9.1. The Three Act Structure

Telling stories predates video games by thousands of years. During that time, many people have attempted to understand what makes for an interesting story and how they should be told.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined what is known as the three-Act structure for stories, basically a division of a story into three parts. In the first part, we learn about the setting and characters before something happens to set the events of the story in motion. In the second part (which tends to be the longest), the protagonist tries to deal with the events as they happen. In the final part, a resolution is reached. The tension throughout the story should be gradually building to the final climax in Act III.

The Extra Credits guys explain the three act structure in this video, along with some of the tricks used to adapt it to video games.

The three act structure is not the only way to tell a story, nor is it a full proof plan for writing a story. Instead, like all design rules, it is merely a guideline that helps describe what is expected. If you choose to deviate from it (say by skipping the setup in Act I), you should be aware of what part of the “standard” story you are changing and think carefully about how it affects your overall narrative.

Other Insights of Aristotle

One important aspect of story telling that Aristotle really hammered on is that each scene should follow the previous ones with a logical cause-and-effect relationship. Weak writing goes like this: “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens.” Stronger writing is more like this: “X happens, and because of that Y happens, and because of that Z happens.”

This cause-and-effect rule is even more restrictive when it comes to the protagonist. When bad things happen to the main character, it should not be random; it should be caused by that character’s understandable human action, and it should follow as a plausible and inevitable effect of that action. This makes the audience pity and empathize with the hero, because we can see the human weakness, we can understand why the character did what he did, and yet we also see that it causes his undoing. When there is a triumph, it too should be a result of the protagonists actions.

The alternative, where everything is suddenly made better through no fault of the main character, is known as deus ex machina (Latin for god from the machine). For example, “…and just as the main character was about to die, he woke up, and realized it was all just a bad dream, The End”. In this situation, the main character is not in control of the story - the audience can not understand the events as a logical consequence of the rest of the story.

In games, where players are not just supposed to identify with characters in a story, but actually control them, the need for events to follow from actions is doubly important. This can help explain why it can be so frustrating when, for example, a character in a video game dies during a cut scene. The one time the player doesn’t have any choice – the one time when the main character is not in control – is the one time when the plot advances.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)