How Different Storytelling Arcs in Games Shape Player Responses

Loft in VR video game Loading Human

Most stories tend to fall into similar structures. One of the best-known is the inverted check mark, something my writing instructors really hammered into my brain. You start with exposition, move into rising action, peak at the climax, and fall slowly into resolution. This formula, despite its very formal structure, allows for a lot of freedom in its implementation, especially when you consider that not all media need adhere to it in the same way.

Take video games, for example. It’s not out of the ordinary to spend a hundred or more hours in the same game, which can make for a rather strangely-formatted inverted check mark. That’s why games often do things a bit differently. While the traditional storytelling arc might still appear, it often deviates from the way it tends to manifest in books or movies. As games take on new release structures—such as the episodic format—alternate models surface alongside them. The three-act structure and inverted check mark simply won’t work for every story. But how do these varying structures impact the way players feel? Is there really any distinction between each form, or are they all just the same thing wrapped up in different packages?

Classic Three-Act Stories Provide Rigid, but Effective, Structure

The three-act structure is one of the most foundational in any medium. Essentially, it boils down to breaking a story into a beginning, middle, and end, with plot points, an inciting incident, and a climax. Some stories follow this more rigidly than others, to various effects. Basic doesn’t always mean good, but it does mean solid—you always know where you are in a strict three-act structure.

Dragon Age II Three Act Structure
Though it’s the least popular game in the series, Dragon Age II‘s three-act structure effectively told the story of Hawke’s time in Kirkwall. Image Source: BioWare.

Dragon Age II is one of the clearest examples of a three-act structure in video games. While it does have the typical freedom of an RPG, you’re constrained in some sense by the passage of time; the game takes place over about ten years, illustrating how Hawke’s arrival in Kirkwall causes a shift in the already unstable climate. The clear divisions add finality to each act, because your actions carry weight. Moving on to the next act closes a door that can’t be reopened, making you really feel the passing of time in a way that Inquisition or Origins do not.

While many fans were disappointed with the game’s conclusion, its structure imposes a rigidity that feels different from the looser open-world approach. In that way, it feels more like an epic. While it might not be the perfect form for a video game, Dragon Age II set up much of the conflict of Dragon Age: Inquisition, making it an effective midpoint despite it being less popular than other games in the series.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask does three acts a little differently—here, you have just three days to stop the moon from crashing into the world. Each day adds new complications, new lessons to be learned, and new challenges to complete before the calamity. But Majora’s Mask has another feature, the ability to travel back in time, which undoes the rigidity of the three-act structure and lets you work around the clear act lines. In playing with the form, the game sets itself apart.

Chapter-Based Stories Include Multiple Arcs

Chapters are a feature that really only work in linear games—if players can wander wherever they wish, you run into a problem with telling a story linearly. A chapter-based structure is more reminiscent of a novel, especially in how it makes each chapter its own smaller storytelling arc, giving you bite-sized snippets in service of a larger, overarching arc.

Uncharted 4 A Normal Life Chapter
Uncharted‘s chapter-based structure allows for multiple story arcs inside of the larger one, encompassing character development, action, and puzzle-solving throughout. Image Source: Luka Zou via Flickr.

Uncharted is one of the clearest examples of chapter-based storytelling in games. Part of the fun of the game’s chapters is seeing the title before heading into the level and wondering what it will entail. Titles like “A Normal Life” and “Those Who Prove Worthy” are not just reflective of what happens in the chapters themselves—they’re also important in the larger context. Each chapter contains its own arc, usually with at least one action sequence, puzzle, and major plot moment, to keep the story moving. Even the quiet moments of Uncharted 4, such as the “A Normal Life” chapter, still include action, whether it’s shooting targets in the attic or trying to beat your wife’s high score in Crash Bandicoot. For the player, the effect is subtle; you’re drawn forward with consistent promises of more story, action, and puzzles to come, with each new chapter resetting the anticipation factor.

Episodic Releases Break Stories into Multiple Arcs

Arc-based storytelling, especially in an episodic format, is kind of the best of both worlds. Stories like this can play with a mixture of three-act structure and chapters, as each episode can function as an individual chapter or contain chapters within.

Problem-solving within VR Game Loading Human
Loading Human‘s episodic storytelling means that, despite its deliberately slow pace, the story will always keep moving forward.

The upcoming sci-fi title Loading Human follows this format. The game will be released episodically, and each piece contains its own functional story arc with rising action, a climax, and part of a resolution. But each piece also functions as part of the whole, leading up to the ultimate climax.

For players, this means that dividing the story up never feels like you’re missing anything. You’ll take on the role of Prometheus throughout his journey, navigating his complex relationships and unraveling the mysteries of his memories. Each episode contains several memories, layering arcs within each other inside of a larger arc to ensure that, despite the game’s thoughtful pace, there’s a never-ending supply of new secrets to uncover and investigate. Structure, in this case, helps ensure that you’re never lost in details or killing time looking for something to do. If you get off-track, there’s always a way to move forward and a goal to strive for, no matter what point you’re at in the story.

Each Storytelling Arc Provides Unique Benefits

Arc-based storytelling is a big part of more traditional episodic media like television and comic books, but it’s also vital to the world of video games. Games tend to be significantly longer than most movies and books, and breaking down these complex (sometimes branching) narratives into more digestible pieces that satisfy all the way through presents a challenge that is unique to the medium. By using arcs and structures, no matter how long the game, writers are able to impose a form on a story that’s accessible to players, keeping things moving forward while still allowing them room to play inside of it.

Loading Human‘s incredible story of futuristic love and loss will be told episodically, echoing the best of dramatic television. Preorder your copy today!


Michelle Peniche

Pokemon catcher, coffee lover, part time road tripper.

More Posts