Anempathetic Game Design

Using games to raise critical awareness is an issue that finds more and more interest among scholars and game designers. Using games in a radically different way was an idea that has been also discussed during the ludology-narratology debate, in particular by Gonzalo Frasca.  Frasca would later develop a group of games that felt quite different from “conventional” games, among them September 12.  Ian Bogost was another designer and scholar going into this direction, and together with Frasca they were influential in creating Newsgaming as a form of critical play. Ever since we have seen games that have been radically different in their content and form when compared to mainstream games. And finally, in 2009, Mary Flanagan devoted a whole book on the matter, outlining the various perspectives that are out there and pointing at the possibilities in using games to raise critical social awareness.

In this article I want to explore whether we can borrow a term from audio-visual analyses in order to enrich the conceptual basis of critical play and radical game design. The term that I want to have a look at is anempathy.

Empathetic and Anempathetic

In his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, french film critic and composer Michel Chion (1994) makes a distinction between two types of musical score in the cinema: Empathetic and anempathetic.

Empathetic Music

In Chion’s words, “music can directly express its participation in the feeling of the scene, by taking on the scene’s rhythm, tone, and phrasing; obviously such music participates in cultural codes for things like sadness, happiness, and movement. In this case we can speak of empathetic music, from the word empathy, the ability to feel the feelings of others.” (1994: 8) This is music “whose mode matches with the mood or rhythm of the action onscreen.” (1994: 222)

 
Anempathetic Music

On the other hand“, continues Chion, “music can also exhibit conspicous indifference to the situation, by progressing in a steady, undaunted, and ineluctable manner: the scene takes place against this very backdrop of ‘indifference’.” However, “this juxtaposition of scene with indifferent music has the effect of not freezing emotion but rather of intensifying it, by inscribing it on a cosmic background. I call this second kind of music anempathetic (with the privative a-). […] the frivolity and naivete reinforce the individual emotion of the character and the spectator, even as [this] music pretends not to notice it.” (1994: 8) This is sound “that seems to exhibit conspicous indifference to what is going on in the plot, creating a strong sense of the tragic.” (1994: 221)

The question I ask at this point is whether we cannot speak of rule design that functions in this way, i.e is it possible to speak of empathetic or anempathetic game rules and systems?

Empathetic and Anempathetic Game Design

I  call empathetic those games whose rule designs and systems are geared towards participation into established cultural codes rather than challenging these codes in a radical way. These are designs that frame their subject within “common-sense” categories. Such designs would be often culturally one-sided (or even biased), appealing to the sentiment of ‘mainstream’ lifestyles in their way of abstracting and representing the simulations of their worlds. And in quite some cases they would be built around concepts and values borrowed from reactionary rhethoric.

On the other hand, in anempathetic games we’d see the intention of breaking interpretative practices based on common-sense by using figurative devices in the form of game mechanics that exhibit a conspicous indifference against the ongoing plot, thereby not freezing our emotions, but rather intensifying them, which creates a strong sense of the tragic. We are forced into a different perspective which creates a rupture in common-sense. The position we took as a subject and felt ‘natural’ to us before we started to play the games, is suddenly exposed to ourselves: our initial inner stance feels awkward now, its ‘normality’ can no longer be maintained. We are forced to think differently, and if we should give up, we are faced with our own insincerity: we don’t want to think outside of the box. These are games that remind one of her conscience.

Conclusion

Command & Conquer: Generals – Iraq is empathetic; September 12 is anemphatetic.

Proportion in Narrative Design

The distribution of scenes among acts is an important issue in structuring stories. There needs to be a sense of proportion in order to keep the experience balanced for the reader/player. In this article I first have a look at how it is usually done in feature films. I present some bad examples to make it clear what disproportion takes away from the audience. Later on I have a look at how games use scene proportion and what can be done to improve game designs by making use of this concept.

 

Three Acts, Four Quarters

Structuring a story is not only a matter of creating plot and characters, or writing dialogue, but also a matter of proportion. Traditional writing asks us to keep a balance between the amount of time (or scenes) we allot to the beginning, middle and end of a story. Typically, the distribution would look like this:

Three Act Structure

In most cases we would come accross four quarters; one allotted to the beginning act, one to the final act, and the remaining two to the middle act. Such scene distribution can be seen in a variety of comics, too. Just think of Dylan Dog, Ken Parker, Lucky Luke or Asterix.

 

Out of Proportion

Theoretically one could tell from an analyses of scene distribution whether a story maintains suspense or not. Consider the “stories” below:

bad proportion of acts

This first example takes too long to create the conflict, hence the beginning is out of proportion. The audience will wait for something intriguing to show up, but since this will take too long, they will get bored early on and lose faith that anything interesting will happen: that’s where they would zap to another channel. The second handicap of this example is that it has a too narrow middle, the meat of the story is not enough to satisfy the audience that wants to enjoy how things develope. And just as we think that things start getting interesting, it ends abruptly. That’s the third handicap. It’s a simple fact: bad proportioning brings the spectator’s expectation out of balance and ruins the experience.

bad proportion of acts

This second example looks good for the first two acts, but the denouement (the after-word) that follows the climax is way too long; it asks us to stay there for things that do not matter anymore since the conflict has been resolved and there’s nothing more to achieve. More than that, the spectator starts to wonder whether the story is now finished or not. Being busy with such questions, the joy that came from the great finish will fade away instead of remaining as something great to tell to friends if the end would have been kept tight.

 

Proportioning in Games

How does proportion work for games? An analyses of many games would reveal that their beginning and end is pretty narrow, compared to the huge middle that features the bulk of the action. Have a look at this:

proportion of acts in games

Is it a bad thing to have such a huge middle act? Actually no: the middle is a very valuable part, because it “hangs” there with the support of beginning and end. Since its joints with beginning and end are (ideally) of a logical nature, the middle is in possess of telos, that is, it is headed towards a goal (the solution) and driven forwards by the strong current of a source (the conflict). Hence, as long as it is justified and exposed in the beginning, and flowing in unity towards an (anticipated) end, theoretically, the middle could be expanded endlessly.

While games’ ability to blow up the middle looks in contradiction to the structure of the rather equally proportioned commercial feature film, we don’t need to go very far to find something similar in the media world: In terms of broadcasting formats, we can compare games’  elasticity in regard to the middle, to that of the TV serial.

The plotlines in TV series are planned to last over longer periods. In the pilot program, an initial problem is set up for every character, their interests are put up against each other. After this necessary introduction, the struggle among characters is being laid out over several chapters, turning into many directions (quests, subplots etc) along the process. Only on the final day of the series, all plotlines are brought to an end. So, the bulk of time is alotted to the middle.

Still we must notice an important difference between the game’s structure as a whole (which resembles the overall structure of TV series) and the structure of the single levels that make up that whole.  A single level will most likely be structured like a feature film, that is, it will have its own three act structure divided into quarters.

So basically we could claim that a lot of games resemble in their overall structure the TV serial, whereas the proportion in the structure of particular levels is closer to that of feature films. Hence, we have this:

the proportion in overall game structure versus the proportion in particular game levels

What Can We Learn From This?

We can identify at least two types of possible mistakes in the proportioning of acts and levels in games:

1. The first type of mistake would be in regard to the overall game structure. If the design is too late in establishing the conflict (a too long beginning) or if it continues too long after the climax/resolution (a too long end), we’d either lose the audience before they even arrive at the middle, or we’d ruin their enjoyment of the climax.

2. The second type would be in regard to the structure of particular levels. Regardless of where the level is positioned within the overall structure of the game’s narrative, if the particular level takes too long to set up its problem and goal, or if it allows the tension to fall too much after reaching the solution, we would have presented to our players a rather less enjoyable experience. A few such levels in a row could see them quit.

Finally it must be said that a too long middle can break the faith of a player, too. If the player feels that it will take too long to connect the beginning to an end, she might just give up playing. This requires designers to make sure that the middle and the levels that it is constituded of always drive the story forward, and that they don’t feel like we’ve got stuck in a unnecessarily long (row of) side quest(s).

Conclusion

In this article I tried to share some insights on narrative design in regard to the proportioning of acts/levels. I claimed that most games’ overall structure resembles that of TV series, while particular levels seem to be closer to feature film structure in their proportioning. While it is evident that these claims need to be supported with more research in order to be verified, I still hope that the perspective I put forward here will help narrative designers in structuring their stories in a more compelling way.

Pacing and Rhythm During Long Takes

In this article I will deal with an important design question: How can we control pace and create rhythm under conditions of limited montage options? In order to find answers to this question, I will first identify a number of motion types and have a look at how video games make use of them in their construction of screen events and their management of players’ experience density. Later on I will have a look at how video games that are built around the long take (shot-in-depth) make use of style elements and punctuation devices to create rhythm and pace, and to delineate scenes and sequences along an uncut visual continuum.

 

Motion Types in Moving Pictures

The types of motion in moving pictures (including video games!) can be presented under three broad categories: Primary, secondary and tertiary motion.

Primary motion refers to object movement. It’s the archetype of motion in moving images. It can be best exemplified by objects or persons moving within, or, in an out of the borders of a static frame. Most often a movie based on primary motion would be criticized as being too “theatrical” since the camera moves rarely, if at all. However, a great number of games are built on primary motion. Examples of such games would be Tetris, Centipede or Space Invaders, all of them being games that feature a static frame with objects and characters moving within, or in and out of it.

A diagram that depicts primary motion (object movement) in moving images

 

Secondary motion denotes camera movement. The frame is now dynamic and the camera performs a variety of moves like travelling, panning or zooming. Often such movement will go together with types of primary motion. Many games are built around secondary motion and the most common use of this type of motion is in the form of a long take, an uncut shot that is locked onto the protagonist and follows her from beginning till the end of a level. In mind come side-scrollers like Street Figher and Zaxxon, platform games like Super Mario Bros or Sonic The Hedgehog, RPGs like Diablo, and 3-D games like Tekken, Medal of Honor and Need for Speed. The reason for the long take being so popular is that it answers the player’s demand for control over her actions perfectly. This is also where visual narration in modern games differs significantly from that of cinema: Modern cinema and some of its major theories are in defense of montage, that is, tertiary motion types like the cut.

An image that depicts secondary motion (camera movement) in moving images

Tertiary motion types are very popular in constructing screen events in feature films. In contrast to primary and secondary motion, the motion created through tertiary motion is artificial and includes many shot transition types, such as the fade, the wipe, the A/B roll, and of course the cut, which I’ve already mentioned above. Most often tertiary motion is also used as a means of punctuation. Transitions from one scene to another, the beginning or end of an act are most often punctuated (or, if you wish, delineated) through types of tertiary motion.

The Use of Motion Types in Games

In terms of visual narration (or, the visual construction of screen events), many video games build their event-dense play sequences around primary and secondary motion types. This is due to tertiary motion types often being in conflict with the player’s need for control over her actions. Of course a lot of games will still make use of tertiary motion, but rarely ever does it happen that player control is sacrificed for visual spectatle achieved through tertiary motion types. Mostly it would be regarded as a design flaw.

In contrast to cinema, where shot variation and editing plays an important role in the construction of the screen event and in the management of the spectator’s experience density, many video game genres can be described as being the genres of the long take. We travel through the worlds of these games in one long, uncut shot, and rarely ever does it happen that we witness a cut or any other type of montage during sequences of high event density. In other words, it’s secondary motion that puts its mark on the narration and visual style in these video games. We’d see tertiary motion being preferred mostly to demarcate transition between levels, or as a way to jump to menu screens, but not so much during actual gameplay. [1]

Once we realize that tertiary motion is often in conflict with the player’s need for control and prefer to avoid it, we face some theoretical and practical problems when it comes to design camera behavior and environmental settings: 

  • If our visualization options in constructing screen events are rather limited to primary and secondary motion, how can we still maintain high levels of experience density for the player?
  • What are our tools for punctuation and scene transitions if our basic visual narration style during actual gameplay  is based on the long take and events are presented along a visual continuum?
  • How can we control pace and establish rhythm during actual gameplay, if the use of tertiary motion types is out of the question?
  • How can we delineate (make players comprehend the existence of) dramatic units such as ‘scenes’ in video games during a long take?

 

Rhythm and Pacing During Long Takes

Despite being bound to limited shot variation and montage options, we can make use of a wealth of methods of controlling pace and establishing rhythm in video games.

Camera Movement

What comes in mind first is of course a change in the pace and ‘aggressiveness’ of the camera’s movement itself. Switching between sequences in which the camera stands still and waits for us to move and sequences in which it simply drags us behind, is a way to control pace and establish rhythm in the uncut long shot. It’s simply the change in the parametres of the continuous camera movement that delineates events (or scenes), that creates pauses, and that establishes rhythm. An older example for designs that pace gameplay based on parametric changes during continuous camera movement would be side-scrolling shooters in which the camera drags us (or, the cross-hair that represents us) from one enemy hideout to another. Once the enemy appears, we shoot him over, only to be dragged to the next enemy’s hideout without any warning. A modern and very impressive example of such camera movement-based pacing and rhythm is God of War, a game which features a highly active and versatile moving camera.

Scale, Angle, Viewpoint, Figure-Ground Relations

The camera in God of War makes also use of switches in scale and angle during its continuous movement. Without breaking the visual continuum, it backs off to give a birdsview of the approaching war scene, it accelerates and drags the player behind to anticipate danger/action, it slows down and allows the player to move freely to signify a relatively safe section, and it up-closes and re-adjusts to the best scale and angle during the presentation of battle action, thereby also polishing and bringing to the foreground the ongoing primary motion in order to enhance spectacle and experience intensity. It is indeed such switching from figure to background, and back, that alone can establish a sense of rhythm.

Object movement

Even in games with a static frame, where not only tertiary, but also secondary motion is out of the question, we can still use object movement to change the pace and create rhytm. For instance in Centipede, the experience density increases when a spider comes along. First of all, the appearance of an additional moving object increases event density. There’s more stuff to manage now. Second, the spider moves faster than all other objects and gets very close at us (no need to mention that a collision with it kills us immediately). Hence we feel an increase in pace when a spider appears. Once it has left the screen, however, we feel that we have returned to normal game pace. Hence rhythm is created. Another example is Pac-Man: In those section in which the roles are reversed and we can be a ghostbuster for a few seconds, we feel increased game pace. The ghosts move slow now (which feels like we’ve become faster) and there is limited time to catch them and get the reward. But soon it’s us again who’ll be the hunted and the pace will normalize. The switch between hunter and hunted roles creates rhythm.

Primary Motion-Secondary Motion Cycles

In a lot of games, we’d witness constant switching between object motion and camera motion as the long shot unfolds. This works in the following way: As we walk through safe sections, secondary motion rules. We walk, and the camera moves with us. Then, as we spot the enemy and engage with it, it is rather object movement that dominates the scene. Often the density of the attack means we’re getting stuck at that point and can only move on when the threat is eliminated, hence the camera wouldn’t move, but a lot of object motion would dominate the scene. An example for this is Diablo where during the walkthrough of a level the rhythmic structure consists of a constant switching between exploration/spotting (secondary motion) and ambush (primary motion): the monster attack nails us to a certain spot on the map and hence the camera seems to be locked on there; then, after we’ve killed the attackers and keep moving, the camera again starts to travel with us. Despite no use of tertiary motion, the result is  controlled change in pace, which is just another name for rhythm.

Color and Lighting

Other visual parametres such as color and lighting can be used to signify scene delineation. Section with low gamma are followed by bright sections, cold colors are followed by warm colors, and all this establishes a feel of rhythm, or creates visually aided delineation of scenes.

The Tactile Dimension

An often ignored way of pacing and rhythm in video games is the tactile dimension of the fictional universe. This is a very important aspect in architectural design.[2] Change in the texture and feel of the space that we walk through has an impact on our perception and mood. A sequence of various tactile qualities will bring a series of changing moods with it and that can be used for pacing and rhythm. For instance  the way our avatar slows down or accelerates while climbing or walking down a slope, while performing a rather unusal move like strafeing, or while wading through water or mud, all these are of a tactile nature. Our avatar would be still presented to us through secondary motion, but despite the continous long take that follows our actions, we would perceive a transition from one area to another, which would bring variation to the experience we have.

Sound and Ambience

Ambience is another issue that is very important. Transition from one set of natural sounds to another, switching between ‘noisy’ and ‘silent’ sequences, and even the way that our own noise sounds due to change in the tactile or acoustic dimension of the environment, all these can be used to establish a feeling of variation and rhythm along the long shot. For instance the sound of our footsteps would change depending on whether we walk on sand, or asphalt, or dry leaves. And sometimes this could demarcate that we’ve now entered a different chapter or scene in the level.

Volume, Shape, Form, Texture

Of course volume, form and shape are other important factors that architecture draws attention to: In racing games, delineation of sequences is partly achieved through the proportion of negative volumes to positive volumes: There’s for example the highway section, followed by the Chinatown section, followed by the claustrophobic tunnel section, and finally the traffic-plagued downtown section that we have to rush through before we reach the finish. Alone switching between a curvy sequence and a long straight will have an impact on pacing and rhythm.

Articulation of Event Chains

As we move through a level, we will witness how relatively safe and relatively dangerous sections keep replacing each other. The way in which their order is set up, is another important way to pace a level and create rhythm. In a game like Diablo, there would be sections in which enemies are always placed within each others line-of-sight, hence we would be forced into a killing spree because each new kill already triggers another monster coming at us. But the designers would make sure that after such a killing spree we have a pause. The next killing spree arrangement would be positioned a bit farther and wait for us to tap into it and trigger the new action section. Hence such an arrangement would create a break, a moment for resting. During our rest,  we would re-assess our situation, re-arrange our inventory and make plans on what tactic or strategy to adopt next. Since all this would be presented along a single uncut shot, we would experience a feel of delineation that is being created without the use of tertiary motion.

 

Conclusion

In this article I have been dealing with an important design question: How can we control pace and establish rhythm under conditions of limited shot variation and montage options? As I tried to show, despite tertiary motion types not always being available to the game designer due to the risks they bear in regard to player control, there are many methods in pacing and giving rhythm to a game level that develops along the visual continuum of a long take.

Apart from criticism of ‘trivial’ themes in video games, maybe it is important to make film critics like Robert Ebert understand that the video game as an audio-visual medium cannot always make easily use of established cinematic visual conventions due to issues of player control. In many cases, tertiary motion types, which played an important role in cinema becoming a ‘language’ of artistic expression, will not be used in games. Hence, we come here accross a very important stylistic difference of the video game as an expressive medium. Critics like Ebert may not be so wrong in claiming that video games will never be like films, simply because these media draw back on different stylistic devices of the optic reservoir of moving images. But before we can claim that games never will be art, which is a totally different question, we must wait and see how game designers learn to deal better with conditions of limited shot variation and montage options.

Notes

[1] A few games like Asteroids or Joust can be said to make heavy use of tertiary motion in the form of cuts during actual gameplay. This happens in the form of a ‘jump’ to another slide, once our protagonist moves outside of the actual static frame.

[2] An art and science to find some clues on how to deal with game design issues during the use of long shots would be architecture. Architecture has to deal heavily with issues like circulation and spatial transition, that is, with structuring rhythmic and well-paced experiences for those who traverse spatial arrangements in one long uncut movement.

References

Francis D.K. Ching, Architecture: Form, Space, and Order

Herbert Zettl, Sight-Sound-Motion

Cursor in Fabula

In this article I will have a look at how point&click interfaces work in the articulation of a game’s story. First I will draw a distinction between three fundamental narrative layers. Then I will define the types of narrative articulation that an interface must support for a meaningful and compelling gameplay experience. Finally I will have a look at the game Diablo to describe in more detail how its point&click interface is utilized in achieving the construction of its story.

 

The Fundamental Layers of Narratives

We can distinguish three layers [1] that work together to build the structure of a narrative. These are:

    • Events: This layer entails all narrated (see Narration below) action that initiates, continues and terminates a logically connected sequence of events. [2]

 

  • Actants (story persons): the fictional beings who carry out the actions which articulate as events. [3]

 

  • Narration: the various audio-visual elements and stylistic devices through which the actants and events are constructed and presented: animations, sound effects, POV, camera movement etc.

In the video game, these layers are open to interference/alteration. What enables such interference is of course the ‘interface’, which is a set of input devices that re-configure a user as to identify with, and perform as, a fictional entity in a fictional universe. [4]

 

The Articulation of Narrative Elements via the Interface

An interface will enable the articulation of narrative elements that belong to the three layers mentioned above. In other words, we can speak of three types of narrative articulation that take place as we use the game interface.

  • Chrono-logical articulation: this is the articulation of Events through initiating, manipulating and terminating sequences of actions. Moving a group of soldiers through a desert by clicking on the interface is an example for this.

 

  • Audio-visual articulation: the player’s interferences on the audio-visual continuum that is in progress. Clicking on a mini-map to view different areas of the game world is an example for this. This type of articulation works on the Narration layer since it modifies the way events are presented to us.

 

  • Actantial articulation: gradually unvealing and altering a ‘paradigm of traits’ (=character) [5] through the use of affordances and the making of choice. Every choice we make, and every gameplay option we use will add up to shape and define a story character with specific abilities, skills and personality. This is connected to Actant layer.

As each three types of articulation take place as a result of player interference, the game narrative, which is the combined structure of Events, Actants and Narration, comes to life.

Blizzard’s Diablo: Articulating Three Narrative Layers with One Click

Diablo is one of the best examples to illustrate the successful articulation of a game narrative via a point&click interface. In this game, only by clicking on the interface, a player puts all three types of narrative articulation simultaneously into motion. The result is one of the most addictive games that has ever been created. Using the cursor as the focal point around which all other game systems (such as the camera) are built, provides the player with extremely fluent gameplay that fosters a very strong narrative feel. Let’s have a look in detail at how it happens:

This diagram illustrates how the point&click interface in the game Diablo articulates narrative layers to create a compelling story

At the center of the game flow is the click. A click results in articulation on all three narrative layers:

  • Actantial: A choice is being made, and an affordance is being used. Both are elements that shape and define character.

 

  • Chrono-logical: An action like walking, looting or fighting is carried out. These create a sequences of events. They form the basis of the narrative.

 

  • Audio-visual: Elements of narration, such as camera action and sound, are put into motion. For example the camera performs a travel when our avatar walks, and we hear her footsteps.

As the player continues to interfere with the open work, gameplay builds the narrative.

 

Conclusion

In this article I tried to illustrate through the game Diablo how game narrative can be tied to a game interface in a simple yet striking way. The better we understand the role of particular player interferences in the articulation of narrative layers, the higher are our chances to provide gameplay with a strong feel of story progress.

Notes

[1] A fourth layer, which has been left out of the scope of this article, is the Narrative Situation. For a broader description of these layers, check out my earlier article “Four Categories of Interaction“.

[2] We are speaking of ‘event’ here in a strictly narrative sense, as things that take place in a fictional universe. The narrative event (for example killing a monster) is, although both are obviously connected, not to be confused with the user event itself (like clicking on the interface). This would ignore the process of mediation and synchronization that takes place in order to immerse a being primarily external to the fictional game universe into a primarily fictional role within that game universe. Furthermore, the Events layer cannot be limited to events originating from player input since a variety of events are performed/simulated by the game system itself (like actions of NPCs).

[3] Again, we are not talking about real players/users but narrative entities whose actions and traits are narrated/mediated to us. An actant’s presence is always a narrated one. Hence it is not identical with the real person that gives her input to decide the actions of that narrated presence. Besides, user input is only one of the many ingredients that are used by the game engine to construct the actants presence. Also, games feature many actants which are not controlled by the player but the game system.

[4] An interface isn’t simply the extension of a real person. The role of the interface is to re-configure and synchronize our real presence with an in-game presence that is designed to possess the qualities that drive the plot forward. This is crucial in creating a feel of immediacy between, and identification  with, the actant’s role that we will perform in the game world.

[5] The definition of character as a ‘paradigm of traits’ has been put forward by the American narratologist Seymour Chatman.

References

Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.

From First Act to End: A Comparison of Video Games and Feature Films

Three-Act Structure is one of the most common tools in setting up a successful narrative. It is used heavily in cinema. However its usefulness in game writing is still under dispute. In this article I will have a look at the basic concepts of this approach and discuss its usefulness in regard to game design. I will first outline what is meant with Three-Act Structure and how it is commonly applied in mainstream cinema. Later on I will take a look at the structure of classical arcade games to draw some conclusions.

Three-Act Structure: An Introduction

Mainstream cinema typically makes use of the three-act structure in narrative design. This is the classical notion of a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Another typical feature of mainstream cinema is a standard used in proportioning these three acts: The content will often be presented in four quarters of which one is allotted to the first act (beginning, or introducution), one to the third act (end, or final), and two to the second act (middle). Expressed through a diagram, the three-act structure built around four quarters looks like this:

A diagram that shows the typical three-act structure used in mainstream cinema

The two quarters in the middle act are usually reserved for two secondary lines of action which are causally connected to the main plotline and gradually carry the story to the final act.

An example would be James Cameron’s feature film Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991):

Quarter 1 (First Act): Set up of the plot, introduction of characters, planting of middle acts.

Quarter 2 (Second Act): The first of middle acts, in which the goal is to free Sarah Connor from the clinic in which she is being held.

Quarter 3 (Second Act): The second of the middle acts, in which the goal is to destroy Skynet and its infobase.

Quarter 4 (Third Act): Build-up to the climax, resolution and denouement.

We can speak of a variety of goals for each of the acts (and quarters). See the diagram below:

This diagram lists the goals and function of each of the acts in a typical three-act structure narrative

The first quarter aims at catching the attention of the audience. A very common method for this is to use a teaser. This quarter’s main goal is to set up a conflict and lock it onto the protagonist. This will put her in a position where she has no other chance than dealing with the problem. Another important task for the narrative designer is to create identificiation between the protagonist and the audience.

The middle act with its two quarters functions like a bridge between the set-up and the final act. The main goal is to increase the initial tension by carrying forward the plot, meanwhile putting the character through a series of tests. Each of the two quarters end with an important moment for the character; first a deep crisis (low point) , then usually an awakening (peripetie, or turning point).

The final act is reserved for the climax. The way to the final enounter with the enemy is paved. The climax brings a resolution to the conflict. This is followed by the story wrap-up or denouement.

A more detailed picture of the dramatic structure of a typical movie would look like this then:

This diagram provides a birdsview of how plot, character and secondary storylines are developed along the four quarters in a typical three-act structure narrative

In this diagram, plot-related scenes/sequences are colored green, character-related scenes/sequences are beige, and secondary plotline related scenes/sequences are blue.

A typical thing in this kind of story structure is that an important turning point in the plot  is always followed by an evaluation and reassessment of the new situation by the characters that have been infuenced. During reassessment the character will try to understand his current situation and then decide on a new course of action. We have usually three such moments of reassessment, plus a denouement at the end of the story, which will see us the protagonist state what she has learned from all this and how she’s going to spend her life from that point on.

It’s also important to note that the first two reassessments will usually lead to courses of action that will launch the secondary storylines (quarter 2 and 3) that make up the second act of the story.

 

Three Dynamics: Plot, Character and Secondary Storylines

While the diagram above list a number of functions and tasks for the narrative designer to deal with, it would be helpful to group these tasks around three intertwined dynamics that cut across and develop along the whole narrative structure. These are

1) Plot

2) Character

3) Secondary plotlines (middle acts)

Let’s have a look at them seperately.

Plot

Plot development requires us to do some heavy work in the first quarter. The problem must be thrown up, interest for it must be created, later on it must be intensified and finally turned into a conflict (an inescapable fact that the protagonist must deal with).

The second and third quarters develop the plot further via secondary storylines, but it is crucial that at the end of each of the middle quarters important milestones are reached in regard to plot. Quarter 2 usually ends with a low point: the protagonist loses his status, gets injured, cheated etc. His first attempt to overcome the conflict put him into even worse conditions. Quarter 3 usually ends with a turning point which will open a door to the build up of the climax. Once more the protagonist was in an attempt to overcome the problem, and once more she failed, but this time she makes a discovery that might bring things closer to a resolution.

The fourth quarter usually consists of a build-up to the climax. The plot development reaches its end with the culmination of the climax.

This image shows how stages of plot development are distributed among the quarters of a narrative

Character

Character development often takes place as the character reacts to change in her situation. This is a reciprocal process: The plot influences the character and forces her the reconsider her situation. The character then decides on a new course of action which will turn into plot.

Usually we come across three moments of reassessment of which all three come after the important turning points in plot development. The final stage of this change in character is the denouement, where the character draws a general conclusion for herself on what it meant to go through this plot and how life would be for her from now on.

Quarter 1 lays the character foundations. We find out about the traits and motifs of the characters and we are provided with the reasons to identify with the protagonist.

The first reassessment comes at the beginning of quarter 2, when the conflict is established and locked onto the character. The character must face a dramatic change in her situation and decide on a new course of action. Her decision will provide the bulk of action that makes up the first of the middle acts.

The second reassessment comes at the beginning of quarter 3, when she failed miserably in her first attempt to overcome the conflict and is now in even deeper trouble. Again she must make a decision to change her situation and the course of action she decides to take will form the bulk of the second of the middle acts. 

The third reassessment comes at the beginning of quarter 4, when she failed once more in her attempt to overcome the conflict but has disovered something that might be useful in her next attempt. The course of action she decides for after her evaluation of the situation will usually pave the way to the ultimate encounter with the enemy, the climax.

The final reassessment is the Denouement. Since the plot has culminated in a climax and a resolution has been reached, the characters will state what they have learned from this experience. They will decide on a new course of action, one that reflects their learning, and then go on their way. 

This image shows the distribution of character development stages among the quarters of a narrative

Secondary Plotlines

The secondary plotlines make up the middle acts of the story. Usually each of the quarters that make up the middle will deal with one central issue.

Quarter 1 lays the foundation for the two middle acts. We call this planting, since the seeds that will lead to those acts are places into the story structure early on.

In quarter 2 and 3 each one of the seeds will grow and form the bulk of significant action.

Quarter 4 will often result in the secondary plotlines being connected to the climax.

This image shows how middle acts are prepared, developed and connected to the final act of a narrative

It’s the narrative designer’s task to intertwine all these three dynamics in a proportioned way that creates pace and rhythm. Further important concepts here are unity and increasing tension.

Structure and Dynamics in Classical Arcade Games

Despite many people arguing that games aren’t stories (or narratives), we see that game designers deal with issues in structure and dynamics similar to that in three-act structure. However, the medium as well as the business model might cause certain changes in the game designer’s approach.

Let’s have a look at the typical structure of a classical coin-op arcade game:

This image shows how a classical coin-op arcade game is structured

Most of the time we are tempted to see game levels as the basic dramatic units. This might hold true for certain genres. However a closer look at coin-op arcade games reveals that what really counts iin these games is “life”.

A player can go through several levels with a life. This means that levels can be regarded as secondary goals to the primary goal: to achieve the best with the lives at our disposal. Each one of the lives can be regarded as an attempt to overcome the conflict (similar to the attempts that shape the quarters in the three-act structure). As our attempts fail and our lives run out, we come closer to the climax, the final act of the game.  The last remaining life is usually perceived as the final act of the gameplay session. The pressure we experience here can be regarded as the equivalent of the climax in the three-act structure. The middle act of the game will often be prolongued by extra lives that we earn during our struggle. This makes it rather difficult to speak of a proportioning of the narrative around quarters. Yet it is not so useless to see a structure of three acts in this.

After each loss of life, a reassessment will follow. Often this will be an evaluation of the player performance: Calculation of kills, combos, bonuses, clean streaks, sector records and other progress indicators. Such reassessments between lives create rhythm and pare a way of pacing the game.

The acts and reassessment intervals are enveloped by a Demo and a High Scores screen. While the High Scores screen will function similar to the denouement of a movie, the Demo screen performs a lot of functions similar to that of the first act in a feature film: It will try to catch our attention, introduce characters and settings, foreshadow part of the gameplay action etc.

Another difference here is in regard to planting middle acts. Oftentimes such games make repeated use of the same game mechanisms. In other words it is difficult to speak of sequences specifically scripted to reach low points or peripeties. For example a game like Centipede or Asteroids! doesn’t have specifically designed middle acts. It’s basically the same type of system that revolves around us, just faster, or with new enemy types replacing others as the game proceeds. In other words, the need for planting as it is necessary in feature films does not exist here. We would rather encounter a demo screen that hints at the various types of enemies we will face during gameplay.

 A major difference between feature films and video games is the need to introduce the player to the player vocabulary and allow her to adapt to controls. This is were the interaction element in games creates a task that narrative designers might not be acquainted with. This also brings with it the problem to get the player locked into the conflict without putting too much pressure on her since she needs her time to get used to the interaction requirements. A teaser in a feature film can push up the tension quite early and put the protagonist under big amounts of pressure right at the beginning of the story. Game designers must be much more careful when they push the player into the conflict. The task of the demo is often to show gameplay sequences in order to give the player a glimpse of what needs to be done. The first few levels will often be designed in a way that enable the player to learn to carry out the basic actions that the game demands to be played thoroughly. These are all tasks that are rather foreign to a narrative designer.

This image shows a list of tasks of the various acts in a classical coin-op arcade game

Conclusion

In this article I compared feature films and classical coin-op arcade games in regard to plot development, character growth and the planting of middle acts. I tried to understand in how far three-act structure as being used in feature films is useful in the design of video games.

In the context of the classical arcade coin-op game we found out that we can speak of a three act structure consisting of a cycle of acts and reassessments build around “lives”. However, the interactive nature of the medium as well as the use of the game system make it difficult to speak of proportioning build around quarters. The middle act, depending on the players performance might differ significantly. Further, we cannot really speak of scripted middle acts that culminate into carefully planned low points or peripeties. Often the game system will care for increasing tension by using the same mechanics in ways that are more difficult to cope with.

Also most of the functions and tasks that we see in three-act structure are distributed among video game-specific elements such as the Demo and the High Scores screen.

The most important difference however, especially in regard to the first act, is the need for an introduction of the player vocabulary. The player must be introduced to the affordances provided to her and given space to adapt to the interaction requirements of the game. This is a task that narrative designers with a background in film and TV writing will probably not be familiar with if it is their first game writing project.

The Video Game as Live Telecast: An Analogy

While we tend to think of the act of playing a video game as a direct experience in which no mediation takes place, it is important to realize that in a video game, the casting of the game event happens simultaneously with the game event itself. In other words, a video game is mediated play. The simultaneousity between the ongoing game event and its real-time casting seems to open up some space for an analogy between live telecasts and video games. In this article, I’m going to explore this analogy a bit by looking at the game Railroad Tycoon 2. 

Assessing the Basics

There are a few points that need clarification before we can start making something useful with this analogy: First of all, we have to consider the differences of the “raw material” that is being used. In contrast to the real life events cast during a live TV program, the events cast in a video game are generated procedurally in real-time through the controlled assemblage of stored data and player input.  While in both live TV broadcast and video games the casting of the event is directly depending on the actual event, their unpredictability is of a different nature.  In live TV broadcasting, the cast event  is simply bound to the unpredictability of actual real life events, whereas in video games, the cast event is bound to the unpredictability of the “chemical reaction” that takes place in real-time between the procedurally generated event and player input.

This brings us to a second point: During a live TV broadcast, the telecaster may have no control over the direction of the actual event; i.e he cannot manipulate the actual event, only the aesthetic parametres of its casting. However, in video games, the player is part of the actual event and thereby influences its direction.  We must keep in mind here, that the player’s partaking in the actual event does not cancel out the fact that the game event is still both actual event and cast event.

Third, one of the roles that a player can play beyond partaking in the actual event and watching it being cast, is to alter the aesthetic parameters of the casting itself, that is, he may also be in the shoes of the live telecaster. During actual play and its casting, a player may change the field of view, shift POVs, do editing on the fly (just like a image switcher does during a live TV show), etc.

This allows us to speak of at least three player roles that a video game may support:

1. Being an actant, that is, someone who partakes and ifluences the actual events.

2. Being a spectator, that is, someone who watches and interpretes the cast events.

3. Being a live telecast director, that is, someone who directs and orchestrates the casting of the actual events.

Telecast By and For Oneself: Railroad Tycoon 2

A closer look at the game Railroad Tycoon 2, may help us to make visible the various roles that a player may take on during the act of playing a video game.

First of all, and obviously, the player is the spectator of the ongoing “telecast”. He interpretes the cast events (including his own actions) and the information that is presented to him in order to form hypotheses that will be verified or falsified throughout the process. The hypotheses he forms are in regard to many different things: Some of them are about what his affordances are and how he can make use of them. Some others are about his goals, the obstacles inbetween, and the course of action he can take to overcome these obstacles in order to reach his goal.

Also quite obvious, the player is an actant in the game world, that is, he is someone who initiates, carries further, and terminates actual game events. Examples are plenty, from laying tracks, to building stations, to buying trains, to investing in stock.

Railroad Tycoon GUI with callouts

What seems to be a bit more hidden is his role as telecaster. While we would consider them simply as gameplay, many actions do not result in change of the events themselves, but in their audio-visual presentation, that is, the casting of the actual events. One of the typical operations he can carry out in that regard is switching between cameras, just like someone who’s sitting at the switching table during a live broadcast. The player is both, director and switcher: he decides what should be brought under focus, and he orders these images on the screen by himself. The scroll function, the zoom buttons and the cam angle modifiers all aid the player in this role. But he can also blend in info screens and other graphic displays.

It must be said that giving the player this role is a  safe way of editing, because the player decides by himself when to switch to a different angle, scale or viewpoint. Giving the control to the player, avoids confusion that can come from AI-controlled switching. Since it is the player who focuses on whatever he wants, the risk to slow down gameplay by calling in images that the player is not interested in viewing at that particular moment, is minimal. The result is some sort of continuity editing done by the player himself.

Conclusion

While the analogy with live telecasting has the apparent shortcoming of being too far-fetched, considering the similarities and differences still gives us space to draw some conclusions on how narrativity is achieved in mediated real-time events such as playing a video game.

We may conclude that gameplay in video games consists of the real-time manipulation of various narrative layers at once: On one hand, by carrying out actions that influence the outcome of game events, the player manipulates the Actants and Events layers of the emerging narrative. On the other hand, by changing the aesthetic parameters of the casting of the actual events he co-creates, and manipulates the narration layer of the emerging narrative. Finally, by doing things like changing the game settings, the player alters the narrative situation, that is, the overall parameters that frame the various roles he takes on during the mediated play.

Sense and Sensibility in the Nintendo Wii

[Previously published on gamasutra]

This article is about game feel. It aims to show that gameplay is more than just game mechanics and interaction but the crafting of these as realistic experiences around the limitations and possibilities of the medium being used. The article starts with a brief section on how to render a fictional world into a realistic experience through the use of transliteration of senses. It continues with an analyses of the “opening minutes” of our experience with the Nintento Wii game console, followed by a very brief conclusion. I’m indebted to Michel Chion and Steve Swink. Their works were instrumental in helping me to articulate my thoughts.

The Real and the Rendered

Rendering a fictional world into a realistic experience is a complex process based on the transliteration of senses, that is, the the evoking of senses by means of other senses.

To render something “real” is by no means a new issue:  it lies at the heart of communication and has been examined in other media (and in the arts) for centuries.

What exactly are we talking about when we speak of such rendering? Let’s take an example from silent film, brought to attention by an early pionieer of film theory, Bela Balasz:

Shot 1 Close-up view of a gun’s trigger being pulled
Shot 2 A cloud of birds, all the sudden taking off of a tree

 

In Shot 2, although no sound is available, we clearly “see” the gun being  fired; or to put it more precisely, we “hear-see” it.

In this example, the transliteration of one sense into another (sight into sound) is a realistic rendering of how  gunfire “feels”; yet we must see the depth in this rendering. While the sight of the birds is rendered into the sound of the gunfire, the transliteration doesn’t step there. By means of association, the “sound” we believe to hear is rendered into yet another category of sense, that of touch: we “feel” the impact of the bullet; we’re blinking with the eyes and lean our heads back as if we were trying to escape a slap into the face.

The  realness we experience here is “rendered” reality, and by this we must understand the realness of the fictional world of the film. We clearly see how this plays a role in immersion, in our departure from reality, and our crossing into the virtual reality of the film.

This kind of rendering by means of transliteration of senses is also at work during the creation of game feel. I will try to explain how it works by having a look at the opening minutes of our experience with the Nintento Wii game console.

The Main Menu Screen of the Nintento Wii

Love at First Sight (and Sound)

The main menu screen of the Nintento Wii console doesn’t lose a second to set-up the conditions of the feel it wants to create. In our first contact with it (before we start using the controller), it utilizes sight and sought to render this feel.

The first step taken is to utilize the visuals in order to set-up the interface as a three-dimensional space with tangible objects. This tangible ludic realm is rendered by the calculated use of the following design elements:

Design element Description of how the transliteration works Type of rendering
Stacked InteractionPanels

(A combination of two layers which display menu buttons, date, and time)

The main menu features two interaction panels which are seperated by the use of contours and shading. Sight to Sight

(spatialization)

Navigation Arrow(s)

(Pulsating small-sized arrows to the right and left of the screen)
The arrows are hovering and pulsating above the interaction panels, adding to the depth of the view. Sight to Sight

(spatialization)

Menu buttons

(These resemble TV-screens and display animated images, which is in itself can be considered as a play on the already established visual code and conventions utilized to call the user to break the “fourth wall”.)

The volumetric design of the buttons foster a sight that creates the illusion of three-dimensionality (or depth), something that connotates touch Sight to Sight &Touch

(spatialization and texture)

Theme Music

(a “gentle” melody with high pitch and soft timbre, whose echoeing tunes overlap to create a tingelling, vibrating feel)

The tingleling and vibration of the music stirs up our inscape and stimulates our sensibility in regard to touch . It opens up an inner space that makes us feel the depth of the “vessel” that our body is. Sound to Sight &Touch

(spatialization and texture)

In terms of design, the visuals and music are geared towards creating the illusion of depth and stimulating our senses as a first necessary step to “prepare” the user for the experience of a “realistic” feel of controls.

I believe that the musical theme plays a central, embracing role here. The music fosters a hierarchy of senses in which the sense of touching is raised into the dominating figure  against a background of all other senses. The musical theme, we could say, *is* about sensuality, is about establishing an “inner” connection with the “hard”ware.

Love at First Motion

Once we start to use the Wii controller, it puts into motion the cursor and other animated graphics. The interplay between these elements as we carry out our actions is designed to enhance the game feel that was hinted at through our first contact with the interface.

Let’s have a closer look:

Design element Description of how the transliteration works Type of rendering
Cursor

(a stylized hand that leaves traces when being moved) 

Moving the cursor leaves a quickly dissappearing trace on the screen, which resembling the feel of touching a surface with our fingertips. Sight to Touch

(trajectory of movement)

Menu buttons

(As described above, but changing in size and contour color when highlighted)

The button animation gives the illusion as if they were three-dimensional objects moving under the impact of a physical force (similar to when we are poking a box). Sight to Touch

( texture)

Button Description When the cursor rests long enough on a button, a button description appears and hovers over the interface Sight to Sight

(spatialization)

Sound Effect The only sound effect used in the interface is heard when the button description appears. The sound gives the illusion that the button description seems to “grow” into our sight, whereas in reality it is not animated in that way. It is single frame appearing and disappearing, not an object that closes-up on us and gets buried under the interface panels. Sound to Sight

(trajectory of movement)

Wii Controller When hovering over buttons, the controller vibrates in a staccato-like manner, which feels like stumbling over something, or scratching pickles. However, the vibration also makes us recall the sound that is generated when such stumbling or scratching takes place. Touch to Sound to Touch

(trajectory of movement; texture)

We see that rendering of realistic movement in the Nintento Wii interface is achieved by the agglomeration of various senses through the cooperation of both interface and controls. What fosters the game feel is a synchronization of sight (volumetric indicators & animations), sound effects (attack-decay, timbre), music (tone, pitch, timbre, harmony) and touch (vibration).

In the case of interacting with a button, we see how the synchronization of controller vibration, cursor movement and button animations (or more precisely, the interplay of the transliteration of senses in each one of them) creates the sensation that we “click” something. Clicking a button feels like the slow dissappearing impression of an object that we have touched.

Conclusion

The fun and immersion of gameplay cannot be mere explained by game mechanics or interaction per se. We need to take into account their rendering into a realistic experience.  It is this complex process of transliteration of senses and their interplay, often going unnoticed during play, that gives players the game feel that they describe as a fun and immersive (hence realistic) experience.