What is Three-Act Structure and how does it apply to gaming?
In its most simplistic form, it's a story with a definite and sectioned beginning, middle, and end, along with specific events that are expected in each segment. Look at Three-Act Structure as some form of "Get the hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then have him get himself down (one way or another)." Of course, this is a simplified example, but it's the root of story-driven games that are worth the money.
Let's delve a little deeper into that simplified example of the structure.
The first act is going to be largely informative -- it'll be establishing the protagonist and antagonist of the story and presenting the central problem that will be the basis for the adventure at hand: introduce the hero and get him up a tree. Act Two generally involves the trials and tribulations that pit the protag and antag against one another from afar. The villain keeps hatching plans and throwing up obstacles for the hero to solve or survive (i.e. "throw rocks at the hero while he's in the tree"). Act Three is the Final Battle and brief wrap-up/epilogue (though not TOO brief…I'm looking at you, BioWare). The hero must either solve the central problem and save the day, or ultimately fail and lose. Either way he's out of the tree, whether by getting himself down or by falling.
So what does that mean we as gamers should be looking for in a really well-done story? Here's a breakdown of what you can expect from the Three-Act Structure as a whole and what kinds of events or subtleties could or should be popping up in each act.
Game Introductions and Act One
Most single-player games are going to start you with very little back-story. This is one of the most basic tenets of storytelling: begin in medias res. Start right in the middle of the action. As gamers, we're smart enough to figure out the back-story as we go along (or create our own, in roleplay-heavy environments). Just put the mouse or controller in our hands and get us going, we'll pick up on what's behind it all as we move forward. Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls series has moved more toward the action-focused introduction as its games progress; in Skyrim, the player character is dropped into an execution scene and forced to make immediate decisions with almost no back-story. This allows the player to generate his or her own background and start developing the character immediately, but still gives Bethesda immediate control of what happens.
So Act One is still there, but the player is moving through it and getting the information as it is revealed, in much the same way a well-written novel, play, or film should do.
Certain scenes will occur in any game's first act; the better the writing, the better the experience – whether the scene is accomplished as a cinematic or through live-action gameplay, good experiences are built on great writing and scripting. The Opening Image and the Grand Introduction of the Hero will be almost immediate (some games, like Portal don't go through efforts to showcase the hero's outward appearance -- Half-Life doesn't give our hero a voice). In games where you choose your hero's appearance and back-story, the introduction probably won't be quite as grand, like the muted intro to your character in Skyrim, but you get the idea. Often a game like Skyrim will ratchet up the excitement immediately after meeting your character to compensate, as was the case with the dragon attack on Helgen.
You'll also Meet the Antagonist very early on, as with the cutscenes of Darth Malak attacking Taris in Knights of the Old Republic, or the early scenes with Edgar Ross's government agents in Red Dead Redemption, or our immediate conflict between Stormcloaks, Imperials, and Alduin. Even if you don't come face-to-face with the actual antagonist right away, you'll still meet the problem created by the antagonist almost immediately. This may come in the form of your imprisonment and the puzzles you must conquer to be free (where GLaDOS awaits anyone who gets far enough) in Portal, or the blight that afflicts Ferelden at the opening of Dragon Age: Origins.
And of course you'll receive the Call to Adventure, which may be an actual call like Cole Phelps' first case in L.A. Noire, or just an inciting event like the rush to escape Vault 101 and find your father at the start of Fallout 3. You may also encounter some kind of Deadline or Ticking Clock phenomenon in the early stages of the game. These aren't necessarily enforced within the game's mechanical parameters, but they are presented nonetheless to encourage guided play. You may meet one – or more likely, many – mentor character(s) in Act One. And, if the story is more linear than open world, you will probably encounter the Love Interest, the protagonist's Hidden Wound, his or her Hopes and Fears, and of course the Central Question (Can Batman save Commissioner Gordon and stop Joker's maniacal plan from within Arkham Asylum's walls?). Some of these may have multiple iterations in a game, or they may not occur until partway through Act Two, but most of them are likely to occur at some early point in the setup of Act One.
Building Conflict and Act Two
The second act is trickier. Campaigns these days are becoming increasingly dependent upon player choice (a result, in part, of technological leaps and demand). It's becoming increasingly rare to find a single-player-focused game where you don't have options that will, to one degree or another, affect the outcome of the story. Act Two is already the longest part of any story and is often written with the antagonist in mind. Even if you never see the antagonist doing any planning during Act Two, almost every obstacle the protagonist will face comes about because the antagonist wants to win and force the hero to lose. This has been true since before Donkey Kong first threw flaming barrels at Mario. Because open world games put even more control in the hands of the gamer, good developers are being forced to make some side quests that appear created by (or at least related to) the antagonist, even if they're really just side quests to bide time and instill reason in a character's ventures. Players quickly tire of endless fetch quests and dungeon crawls and "kill X amount of monster Y" quests with no real point besides the leveling grind, and if it's all going to happen before the final act anyway it might as well adhere to a solid story structure.
The kinds of scenes and events that might show up in Act Two are often more varied than Act One: You may see some of the scenes mentioned earlier, like the Ticking Clock, or encounter other writing staples, like the Gathering of Tools and Weapons, Assembling the Team, and a Training Sequence -- all of which are templated enough to identify in nearly every RPG. Act Two will invariably begin with an Into the New/Special World scene, but that is made less dramatic in gaming than in other media because the moment you start the game you've crossed a threshold into a special world; doing so twice does not double its 'special' factor. Moving from the Pillar of Autumn to the surface in the first Halo is hardly as dramatic as moving from your couch into Master Chief's cryo-sleep tube in the first place.
In Act Two you can usually expect some form of game-changer where a kink comes out of left field to screw up the protag's plans, or maybe the Loss of a key ally (whether perceived, such as Sully getting shot in the first Uncharted, or the actual death of Yusuf Tazim in Assassin's Creed: Revelations). You may even encounter a point of Initial Failure where the protagonist must retrain or even re-examine the chosen course of action in order to overcome that failure in the event it is presented in the final battle in Act Three. The trials of Link in The Ocarina of Time are an easy example of a series of trial-and-error tasks that get completed by the PC (player character), eventually training our character and player how to deal with Ganondorf. Often one of these can lead to a low point for the protagonist, usually shown as a cinematic, officially called the Long Dark Night of the Soul. It's that moment when all seems lost for your hero. It's also a pretty good indicator that you're somewhere between the mid-point and the end of Act Two in the main storyline, and it's normally closer to being the latter of the two.
Conflict Resolution and Act Three
Act Three is much shorter in any story medium, but especially so in gaming. As with any good story, the Final Battle will likely take place on the antagonist's turf, putting the protagonist at a significant disadvantage. This is demonstrated when the Spartans and marines assault the Flood vessel in Halo, Link's battle in Ganondorf's (claimed) citadel, or when the Red Faction troops infiltrate the depths of Mars to stop the threat to the isolated colony. It will usually be broken into two separate stages in the game. Stage One will be the big assault just to get to the antagonist, as in the first Mass Effect when you work your way to the Council's chambers on the Citadel in order to fight Saren, or the fight to get through the Tattered Spire and into the Final Showdown in Fable II. Stage Two is, of course, the ultimate boss battle itself. How you get your hero out of the tree will depend largely on your skill in that battle. Will you spring upon the bad guy and save the day or plummet and die (before reloading your last save)?
This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the kind of things you should be getting for your money in that new game, but these guidelines should serve as the absolute minimum requirements for a decent storyline-driven campaign from a single-player standpoint. Even Call of Duty 4 had nearly all of these elements in its single-player campaign (and did a great job of executing emotional response in the final sequence).
To give credit where it is due, anyone who hopes to learn more about the intricacies of story structure would do well to find more detailed breakdowns in Alexandra Sokoloff's (my mentor who taught me all about this) workbook, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, or otherwise check out her blog. Regardless, as you become more and more savvy about story, this basic breakdown may help you determine what games to pick up, what games to pass on, and how to analyze what's coming up in the storyline.
Looking for similar game design articles or story writing ideas? Look into the following:
- Turning Death into a Useful MMO Game Mechanic.
- Diablo 3's Story is Lazy, Passive, and Careless.
- Game NPC Design - Why Do We Relate?
- The Do's and Don'ts of Scary Games.
- From Lyrics to Levels: Designing a Level from Music.
- All screenshots were taken by Midhras - you can find more by him here.
- Alexandra Sokoloff's screenwriting workbook.
Have questions about why something happened in a game's storyline or trying to speculate on where a series' story may go with its next release? Post your comments below and we'll tell you what we think.