10 September 2013

The problem with The Three Act structure in games...

Warren Spector recently wrote a column for Gamesindustry.biz outlining the rules he used to create Deus Ex by and keep the development focused and on-track. I think that, in general they are great ideas for making sure a game is being developed consistently.

“Every decision we made was filtered through questions implied by rules established right at the beginning of development. This list of commandments and addenda set a good course for the Deus Ex project and helped ensure that all of us stayed ON that course for the three or so years it took to go from concept to shipping game.”

Especially when you can get games – the most glaringly obvious example being Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which Spector was not involved in) where the boss battles did not really fit into the themes and ideas of rest of the game because they were outsourced.

At the end of the article, Warren tried to make a generalised set of “rules” for development and I wanted to address one point in particular:

5. Have a plan for Act 2 

This is a commandment primarily for narrative games. But given how broadly we can define narrative (and, man, do we not have time to get into THAT here), the problem and rules associated with its solution apply to a broader range of games than you might think.

Obviously games can tell stories. So, let's start from the premise that all that Aristotle stuff applies to us. Agreed? Okay, now let's talk about the one narrative problem Aristotle didn't talk about - the one we have to solve that other media don't. I call it the Act 2 Problem.

We're fine setting up a story (Act 1). And we're pretty good at ending one (Act 3). We do denouement well enough. Our beginnings and endings tend to be fairly linear and brief.

I think he’s wrong. Or, more accurately, I think he’s incorrect about one specific part. I think that games are pretty terrible at setting up the story and thus Act 1 and more often than not terrible at the ending as well Act 3. I guess that there’s no hard and fast rule about how these things are supposed to work but a minute or so of CGI (or in-game) footage at the beginning and end of a game doesn’t really constitute an “Act” in my opinion. The player isn’t even involved!

While Warren is specifically calling out Act 2 (and I agree it’s an aspect where games tend to struggle – especially when they are focused on the story), he’s missing the point that Act 2 is worse than it could be because Act 1 and 3 are not properly fulfilled in most games.

What I think he’s inadvertently speaking to rather than the story itself, specifically, is gameplay. In the following paragraphs to those quoted above, Mr Spector focuses on time spent in Act 2, how to keep the tension built and the player occupied with gameplay. Those really are not a problem with the story-telling aspect of Act 2. I mean, many of the great fantasy literary works spend books in Act 2 for different characters and do not suffer for it – David and Leigh Eddings’ novels are good examples of this as is the near ubiquitous The Lord of the Rings.

Ultimately, I think that the entire structure of the game story needs addressing to begin with: Scrap the preconception that the games industry is good at Act 1 and 3 and re-jig the whole setup.

One of the things that I think is different for how games are presented (in general) is that the whole game – from start to finish – is an Act 2. There is no Act 1 or Act 3 and I’m really struggling to think of many games outside of maybe Baldur’s Gate 1 where the player actually goes through the stereotypical hero’s journey with the call to arms, rejection of the challenge, leaving the familiar world and return to the normal and all that jazz. Now, of course, saying that I don’t mean that every game and story has to follow that formula but games tend to eschew all these aspects and this is why I don’t see the Act structure really working for the plots of the majority of gaming experiences... of course, this may also be why many game stories are generally considered as rubbish.

So... Now I feel I’ve identified the problem, how to fix it?

I honestly think that games need to actually engage the player in all parts of the game and this does not only apply to story-focused games but specifically so. Half Life 2 was lauded for its inclusion of the player in cutscenes and storytelling elements – many games copied that to some extent. No one has evolved this process though – it’s still mostly just being told things during lulls in the action. System Shock 2 (I know there were games with this before but I don’t know them) implemented the log/diary style of storytelling – many games copied this to some extent and, again, no one evolved this any further except to vocalise the concept.
I also believe that core aspects of the storytelling journey must be present for (at least western) audiences to empathise and connect with the plot and characters. Most successful films adhere to these staples of storytelling and the more successful story-focused games tend to do so as well.

So here’s my list of “fixes” for the storytelling in games:

1. Give a sense of the normal.

A core aspect of good stories is a move away from what was known and comfortable – a challenge only comes when a person (and we recognise characters through their anthropomorphism, regardless of whether they are human or not) is rooted from this place and forced to act – whether there is an initial refusal or not.

This also provides an excellent contrast to Act 2 and an important message regarding the conclusion of Act 3. The contrast helps the player appreciate what is different and why it is different. The message is what we take away from our journey through the conflict and change: i.e. whether we end up back where we were in “normalcy” and thus the threat and challenge were completely conquered and pushed back or if we and the world are forever changed through our journey to confront the challenge.

2. Announce your themes in the beginning.

It is important that the player either is consciously or subconsciously aware of the themes that are driving the plot forward and through the conflict at the beginning of the game. You can’t (or at least it’s very difficult) to insert a theme in the middle of Act 2 as part of the conflict that’s already ongoing and it’s even worse when you do so at the end of Act 3 (I’m looking at YOU Mass Effect 3**). The experience will likely fall flat as a result because the player doesn’t know what they’re fighting against.

3. Provide closure and context.

The end isn’t the dying breaths of the boss fight or level: it’s once the story is done and very few stories end on the physical climax unless the hero choosing to fight is the theme of the story. I can’t remember the film off-hand but I’m sure there’s one where it ends just as the protagonist is about to face their foe, their real foe having been their self doubt or whatever, and it’s left up to the viewer to decide what happened at the end. Of course, this isn’t really the climax, the climax is on a more personal note and the changed world/protagonist is what we’re seeing at the end... so, I guess I just contradicted myself – good stories don’t end on the climax.

That little mental wrestle aside, it is important that players achieve closure and the context for that closure. This goes hand-in-hand with point 2 above whereby the themes of your story that you base your conflict on must result in an appropriate closure.

Appropriate closure means that the player gets to continue on after the climax and experience the character and the world they’ve helped to mould.

4. Allow the player to play through points 1-3.

Games are experience – it’s what separates the medium from other artistic forms because the player has more agency within the scope of the work. It’s very important for the player to experience all three acts of a story in order for them to appreciate each of those acts individually and respective of each other. Games like The Last of Us are acclaimed for their story-telling because they allow the player to see the world and characters before and after.

Let me know what you think of these and whether you would add or change anything...

**ME3 comment:

Mass Effect’s main plotline was not about the sentient lifeform vs AI wars inevitability. That was only introduced as a subplot for one of the races: the Quarian/Geth. Even then, this conflict was not particularly terrible and completely incited by the actions of the Quarians – calling into question the logic of “AI will inevitably turn on their creators”.

A better summary of the main plot theme should have been the needless adherence to doctrine in the face of change. The Council and Council races all are guilty of this as are the Reapers (and, by association the god child thingy). It is shown time and time again that sticking to what people know regardless of what evidence is being reported back to them is bad for everyone. All except the player who, time and time again (with his or her crew), go against the established doctrine to successfully accomplish their assigned tasks. Hell, this is what a SPECTRE is all about!

This is one of the reasons why, whether there was a re-write from “the mass effect harming the fabric of space” Star Trek plotline was true or not, reframing the series in the theme of a subplot (at the end) in the final instalment was not well received by a large portion of the fans of the series and, for many, came out of left field. Though, I doubt if you had experienced only ME3 it would have affected your enjoyment badly because that subplot is a large portion of the game due to its resolution – one way or the other.

The game should have been resolved on the note of change – choosing to eschew the policies and power structures in the previous two games that had demonstrably not worked in addressing this new threat with the underlying message being that it isn’t always good to stick to what you know.

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