In writing there’s this thing called the story structure (or plot structure). Basically it’s a formula for taking a story from beginning to end via a set of key points through which a story should pass in order to give the reader the maximum reading pleasure.
Yeah, there are different readers, and there are different writers and there are definitely different stories. And yet, with most stories you will see a story structure (except in literary fiction where you can read for 250 000 words about a guy going to a funeral) since to keep tension high and reading pleasurable you need something to happen, a rise and fall, turns and twists.
The same is true for games.
So what happens when we try to use a fiction story structure to analyze games?
The 7 Point Story Structure
Lets take a simple 7 point story structure (there are other structure analysis tools but I like this one). It might look like this:
- Plot point 1
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Plot point 2
The hook is the part where the reader is hooked into the story, where she sees that there’s loads of cool stuff ahead. It usually begins with the hero in the opposite state than in the end of the story – Harry’s a wimpy orphan underneath the stairs, Luke’s a wimpy orphan on a farm.
Plot point 1, sometimes called the call to adventure, is where the hero is show that she’s destined for greatness in some way – Harry Potter discovers that he isn’t some silly orphan because He’s Got Magic. Or the hero is kicked out of his rut – Luke Skywalker discovers that the Evil Empire has burnt down Aunt Beru’s farm, now go get them boy!
The first pinch is where the evil of the opponents is shown. The Overlord razes the town. Darth Vader blows up Alderaan. Bad stuff happens.
The midpoint is where the Hero and Friends(tm) decide to do something about it. It’s the point where the hero stops being pushed around and formulates a plan of attack. She goes on the offensive.
The second pinch is another chance to show how evil the evil is by having them thwart Hero in some way, removing something the hero needs – Darth Vader kills Obi Wan. It can switch places with plot point 2 or the midpoint.
The second plot point represents the part where the hero has all the information she needs to solve the case, she just doesn’t know it yet. Sometime she needs a little reminder: “Use the force, Luke”.
Resolution is when it all comes together and the plot is resolved. This is the climax of the story – Deathstar goes Boom! Then you’ve got the falling action, when everybody gets their medals.
Ok, so much for plotting. What’s this got to do with game designers?
Let’s see what happens when we apply the plot structure on the flow of a game.
This is where you start to form your first plans. You sit down and see what resources you’ve got to play with. You decide to invade Russia. You decide to build up your food production engine. You decide to do something. Note that unlike in fiction the hook isn’t about getting interested in the game – if you’re playing we’re already assuming that you’re interested. No, this is about what you, as a player, can do, how you can act within the constrains of the game. So the hook is the point at which you can start towards meaningful actions within the confines of some plan.
The problem here is if your hook comes too late in the game. Imagine Fresco where you’d need to do nothing but gather resources for the first four rounds. It would be incredibly boring. This is why most games start with players having some form of resources, some ways to act.
Question: Does your game let players act with agency right from the start?
Plot point 1
This is the point where the game actually start rolling. You know what you need to do and decide upon a course of action. Then the game starts presenting you with new opportunities enabling you to refine or shift your plans. You see that your opponent has a weak spot and decide to go all in on an invasion of Leningrad. You spot an opportunity to acquire cheap land and build a mill. You see how to move your game forward.
This means that your design can’t be static. You need to let players develop their positions. Can they develop their positions right from the start? Do they get rewarded for developing their positions by new opportunities? I played a prototype where the players’ could advance their positions but they didn’t gain anything from that. They had several moves before anything meaningful happened. That entire part of the game was pointless and should be cut.
Question: Does your game reward players with increased agency for their actions?
This is where the opponents make their move. It may be planned, it might be accidental but the opponents influence the player in some (usually negative) way. The opening in Leningrad was a rouse and now your panzer divisions are trapped. The player to your right buys the mill before you can. Your plans are tossed into disarray.
This means that your game needs to have some way for players to meaningfully influence each other. This does not need to be direct interaction: Roll for the Galaxy is a game where there is pretty much no player interaction and yet players influence each other by being closer or further away from victory. The minimum needed for a pinch is that the player needs to be able to see the distance that her opponents have remaining before reaching some goal and compare it to the distance she has remaining.
Question: Does your game offer players a meaningful way to compare or threaten each other’s positions?
This is the point at which a player commits to a strategy or way of winning. Up until the midpoint (which doesn’t have to come in the middle of the game, just as a plot midpoint doesn’t have to come in the middle of the book) the players can switch strategies without incurring too many penalties. But once you’ve gone past a certain point you need to gain more rewards from following one, or a subset of all possible, strategies than from playing randomly.
Question: Does your game offer players meaningful synergies between sets of actions?
Another threat. Your opponent breaks through your lines and rushes to encircle your front line units. The price of food plummets and now everyone can access your monopolized resources for next to nothing.
This is the point where a weak design fails to runaway leader/fallaway loser syndrome. If there is a strategy, or set of strategies, that are stronger or weaker than others it will show and some players, choosing those strategies, will find themselves in positions where they must keep playing (i.e. they aren’t eliminated) but know that they can never win. You need to let players have the hope of winning throughout the game, even if it needs a long shot to do so.
Question: Does your game offer players in weaker positions meaningful ways to threaten or catch up to stronger players?
Plot point 2
This is the point at which very few additional resources enter the game. There is no longer time to build your engine, you must look to what is happening and draw the correct conclusions. The Allies are massing troops and ships in England. The price of production is getting lower. Whatever is happening on the board, this is the last time where major changes will occur.
Your players should reach a point where they can see that the game is ending and they’ve got to work with what resources they have in order to win. They need to know that the game is about to end, and they need to be able to see all the meaningful options remaining for them so that they can commit to one.
Question: Do your players see that the game is about to reach a critical point, and are they able to act upon that information in a meaningful way?
This is it, the moment of no return, where you throw everything you’ve got into the pot and hope that it will be enough to snatch victory. You throw your reserves onto the beaches in the hopes of beating the Allies back from Normandy. You dump your remaining corn and buy steel mills for every last coin. You act in a way that you hope will ensure victory or stave off defeat.
This point should come within the final minutes of the game. After this there is only counting points and seeing who the winner is. If timed correctly this should be the tipping point for the game at which all the strategies are resolved, the action that creates a landslide that lets you win. This is also the point at which volition is removed from the players – after this there are no meaningful decisions left. One common problem with designs is that the resolution doesn’t come last – the “I’ve won/lost but there’s still stuff to do” problem. Thus you should end the game as soon after the resolution as possible. Don’t let it drag out, give the players’ their rewards and let them start a new game.
Question: Does your game’s climax come right before the ending or do you have book keeping rounds you can remove?
So there you have it, the 7 point story structure as a set of in-game choices. When I started using this to analyze my designs I came up with some interesting observations that let me improve them in various ways. But that’s a story for another time.