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Interactive Storytelling - Narrative Techniques and Methods in Video Games

Mike Shepard, Author
Structure, page 1 of 2
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The Three-Act Structure


The three act structure is a commonly-used structure employed all across narrative entertainment: in Act One we become familiar with the setting, meet the characters, understand the conflict, and become embroiled in said conflict, and we ask the main question behind the story: examples are, “Will the COG defeat the Locust?”, “Will Shepard be able to stop Saren?”, “Will Isaac find his girlfriend and escape the Ishimura?”  Basic tools or weapons are also passed to the character in order to more effectively battle the conflict.  And with our understanding, investment, and tools to do something, we march on to Act Two.

Act Two is often where a majority of games shine as games: the rising action.  Here, players will often fight through the conflict in question, discovering more and more about everything explored in Act One; our understand of characters, setting, motivation, and more are compounded.  Act Two dominates as the core of gameplay, as that’s where a great amount of action is condensed; as such, interactive narratives thrive on this act, both narratively and gameplay-wise.  Moreso, games take this opportunity to present options outside the bare minimum; the starting weapon you picked up in Act One?  Let’s upgrade it.  The team you started off with?  Let’s add to that team.  The main conflict?  Let’s spin off from that and explore other facets of the characters and their conflict.

Once the team is built, the items acquired, and the conflict confronted, players enter Act Three, often a ‘final dungeon’ or ‘point of no return’ for players.  All of their skills are put to the test, the final confrontation or battle is had, and the story comes to an end, leaving players to think about what they've experienced over the course of the campaign.

That’s the three-act structure, and many narrative media employ it: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in text form, The Avengers in cinema, and many episodes of the nineties Batman animated television series all adhere to the three-act structure.  Of course, that’s the standard, and it works for telling stories.  Some narratives, especially games, take the structure and mix it around a little.  Many stories go in order of acts one, two, and three.  Assuming the brunt of the action is in act two, some narratives dive straight into the excitement in the middle of things: in medias res.

Games do this a lot.  Sometimes, tutorials are just too much hassle, sometimes there’s not a lot of background, sometimes it’s just, “Here’s the world, go save it.”  Extra Credits notes this idea in Amnesia and Story Structure, that video games are “interactive.  They are based entirely around action, so game developers usually want to get to the action as quickly as they can.”  (Floyd & Portnow, 2011)  Sometimes, this works, and we’ll get to that.  Many times, it doesn’t work; when games jump into Act Two, sometimes, they forget to give players an Act One, leaving them with little motivation to save the world they’ve been thrust into, or care about the characters they encounter.  All action and little to no background make for more game than narrative, like the old NES games discussed in the Introduction.  But for effective in medias res, we look no further than the original Bioshock.

Your plane crashes, you find the lighthouse, you descend into Rapture.  From the outside, Rapture looks beautiful, pristine, an underwater metropolis it was meant to be.  But once on the inside, players realize that something, they don’t know what, has gone horribly wrong in Rapture, and they’re in the middle of it: Act Two.  Act One is told by the dead and what they left behind: “Rapture is not only littered with dead people, but dead people who were kind enough to record their own demise.  The player constantly encounters small devices which contain audio recordings illuminating how and why Rapture degenerated into chaos.”  (Weise, 2008)  These recordings, combined with what players see in the environment, help define what the city used to be like and stand for, and eventually, players learn just what happened to send it into the maddening spiral the player first finds themselves in.  Act One is the combined information gathered from recordings and the environment that integrates itself throughout Act Two.  That is an effective way to do a story in medias res.

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