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Pondering What Gail Simone Said About Video Games, The Three Act Structure, & Storytelling

Essay

Last week, comic writer Gail Simone shared some musings on her Tumblr about how video games are bucking the long-held three act model of narrative structure. The whole thing is worth a read (even though she tells you not to), and it poses a lot of good food for thought about how this fledgling medium could be starting to really shake things up. Most of my brainpower this weekend was spent mulling over her closing question:

…are video games training us to look at stories differently, and if so, will they affect or alter the three act structure in other media?

I can address the first part of that question with a resounding yes. I’m in my late twenties and video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. We’ve grown up together. I’m accustomed to plotlines that branch in a dozen different ways. I’m used to choosing when to follow the main plot, and when to explore smaller side stories. I always expect the final confrontation with the big bad to be a lot, lot shorter than the rest of the game. I’ve experienced stories without endings, or endings that can change. So, yeah. Narrative structure doesn’t seem so cut-and-dry anymore.

The second half of the question — will they affect or alter the three act structure in other media? — is the part I’m struggling with. On the one hand, they have to. Storytelling is nothing if not symbiotic, and given the ever-growing prevalence of video games in popular culture, other mediums are bound to be affected. On the other hand, a huge part of why games can tinker with story structure is dependent upon the medium itself. Which is not to say that it’s impossible for other forms of media to take a few notes out of gaming’s book, but I do think some of the things we see happening in games are unique, just as comic panels can tell stories a page of plain text can’t.

To explore why game stories work in the way they do, I need to circle back to one of the questions Simone posed earlier in her post: “How does a game hold your attention, if the play mechanics don’t hugely change, for 60 hours or more?” She writes that many people say it all comes back to story. This is often true, but I think there’s more going on than just a gripping yarn. After all, as she points out, gamers are enjoying lengthy stories that are structured differently than you can find elsewhere. Imagine a sixty hour movie filled with little scenes and vignettes that did nothing for the main plot. Imagine how fast you’d start skimming through a book that took that long to read if most of the chapters were inconsequential to the story. A TV series can easily span well over sixty hours in length, but we still prefer episodes that actually go somewhere. But with games, we’re willing to pour sixty hours into erroneous things like side quests, crafting, and exploring the map — and when we’re done, we say it was because of the story. How does that work?

The first part of the answer to that is flow, which I’ve written about before. Here’s the very short version: Our brains are hardwired to bliss out when focused on a sustained, satisfyingly challenging task, especially when we are given instant feedback on our progress. Psychologists call this state flow, and game designers are experts at harnessing it. In a state of flow, time loses meaning, which is part of the reason why we can stick around an MMO or an RPG for an exponentially longer amount of time than we might watch a TV series or read a book. There is an activeness to gaming that can’t be matched by reading or watching things. A book can crank up your adrenaline, and it can keep you up reading all night, but a game demands that you work for your story. Now, of course, there are plenty of gamers who don’t need anything more than good mechanics to get sucked in. Not every gamer cites “story” as their main reason for devoting hundreds of hours to a single game. For some folks, grinding loot or climbing PvP ladders is more than enough. (And yes, there are plenty of immensely popular games without any story at all — Erik Wolpaw and Tim Schafer had some thoughts on this at PAX Prime — but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.)

As enjoyable as game mechanics can be on their own, a good story — even a bare bones one — can make them all the more engaging. Simone brought up armor smithing in Skyrim, something that I know all too well. Smithing is tedious. It’s repetitive. It’s the same animations, over and over. Imagine watching a ten-minute video of a hammer hitting an anvil, ad infinitum. Mind-numbing, right? Yet I do it in Skyrim all the time, and I have fun with it. Even though the story isn’t furthered while I craft armor, the story is exactly why I keep at it. I know that if I persist, I’ll get my smithing skills high enough to make some fancypants Daedric armor. And no, the isolated act of making a full set of Daedric armor isn’t interesting. It means nothing. But in the context of the story, that armor is just one more winning advantage that will help me become the greatest hero in the land. Without that context, smithing would get old. Fast. The sense of purpose is what coaxes me to stay. And if the story makes me willing spend time on something as bland as smithing, imagine how much more time I’m willing to devote to the really fun activities, like slaying dragons and exploring epic landscapes.

Games take two things we love spending our time on — exciting stories and flow-inducing challenges — and wraps them together into a cohesive whole. It’s the perfect recipe for devoted mental engagement. But there’s more to it than that. The fluffy buttercream frosting atop this cake is player interaction. There is something about having my finger on the trigger that makes me feel fundamentally different than when I turn a page in a book. A book or a movie doesn’t require anything of me, beyond my attention. Games, on the other hand, need me to actually do something. This affects the overall experience of even linear stories that don’t take much time to play through. Look at Thirty Flights of Loving, which takes fifteen minutes to complete. Fifteen minutes. Most scenes need nothing more than for you to walk through a room, or possibly pick up an object or two. And yet, the story told was so good, so bizarre, and so inexplicably enjoyable that I played it through twice in a row. I asked myself later on if I’d have enjoyed the story as much if I’d watched a video of someone playing the game, or if it had been presented as an animated short film. I tend to think not. I doubt I’d even have sat through the whole thing. Having my hands on the controls is what made me stay. I can’t quite explain that feeling, but there is a palpable difference there.

When branching storylines are brought into the mix, that level of investment deepens considerably. Even just a handful of choices can be transformative. Take Bastion. I thought I had that game figured out. I was playing an action RPG with gorgeous art, a badass soundtrack, and a narrator with a voice like a smooth sip of bourbon. It was a beautiful hack-and-slash adventure, nothing more complicated than that. Then, at the end, in relatively quick succession, the game offers you two choices about the story. The second choice in particular is a doozy. When it came up on my screen, I realized what the game really was. It wasn’t a little romp fueled by music and monsters. It was a poignant story about death, regret, and acceptance — and ending the game required me to make an on-the-spot decision about what I believe on those fronts. The previous nine hours of gameplay came rushing back as I realized what lay at the crux of every map I’d explored, every person I’d spoken to, every creature I’d personally killed. It was one hell of a sucker punch, and I remained pensive and choked up long after the credits rolled.

Two choices in a game that took nine hours, and I was left contemplating my personal beliefs about existence. Given that, it’s not hard to understand the emotional impact that can occur when a player deals with hundreds of choices over the course of forty hours or more. That sense of ownership is unlike anything I’ve experienced in any book or movie or TV show. Don’t get me wrong, those stories get me thinking, too. My home is stuffed with artwork and mementos of fictional heroes from all mediums, characters that have inspired me or taught me something about myself. I’m willing to spend a lot of time in those universes. I can watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in one breathless gulp, and there has never been a day in my life when I haven’t been in the mood for Star Trek: The Next Generation. But no matter how good a series is, no matter how strongly I can relate to it, in the end, it’s not my story. I am the audience member. I am invited to analyze my heroes from a safe, comfy vantage point. Their lives have already been mapped out in advance, and there is nothing I can do for them.

Not true with games. Games throw us right in the bloody, muddy thick of it. A game will make you watch your most beloved characters get crushed, maimed, and stabbed through the heart, over and over again — and when it happens, it’s all your fault. When I played Mass Effect 3 back in March, it was the culmination of every choice I had made, every battle I had fought throughout several real-world years. When Commander Shepard jumped out of her shuttle in London, storming into the final fight, I had to pause the game and take my hands off the mouse and keyboard, because they were trembling. The feeling I had then was something different than anything I’ve felt when coming to the end of a book, or sitting down for the final episode of a series. The thought pounding through my head was not “Will they win? Have they done enough?” but rather, “Will I win? Have I done enough?” I had become my hero. And that feeling didn’t just stem from wondering if I’d made the right story choices. It was equally based in the number of side quests I’d completed, the number of weapon upgrades I’d purchased, the number of resources I’d salvaged. In that moment, the story was indistinguishable from the mechanics. The real question I was asking myself was, “Have I completed every available task that could help Shepard save the day?”

I think the reason we can stick with a game for so long is not because of the story, but because the story needs us.

And that, perhaps, is why games can get away with lengthy, fragmented second acts made up of dozens of side quests. Many side quests have nothing to do with the main plot. They can add more intricate layers to the story or the characters, but ultimately, you don’t need them. That’s a storytelling style that’s hard to pull off elsewhere. It can be done, of course; J.R.R. Tolkien did it in The Lord of the Rings. But there’s a reason we don’t see Tom Bombadil in the films. In a four hour movie, we can’t be bothered with scenes that go nowhere. But in a forty hour video game? Absolutely. The player has been upgraded from passive audience member to protagonist, and that means we want more. We don’t want to just know the resolution of the story. We want to know our character’s life history. We want to know who her friends are, what her mom looks like, and what she eats for breakfast.

One of the things I find oddly delightful in a game is when the characters have homes I can explore — especially if I can poke through their drawers or read their mail. It sounds weird and voyeuristic, I know, but it comes down to being able to examine all the details of a fictional world, at my own pace. When the player feels like they are in command, all those little side stories that would be boring elsewhere suddenly become vitally important. It’s the closest thing we have to a holodeck, and the excitement of that experience makes us a lot more open-minded toward new forms of stories. Until somebody puzzles out how to provide a comparable sense of engagement in other storytelling mediums, I tend to think the altered narrative structure we’re seeing in games will continue to stand alone. We just don’t have the patience for it if we’re not in the driver’s seat.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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