The 2 Act Structure
How video games use a different structure to make us tell stories
The structure of any story is as old as stories themselves. Definitely not as old as the cave paintings, but from the time humanity has actually devised complete stories — with a start and an end.
I CAME, I SAW, I CONQUERED
There is a fundamental way we do things. The mind sees it, it processes it, and then the Action. Opposingly is always a conflict, and there always, hopefully, is a resolve.
Everything has a beginning and an end, but not to forget, the in-between.
But what creates meaning in our journeys, and shapes who we are is the in-between. What we do to find resolution.
The objective of every story is to arouse interest in the audience first, and then satisfy their curiosity or wishes and wants. A story’s pacing determines the emotional flow of the audience, when do they react (as much as it needs to matter) to what (are they empathising with what actually needs care).
After all the point of a protagonist in every tale is for the audience to fill in the role, to take it all in as the character on paper or on screen does.
While the story or narrative (as seen above) may have, by convention, the inevitable 3 Act structure. Video games are their own kind of storytelling medium with people participating in them (players).
Spoilers for God Of War 2018, Crysis, Spiderman: Web of Shadows, Red Dead Redemption 2 will be out loud.
In fact, every game creator must acknowledge this beforehand, this structure of the game. Letting them create an unforgettable event, at the right moment, for the audience through a specific trigger.
Players love to define the Second Act in this way:
This is where the real fun begins
THE NEW PARADIGM
‘So what new thing can I do?’
is what anybody who plays a video game asks halfway through any game. This, is the pivotal point. The handling of which determines whether the other half of the game is worth playing and the presentation of which can be the most spectacular event in a game, the Second Act.
The new capability
Video games have been doing this for several decades that it’s now only second nature. To introduce a new way of playing. Although the narrative of game could structurally be considered 3 Act, the Act of Play itself is divided into 2 Acts.
The first comprises of the learning path and coming in terms with the rules, possibilities and limitations. And the second is here to multiply the possibilities with the introduction of a specific core mechanic (or several). A major story revelation can coincide here as much in games as in film or novels. But the difference here is the Act of Doing.
Because games are about doing, not seeing
It is often (perhaps even forever) depicted as the player acquiring a new ability that entirely changes the way they play (or interact with the world). Blocks in the road before are seen as new opportunities that are only possible after the pivotal point. They’re capable of reaching new heights, places and further improving, discovering and maximising their effectiveness in play.
In rare cases this is the player reaching what’s akin to ‘enlightenment’
Only after this can someone truly ‘master’ a game. And the joy of playing is the highest when the player feels accomplishment at its peak.
This new way is sometimes teased earlier in the game or sometimes completely unknown and catches the player unaware. Both can result in equally extremely satisying and extended interest in the game to keep playing for longer. Whatever the case maybe, this must and should, provide the audience with wider eyes than before.
RAGE OF SPARTA
It is no surprise that the most reacted-to moment of God of War (2018) was the Blades of Chaos unveiling. Legacy players known how much this means to Kratos as much as to them. This is the one foundation the entire series has stood on.
Paired with the Leviathan Axe, the game has 2 different ways to play now. The 2 halves of Kratos, the disciplined father and the raging monster, are at the player’s disposal at all times. God of War was never a game of making choices, except when it comes to show your anger.
With the Rage of Sparta unleashed yet again in Norselands, Every attack with the Blades is a taste of the monster that is Kratos. Note, that Kratos is only as much a monster as the player themselves were (if you’ve played the previous games you know the lust for power very well). How farther the enemy, how giant the enemy, how many there are or how impossibly stronger is not of concern anymore.
This point in the game, is to let loose the player. And accept that all someone wants to sometimes, is destroy.
The level ‘Core’ in Crysis (2007) is the bridge between two halves of the game as the player finds themselves inside the Alien Ceph’s nest.
After the ‘Core’ level in Crysis, the same multifaceted terrain that players exploited to combat the Korean military is now used by the Ceph to hunt down the player themselves.
The ‘sperm-like-looking’ Cephalopods can latch onto towers, rocks, or any vertical terrain, making cover spots only a brief respite. One has to be omni directionally effective in order to beat the Ceph, players being familiarized with this new dimension of combat already in the zero gravity environment of Core. The nanosuit’s tactical use pushed to its limits.
CRIMINALS REDUCED TO CRIMINALS
Arthur Morgan is not the same person after returning from being stranded in the dreamland ‘Tahiti’ and so is the gang. One fallen card is all it takes to collapse the whole deck.
In the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), the hot headed rowdy player who looks at the entire grand world to loot and pillage and cause mayhem, lives in a dream. Of friends that are not, of a family that is not. The return from ‘Tahiti’ that was the result of a major setback is an evil foreboding of what’s to come.
The game’s tone takes a darker change. With the gang falling apart, more so it’s loyalty, and as one by one bids farewell, willingly or otherwise, it becomes visible how lonely the life of an outlaw is. The one place where absolute happiness could be found, the camp is returned to the miserable state it exists in reality. The reality of criminals making ends meet. The illusion of a merry outlaw life and the dream of purchasing freedom someday is robbed. No more jolly talks. No more fishing. No more poker with fellers. Every mission’s end is met only with skepticism as to why the deed was even done.
The player is ordered by Dutch, for raids that make no sense. Time is ticking, for all of them. The player is not left with much choice now but to repent along with Arthur the misery they’ve caused together. Good thief, bad thief, it’s the same thing. And ends with treason and backstabbing. Criminals reduced to criminals. Their true nature.
Blood brothers ready to take a brother’s blood
All the money that Arthur (the player) looted, robbed, murdered for, dies away with him.
A SYMBIOTE CITY
Spider-man: Web of Shadows (2008) is a game of making choices and taking sides with well known and loved Marvel heroes and villains. But nothing can change Manhattan’s fate during the second act.
With the city now plagued with Venom’s symbiotes, and S.H.I.E.L.D struggling to survive and evacuate the people at the same time. Once again, the fate of the city rests on the wall crawler.
Where once local gangs and Kingpin’s paramilitary roamed, they’re now outnumbered by the growing symbiotes. Venom’s spawn are much more versatile, nimble and stronger than guns for hire. It takes the player to use all abilities at their disposal since the symbiotes would traverse any surface and have far reaching grapple attacks, much like Spidey himself.
This is also the moment the Black suit’s powers are advantageous due to its crowd control and AOE abilities to prevent being swarmed by the infected. Talk about fighting fire, with fire.
All the former characters return but most in their symbiote-infected version. Now is a more dire outcome of the player’s choice. Whether to purge the symbiote out of their system or feed them to their darkest desires is a choice you get to make. Choices could now completely kill of certain characters.
Does this mean Act 3 doesn’t exist?
Absolutely not. The reason for me acknowledging 2 Acts instead of 3 is simply because there seems to be almost always only midpoint (I do not know if 3 mid-points can exist) There are already games like Stanley Parable that have such a vague structure it’s hard to define.
Act 3 in most games primarily seems as the resolution of the primary conflict, which is not only extremely short, but also often devoid of variety the Second Act offers. It is just not feasible or sensible in most cases to introduce a new way of play (changing it entirely) during the final moments of a game.
The old paradigm is The Way
The new paradigm is The New Complete Way
If a 3 Act structure is defined, the above will have:
‘The new paradigm is The New Way’ and include
‘The next paradigm is The Complete Way’
Since these 2 merge into Act 2 itself, that is the new way of doing things, it is hard to completely differentiate the two.
As we invent new mediums of Art & Entertainment, its no wonder that new story structures might become more prominent or entirely created for said medium to serve its purpose. Although I highly doubt if there can exist a bigger entertainment medium than games, which inevitably will extend into Alternate Reality.
Will a story structure even make sense then?
Or will there even be respect for people who dictate the narrative, when everyone is immersed in a story for themselves?
Perhaps by making everyone a storyteller, that will bring about the death of The Storyteller. That individual who once stood around the campfire and narrated the grandest tales of imagination, to those willing to listen.
*All images were taken from the internet from various sources*
Duality is an omnipresent nature of video games. Like the way of doing things in 2 different ways. This is the least number that creates the illusion of choice while providing maximum interesting variations. This will probably require another article. If I’m patient enough to write that is :)