't played any of the FF games since FF VII, but I 'beat' that game 4 times simply because I loved the storyline. The game started off with a good solid premise that was followed up by the series of steps (I almost called them quests, that's the MMO in me talking!). The story had layers within layers, and a little romance mixed in, with a satisfying ending. I guess in certain situations the three-act formula works well, but I think it really depends on the situation and the intent of the developers.

you're right, most games don't have any special point. even GTA fails to adopt this concept. almost all games put you in the game, you do everyrthing, and it is you who always miraculosly survives and always wins. this was made a rule and it is the bad thing we need to get rid of.
single paler became (l)only paleyr and soemtimes you don't even have digital friends. in light of this Max Paynes and Mafia are(mafia 2 ain't yet out) beter than GTA.

from all articles here I see this as the most beneficial and all gamemakers ought read it.
from what i always subconciously known was the reason of me leaving many games unfinished now crystalized conscious awarenes that those games don't have this structure and weren't short enough.


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