195: A Videogame, in Three Acts


New member
Dec 3, 2007
You know a game that implemented the 3-Act Structure?

One of the best games of all time (in my opinion): The Secret of Monkey Island.

However, Monkey Island was a point-and-click adventure game; player interaction was merely solving puzzles which advanced the story. There was no health, and no freedom to do anything other than progress the story, which makes the advice in this article easier to implement.

In other genres which rely more on player interaction, it gets a little more complicated.


New member
Apr 2, 2009
For myself, my experience with most games is they suffer quite hard from Michael Bay syndrome. By which I mean its all well & good when theres big explosions & loud noises to distract you, but the moment it quiets down for a bit you realize that theres nothing particularly interesting about what your experiencing beyond the fireworks.


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New member
Jul 9, 2006
The three-act structure has been attempted and bungled in some games, but that's not the same as it not being a viable option for game design. It's a tool, it has its uses.

For example, the structure as represented in one of my favorite games ever, THIEF: THE DARK PROJECT (with spoilers):

ACT I: We are introduced to Garrett the thief, the medieval-industrial game world, and the core components of stealth, detection, and action that define its gameplay. The game riffs on this core model with a few largely self-contained levels that build the character and atmosphere. We rob Bafford, free Cutty, and plunder the Bonehoard.

ACT II: Victoria shows up and hires Garrett (i.e. we the player) to obtain The Eye, which it turns out will require more than one mission to accomplish. We even get within site of the prize in one level and have to leave and prepare, over the course of 2 or more levels (depending on the edition of the game you've got), to come back and complete that mission. This confounds our expectations of how game levels typically interact, and feels a little non-linear, even though it's completely linear. Eventually we gather the necessary MacGuffins and capture the prize: The Eye. But when we turn it into our patron, he turns on us, reveals himself as an evil god, steals our eyeball (!) and leaves us to die.

ACT III: Garrett spends a level escaping, continues shifting and altering loyalties established in the first two Acts, and embarks on climactic revenge missions against the revealed arch-villain. It's more than a boss fight, and establishes a new tone for these final missions that wasn't present before.

We get three acts divided over something like a dozen levels, drawing on classic and filmic narrative structure and traditional level-based game design at the same time to create an experience that allows a ton of player freedom within the individual story beats of an otherwise fixed tale of crime, betrayal, and revenge. THIEF didn't surrender game for story or vice versa.

So I don't think it's accurate to say the structure *doesn't* translate to games. It's more accurate to say it often hasn't or that it doesn't translate well to all genres of games. It's absolutely accurate to say that the formula is fallible -- confounding expectations can be vital to good game design and good storytelling. Some great games tell terribly tired stories and are none the worse for it, while others tell enjoyable stories through solid but not groundbreaking gameplay. These are both fine outcomes, provided they are not the *only* kinds of games we're making.

300lb. Samoan

New member
Mar 25, 2009
This is a very well done approach to narrative structure in gaming, but I want to point something out:

"You can't deliver emotional impact with more devious puzzles and three more kinds of assault rifles; looking for the answer there is just plain stupid, even if it is the common wisdom."

I agree with this point, but I do not find it 'just plain stupid': good gameplay will be the foundation of that holy grail game, unless you want the player crying at the end because it was such a thankless, boring task to get through it. And new guns and puzzles aren't the solution in themselves... but how these puzzles and weapons lend themselves to the immersiveness of the game. You'll need solid gameplay, good handling, and absolutely engaging simulation to pull-off that masterpiece... the biggest thing that drew me to half-life when it came out in 1998 was that unlike the other narrative games of its time, it wasn't constantly shattering the 'illusion of interactivity' by pulling you out of the playing perspective: it told the story within the playing environment, through scripted characters and events. Removing the player's perspective by taking us into a cutscene will always diminish the experienced immersion, but then you have the problem of players missing these crucial scripts which outline the story to begin with, and the solution to that problem is in good level design which encourages a specific linear movement. That's why I feel there's too much emphasis on the cinematic aspect of game design, and not nearly enough on the architectural elements. It's an understanding of these architectural aspects that made the Half-Life games so great, and also brought us some of the most successful multi-player titles of all time from the same camp.

Capo Taco

New member
Nov 25, 2006
Writing in games is generally quite bad. Even games like baldur's gate, which is for a good deal about the writing, has rather lackluster writing. There are exceptions, though.

Planescape torment. Last Express. Star Control 2. Grim Fandango. If you make a list of games with good writing, it will not be a very long list. It's curious that games with good writing rarely sell well. That's not that good writing makes a game sell less well, because the cult following these games create gives amazing amounts of free advertisement, it's rather, the market for well written games is not as big as it is for games with good replayability or good graphics.

What I found missing in this well written article is applying the three acts to games. Because I don't find it too aplicable. Yes, games can borrow a leaf and start thinking about dramatic structure, but they also have their own conventions, which are different from the "page 29" convention.

Game design of good FPS games is a good example of the first conventions for videogames forming. If you listen to game design commentary of team fortess or left 4 dead, you can hear the subtle clues that players receive. The trailer of left 4 dead intentionally subtly teaches players about gameplay elements. That is amazing. That means that a trailer isn't just a CG presentation and not just a gameplay presentation, but a combination.

And a trailer like that can significantly improve the amount of fun a player will have with the game, lowering the entry level. That is the kind of 'game writing' that is important to video games. As much as I love good writing and especially good writing in games, it's rare for a game to have it.

That's ok. Games are about play experience and the enjoyment of a game depends more on playability than it does on emotional investment.

Loved the article. Wish it were applicable to more games. Wish it would inspire some people to make games based on good writing.

If I ever win a million dollars, I'm going to fund toys for bob to create any game they want to make. These fantastic talents are making disney games.


New member
Apr 1, 2009
I agree with this writer for once. You need context for without it you have no game at all but freedom and you need freedom for without it you have no context. I think we can point to multiple endings as an a good example of this. Games like Oracle of Ages give you things to collect and activities to participate in with the end result being a new ending. This kind of thing is what makes the choices meaningful. It isn't when you end up being a bad guy for looking out for yourself like Fable and KOTOR do or when you're stuck in a car waiting for instructions like in FEAR but when you're choices create an effect without any judgement like in GTA games.


New member
Jan 14, 2009
Great read, very good points. Engaging storyline and lovable characters that we truly hope and fear for can take a good game and turn it into something incredible.

For example, take Bioshock, (debatable but if you ask me) a relatively samey shooter. If it was anything else, the first two levels of the game are "generic melee weapon" "generic pistol" "generic shotgun" "go here, go there, kill this, kill that, move over here" and so on. Most of the RPG elements are nothing incredibly unique. I mean, how many times have we been able to shoot fireballs with a blue bar under our health bar?

What takes something like this and turns it incredible? Setting, plot, characters, and presentation.

Would Bioshock be half as good if it didn't take place in Rapture? Or if it didn't have Andrew Ryan? I say no. Would it be as charming if it took place today as opposed to 1960? I say nay!

The wonderful 50's music, the steampunk (for lack of a better term) architecture and technology, the hackable sentry turrets, the eerie atmosphere, the lawlessness of NPCs (scripted events but like I said, presentation), and the motivation behind all of it is the most beautiful part.

Novan Leon

New member
Dec 10, 2007
Cousin_IT said:
good read & some good points. For myself, my experience with most games is they suffer quite hard from Michael Bay syndrome. By which I mean its all well & good when theres big explosions & loud noises to distract you, but the moment it quiets down for a bit you realize that theres nothing particularly interesting about what your experiencing beyond the fireworks.
Very true. This is all to common.

The three acts of dramatic storytelling says absolutely nothing about whether your movie/game will be any good. Besides, some of the best movies/games/tvshows/books have no clear structure at all.

But really, you can take anything and divide it into a "problem", "action" and "result" if you try hard enough. This isn't just found in entertainment media. It's as elementary as every sentence having a "subject", "object" and "verb".


New member
Jan 13, 2009
I think games have the potential to incorporate three-act storytelling and still remain an interactive medium. The dramatic question shouldn't be "will you win", but "how will you win?"

Right now, games are either linear, with ultimately only one route to victory (though there might be different ways to get there--even Super Mario Bros. on the NES did that); or are completely open-sandbox with either no ultimate resolution or again, only a single route to victory. And to quote Yahtzee, games with multiple endings based on player choices during gameplay generally boil down to "Mother Theresa or baby-eating".

I agree with some of the above posters that story should generally take a back seat to gameplay in games: after all, if I wanted to see a movie or a play, I'd see a movie or play, not fire up my console. But right now, story tends to be the lowest priority of game developers. Not every game requires more than a basic story premise. But if you want me, the customer, to pick your game out of the three dozen other variations on FPS/3PS "space marine versus the aliens" sitting on the store shelf, a compelling story might be the way to do it. (I remember painstakingly repeating failed level after level of Ninja Gaiden on the NES just so I could see the next cutscene.)


New member
Mar 23, 2009
While I can't completely agree with the three-act motif in all games, after all, where does that leave MMOs that go on and on and on? Of course those have other means in place to emotionally relate to your avatar, including but not limited to the participation of other Real People, not to mention the amazing escapism MMOs provide. And honestly, Will I win/Won't I win? is really the only question I need answered when I'm playing Civ 3 or Heroes of Might and Magic 5... there's not all that much depth required.

I think the one game that exemplified the article's premise (for me at least) was Final Fantasy VIII. I haven't played any of the FF games since FF VII, but I 'beat' that game 4 times simply because I loved the storyline. The game started off with a good solid premise that was followed up by the series of steps (I almost called them quests, that's the MMO in me talking!). The story had layers within layers, and a little romance mixed in, with a satisfying ending. I guess in certain situations the three-act formula works well, but I think it really depends on the situation and the intent of the developers.


New member
Aug 18, 2009
you're right, most games don't have any special point. even GTA fails to adopt this concept. almost all games put you in the game, you do everyrthing, and it is you who always miraculosly survives and always wins. this was made a rule and it is the bad thing we need to get rid of.
single paler became (l)only paleyr and soemtimes you don't even have digital friends. in light of this Max Paynes and Mafia are(mafia 2 ain't yet out) beter than GTA.

from all articles here I see this as the most beneficial and all gamemakers ought read it.
from what i always subconciously known was the reason of me leaving many games unfinished now crystalized conscious awarenes that those games don't have this structure and weren't short enough.