Blake Snyder’s infamous “save the cat” maxim is a mantra in screenwriting for reasons that are fundamental to the way moviegoers immerse themselves in a story. For drama to work, audiences need to form some kind of emotional connection with the characters on screen – otherwise they’ll be less inclined to immerse themselves into the narrative being played out before them.
For Snyder, the most efficient way to accomplish this is by having the protagonist do something likeable (i.e. saving a cat from a tree), thereby giving the audience a reason to root for them. In a video game, things are a little different. The immersion is implicit: the player is the protagonist, and is understood to at least tacitly control how the narrative plays out. Even if the player cannot directly influence the story, they still control its pace. Mario doesn’t necessarily have to enter the castle – he can spend hours jumping around outside, if that’s what the player chooses to do.
So what impels the player to engage with the narrative? Game writers Bob Bryant and Keith Giglio offer a mantra of their own: “slay the dragon” (which is, coincidentally, the title of their excellent primer on narrative design for gaming). Where screenwriters are compelled to provide audiences with emotional connections in order to keep their attention, game writers have to provide the player with the desire to move the narrative themselves. This is accomplished with objectives, missions, and a sense of purpose – a metaphorical (or literal) dragon to slay.
The idea of clearly defined goals being critical to interesting characters in stories is universal. As we’ve discussed before, people are conditioned to expect a story to be told in a specific way. This arrangement is called structure, and it’s what holds the narrative together. Video games are no exception to this rule – in fact, they often demand more sophisticated structuring than most other mediums.
Consider the Shakespearean five act structure, a model favoured by television dramas. A slightly expanded version of the classical three act structure, the five act gives you a bit more room in which to lay out your overarching story. This structure can be useful for writing a treatment for your game story in a traditional prose or screenplay style (a development step that many narrative designers advocate taking), but when it comes to games, it’s a little antiquated.
After all, Hamlet lasts for 2 hours where The Last of Us can take up to 21 hours to complete (some game narratives can take up to 50-60 hours to finish, depending on how much extraneous activity the player wants to partake in). This dichotomy typically means that video games lack what Bob and Keith refer to as “narrative balance.” A traditional screenplay act structure works because their components are constrained by time standards (i.e. thirty minutes for the first act, sixty minutes for the second, thirty minutes for the third). Video games are not subject to these constraints, which means the video game writer has the opportunity (and the burden) of going deeper.
Take this eight-act or ‘sequence’ structure, for example. This approach gives the narrative designer a broader framework in which to plan their story. The sequences are more distinct, meaning you can drill down into the ‘objective beats’ that make up the game experience. This is not to imply that a game can only be composed of eight levels or missions, but rather that you may find it useful to group your levels/missions in ways that are contextual to the dramatic principles described.
The structural sophistication of narrative gaming becomes most evident when you take a look at the substructures that nature of gameplay can create. Things like interactivity, decision making, optional perspectives, and other diegetic anomalies turn traditional notions of story structure on its head. For example, we have the concept of parallel narratives.
Some games feature multiple protagonists that the player can choose to take through the narrative, switch between in-game, or exist simultaneously in a multiplayer environment. These characters often have distinct personal narratives, but are still anchored to an overarching primary narrative. They explore the same world in different ways, encounter different challenges, yet are drawn inexorably back to the primary narrative at appropriate points.
Some of the earlier Resident Evil games are great examples of this concept. In Resident Evil 2, for instance, one can play the game from the perspectives of two different characters who journey through the same settings. How each character interacts with the settings is distinct (sometimes with one narrative’s consequences affecting the other’s), but the story ends in the same place.
What if the story can end in many places? Branching narratives take the idea of multiple storypaths described in parallel narratives and expands it to a much larger scale and level of interactivity.
In a branching narrative, the choices the player makes directly influence the outcome of the story, usually resulting in several tonally distinct possible endings. These outcomes can be influenced by things as lofty as moral or ethical decisions, or simply by possessing specific items or succeeding in or failing to meet certain objectives. Common in roleplaying games, branching narratives command the most intricate structure in game writing.
In effect, the sheer mutability that defines video games makes committing yourself to a predetermined dramatic structure optional, if not reductive. Bob and Keith subscribe to the notion of a “no-act structure.” This doesn’t mean that they feel that structure is irrelevant (on the contrary, they believe it is vital), but rather that how you choose to structure your story is up to you.
Being idiosyncratic is ok. Being experimental is ok. As a game writer, the evolutionary and borderless nature of your medium means you have the freedom to build your story in novel and unconventional ways. The important takeaway remains classical, however: make the player care.
Or as Bob and Keith would put it, make sure they keep wanting to slay the dragon.
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