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A rebuttal to "Death to the Three Act Structure!"

This is a counterargument to Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III's talk at the GDC Narrative Summit entitled "Death to the Three Act Structure!", which argues against the usefulness of plot in gameplay.

If you’re reading this you probably heard about the speech that Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III gave at the GDC Narrative Summit entitled “Death to the Three Act Structure!”  Gamasutra has an article on it that you can read if you haven’t.  I found the concept interesting and, while I agreed with a few points –namely that keeping a plot simple can be a great decision- the core message left me concerned.

The main argument was that characters are more important than plot because players tend to forget the plots of games more often than they forget the plots of movies or television -to which I would argue that movies are two hours, television shows are one hour, and games are, sometimes, eighty hours long (I’m looking at you, Tales of Symphonia).  I would challenge you to relay to me the complete events, in detail, of all three seasons of A Game of Thrones.  The more content a story has the harder it is to recall later, and games have much, much more content than other forms of media, so I tend to believe that the observation of a player’s memory has more to do with the limits of the human mind than it does the relevance of a good plot.

Another point by Abernathy and Rouse was that the vast majority of players don’t actually finish the games they purchase, with the numbers averaging between only one half to one third of players playing the games tracked through to completion.  This is fantastic information to know, but I’d be curious to see what Netflix or some other entertainment medium has to say on the matter, because I think the results would be largely the same; I think it has more to do with the fact that we all have high speed internet, iPhones, and Steam than an insight into the overall impact of how stories work differently for games.  

But what we're really here to talk about is that this data led Abernathy and Rouse to argue that we should focus less on our plot, which will likely remain incomplete to half of our players at the very least, and instead focus on our characters.

I couldn’t disagree more.  Character and plot are two sides of the same coin; it’s impossible to have one without the other.  Characters who just stand there aren't characters; they must take action to have personality, and those characters won’t take the actions that reveal who they are, their deepest workings, what makes them human, without being placed under specific circumstances.  You also can’t have the events of a story without people to play them out.

Now what I will grant is that the “character” side of the story coin is much more appealing to developers when it comes to gameplay, and the “plot” side is inherently more difficult to work with.  In order to get plot-related information across to the player you, with the occasional exception, only have two choices:

  1. Script the plot event so that it happens in-game and the player actively “plays” the plot point.  While this is the ideal way of doing things it presents a number of complications, the most prominent of which is that it can become astronomically expensive.
  2. You have to stop the gameplay in order for the characters to “talk it out” or somehow use words to get the information across.  Even if you’re not going to use a cut-scene, you can’t have complicated gameplay at the same time your characters are holding a conversation: the player won’t listen, and rightly so.

Plot and gameplay are hard to mix, whereas “character” can be infused into gameplay via animations, barks, art, music, etc.  Even your gameplay is an insight into how your character chooses to get what they want.  It’s much easier for a game developer to get a handle on a character than a plot, especially considering how difficult plot can be to work with (I once had a critical event in a story I was crafting get pulled out from under my feet because the level was cut, which isn't an uncommon occurance).

That said, you can’t have characters without plot and you can’t have plot without characters.  A story, any story, is going to include both.  Whether or not you want to focus on characters is a worthwhile question to ask, but you shouldn’t be throwing your plot under the bus to accomplish it.  Your characters are going to be more vivid, more unique and alive if the events of the plot are attuned to their emotional needs, crafted specifically to hit their own pressure points, meant for them, just them, and no one else.  The Last of Us was cited as an example (and I have an obsession with it that borders on unhealthy), so let’s use it as an example.  The giraffes, a plot event that supposedly has nothing to do with the characters, draw us closer to Joel and Ellie, make us more attached, give us greater empathy for the characters that are our companions.  Also, by my own divinations, it serves as the movement into Act Three, the moment where the main character arrives at the end of his emotional trajectory (Joel finally accepts the ramifications of having emotional needs that outweigh pragmatic survivalism).  The fact that the giraffes appeared at a specific moment in the plot, a moment where Joel and Ellie needed an emotional push to commit to their new beliefs and launch them into the finale, was an advantage, not a detriment.  The things that happened to them helped shape who they became, and as a side note, plot design and game design both stem from their more important cousin: entertainment design.  The interest curves in a game are structured the same way as they are in a story, we just use different tools to craft them; matching them up correctly can only beneficial, creating higher highs and lower lows for our player.

Ultimately, whatever the results about what gamers can ‘remember’, plot and character are both equally important to story; they’re a cycle, spiraling back and forth into each other, the plot revealing more about our characters through the actions they take and those very actions shaping the events we've created for them.  So what do we do?  Considering the fact that characters are easier to work with than plots, how do we move forward?

Rather than trying to isolate our characters from our plots in order to focus on just one, hoping that the other will disappear, we need to intertwine them further.  We need to make our plots more about our characters, make them more specific to the people we’ve created, make our plots about the actions our characters take, which is to say our gameplay.  The plot in The Last of Us is about how Joel is willing to do whatever it takes to survive, which is what the gameplay is about.  The plot is about the gameplay and, as a result, the plot progresses even when the characters aren’t talking.  The plot in Braid is about how Tim is trying to rewind time to take back a mistake.  The plot is about the gameplay.  I’d cite other examples but I find that I’m already largely at risk of sounding extremely pretentious.

I agree with Abernathy and Rouse: we have a problem with plot, but I don’t think that it’s an indication that the two are incompatible and should be kept in separate rooms.  I don’t think it’s a sign that we’re doomed to failure.  I think it’s a sign we just haven’t done it right yet.

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