Why Plot in Gaming Isn’t Overrated
At this year’s GDC Riot Games’ Narrative Lead Tom Abernathy and Microsoft Game Studios’ Design Lead Richard Rouse III gave a presentation called “Death to the Three Act Structure.” It was built around the idea that plot in gaming is overrated, that characters resonate more with players, that most players don’t finish games anyway, and that the mental acuity normally put into complexity of plot is instead focused on gameplay.
This kind of issue is coming in a time period where the discussion of storytelling in gaming has never been more important. Particularly with the unique role as a medium that gaming offers when it comes to the telling of stories.
It’s hard to compare games to the likes of novels or films – because even though they may borrow many elements (gaming may take a lot of cues in terms of visuals and structure for cinematics from film, for example) it’s still a patently unique – and something we often forget – relatively new medium. It’s no surprise that a number of games have adopted the three-act structure, because laying your foundation by borrowing from others is hardly unusual.
What makes the conversation even more difficult is that gaming is not a medium that inherently requires story in order to succeed – unlike film or television or novels. In no place is this more obvious than in the earliest eras of gaming, backing during the days of Atari, and even well into the lives of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo. Many of the best remembered and classic games (Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros 3) are not remembered for their story. And if you were to compare any of those stories to classics among literature and film, then the gaming ones would inevitably come up wanting.
But at the turn of this last generation, we’re starting to see a renaissance of something new. Not just of truly developed plot and character in gaming – something that’s been rapidly evolving with each successive generation – but also the unique ways in which both can be presented in video games.
Abernathy and Rouse wish to do away with the three-act structure in gaming; in part because with any given game, it’s likely that the majority of players didn’t get far enough into the game to even see it. But they’re also arguing against the value of plot itself in a game. However, given that plot in gaming has really only became relevant and notable in the last generation of gaming, then doing away with it now would be like giving up on a toddler because it isn’t yet a self-sufficient adult. It ignores how much that child has evolved and grown just to get to this point, and the enormous amount of potential it still has. No, that toddler can’t take care of itself – but that doesn’t change the fact it could one day be something amazing.
On the matter of doing away with the three-act structure, there’s healthy argument for both sides. Perhaps not entirely, but there’s definitely value to the notion of not being restricted by the narrative structures borrowed by other mediums. Instead, let gaming find its own build. Naughty Dog games have demonstrated the value of utilizing it in creating truly emotional experiences, but that doesn’t mean other developers and franchises should be restricted by that structure.
Take BioShock and BioShock Infinite, for example. Gamers may play both certainly with some modest degree of enjoyment for the gameplay, but what most would probably say they walk away remembering was the environment and the story. Even more importantly, both games demonstrated something entirely new to the world: the ludonarrative. The idea that story can be told through gameplay. That the presentation of the narrative doesn’t need to be restricted by cut scenes and character interaction. And gamers can learn even more in examining the environment itself and experiencing the ambient details that build the whole picture.
Developers like BioWare, Telltale Games, and Quantic Dream are also pioneering something else new: the choice-based narrative. Again, this is something extraordinarily unique to gaming. The closest any other may have had in such an accomplishment was the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books aimed at kids at teenagers. But just by virtue of literary limitations, they couldn’t allow the same kind of depth and complexity that Mass Effect and The Walking Dead have offered. And if these games are flawed – even in their presentation of the choices and outcomes in the narrative – it isn’t because the idea is bad; it’s because it’s new. It’s so new that no one has yet figured out how to get it “right.” The likes of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls are just the first few key steps on the path that will eventually lead us to something we previously couldn’t have imagined.
So I would argue that while there’s value to saying games could benefit from doing away with the three-act structure, games should not move away from prioritizing plot. Quite the opposite, in fact. Plot is really only just starting to demonstrate its potential in the medium of video games. For the first time in history, with games like The Last of Us and Portal we can see just how revolutionary and life-changing gaming becomes once it really starts to get everything – memorable gameplay and stories – right.