Gaming: The 3-Act Story

This is a technical post, of a sort, so feel free to skip it if you were expecting more space travel goodness. Basically, it’s an introduction to storytelling in games, with a couple of examples, and some soapboxing at the end.

First of all, here are the 7 plots;

1. The Quest
2. Voyage and Return
3. Rebirth
4. Comedy
5. Tragedy
6. Overcoming the Monster
7. Rags to Riches

However, a couple of these are not applicable in gaming, or at least not for a mainstream game, so in gaming terms, it looks more like this;

1. The Quest – this is the staple of any shooter / RPG / whatever. The plot is “You want to do X! Now do it!”
2. Voyage and Return – The big JRPG one here. “You are in another world / time / dimension! Find a way to return home!”
3. Overcoming the Monster – This is more horror than anything. Plot is “X is bad! Overcome X!”

Now, for a brief explanation of the 3-Act structure.

Act 1 – Set-Up.
The protagonists and antagonists are set up, exposition is given, you learn about the world in which you are set, and the Inciting Incident kicks off the plot. This is the tutorial, when you meet your team, but then your home town is destroyed, and you set off into the big wide world.

Act 2 – Confrontation
You now know who the Big Bad is. Now you grind, do sidequests, and collect all the pieces of the Deus Ex Machina Plot Device to defeat the Evil Empire. You learn more story, visit exotic locations and play through all the loyalty missions. When you have recruited everyone, and reached Level 99, you set out to kill the bad guy.

Act 3 – Resolution
Fight your way through the fortress, defeat the Minibosses. Meet the Bossm, kill him, watch the cutscene, start a New Game Plus.
Standard time allowance is about 10-20% for 1, 60-80% for 2, and 5-10% for 3. Because of the huge amount of time Act 2 has, it can be broken up into 2A and 2B.

2A – This is when you explore your world map, recruit your party, and discover magic. You will meet your first Bosses (outside of Tutorial Bosses) and see what the Antagonists have wrought, and be angry. Meet the people of the land, and marvel that they all sound like white, middle-class Americans, even though they look nothing alike.

2B – Now you’ve specialised, and reached advanced classes. Loyalty missions are here, and you discover all the heavy lore-based stuff. You start to understand the idiosyncrasies of the world further, and do a couple of Serious Moral Choices. The Bosses become more varied, and your party gets all the top-tier gear. Then the suit up and go off to face the Big Bad, and have your horrifically cheesy romance cutscene.
Of course, these Acts only hold true for games with story – RPG’s and the like. Modern Brownfare 8 – Brownfare Evolved can’t have the same level of story. However, it can have a similar set-up – Basic Training, then learn how to use all your weapons, then advanced tactics, then kill the Big Bad Corrupt Multinational. (or something equally bland)

The 3rd Act, however, is where a game can truly shine. It is also where most twists come. (Spoiler – it’s always a betrayal.) If it has been foreshadowed enough, then it can make the game go to new heights, and reveal hidden depths in the world, the story and your companions (Jade Empire, System Shock 2), or make it worse for you due to the twist being trite (Star Ocean 3) or downright confusing (Metal Gear Solid 2).

A risky gambit is the 4th Act. Here’s an example;
1. You meet the Evil Guy. He’s killing people, enslaving them, and forcing them to work down the mines of in his hell-hole empire. He also kiled your father, or something.
2. You meet like-minded revolutionaries, and set out on a quest to restore PollyAnnaLand back to it’s original glory. You disrupt all the evil things he’s done, free slaves, and rob trains. You even find your missing sister/mother/whatever! The people revolt, and you march on the Fortress of Doom.
3. You kill everyone in the Fortress (why else would they be there?) and free the rightful Prince from the dungeons, go to the Throne Room, defeat the Black Dragon of Doom, and prepare to kill the Emperor.

Normally, this is where you chuck him in the dungeons, and watch the sugar-sweet, clichéd epilogue. However, this is where it diverges.

4. The Emperor reveals that Horrible Lovecraftian Monsters are going to invade in world in the next 8 months, and the Ancient Superweapon is the only way of defeating them once and for all. The weapon in question is in the mines, which you have just closed down. He’s really got your best interests at heart, but no-one will believe him if he told them, and if you work down there, you will die within the year. Now the player has to make a Serious Moral Choice about whether to

a) Kill the Emperor or Not
b) Believe him or Not, and
c) Re-open the Mines or Not.

If people don’t expect this, then it can come as a fantastic plot-twist. However, if it is implemented badly, it’ll all fall to pieces. Fable 3 tried to do this, but everyone knew about the twist, and the choices were stupidly polar. (Do you want to destroy the Adorable Woods, and die in a year, or do you want raze them to the ground, kill everything in them, and survive? No, you can’t strip-mine half of the woods. Or reforest somewhere else. Choose one.)
Another 4th Act Twist is changing the genre of the game suddenly, due to an left-field introduction.

Example – a horror shooter. You’re going along, having fun, and have nearly , but then a new strain is released, a gate to Hell opens, or the Mothership arrives, but either way, it’s not good. Everything goes to pot, and you run out of ammo quickly, and the monsters are much, much more powerful than anything you’ve seen recently. Their health can regenerate like yours, and they are quick, jumpy and fast. Your exploration of the derelict ship / scary island / strange town  is now lower priority. You retrace your path through the earlier levels, and try to get to the exit, and back to your ship / vehicle / airplane before you become food.
Most writers have this grand idea of a world, and want to implement it. The set-up is good, too. So that’s Act 1, and some of Act 2. But people tend to forget that it doesn’t stop there, and Act 3 is generally the most disappointing. You’ve got to plan each Act out, scene by scene in some cases, and make sure you try not railroad your players at any opportunity, or make the decisions the character makes illogical. Put a bit more love into your work, and don’t dumb it down for the “mainstream” audiences. They’ll enjoy a good plot as much as the next man.

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