Story Structure in Game Design

It’s time for me to talk about one of my favorite things: story structure! And i’m not being sarcastic, either—I was all about creative writing in college and I always got a huge hardon for story structure. the cool thing about it is that it’s everywhere! Every book you read, every movie you watch, every play you see on the stage—no matter how different these stories are, they all have one thing that HOLDS IT TOGETHER, and that’s a solid structure.

So last night I was thinking about making games, and I opened up an old document of mine, and saw how I had my game’s story outline all plotted out. It was outlined using this traditional structural formula: the formula that is used in nearly every commercial novel or movie that gets produced. Now, don’t misunderstand: i’m not saying that you must do this for a good story. In fact, it’s the opposite. Good stories naturally HAVE THESE STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS, and it works across the board in any kind of medium.

It got me wondering: do game developers have an understanding of structure? Hopefully your projects contain these elements, and then my job is to just help you recognize them for what they are and what they do in your game’s story.

So lets get into it then!

Plot Points

Every story has four primary plot points. Once you know what these are, what they do, and where they are usually located, it’s easy to find them. Watch a movie or read a book with an understanding of these and they will jump out at you. These plot points are the moment in your story that create STRUCTURAL ANCHORS. everything in your story either BUILDS UP TO or is a REACTION TO one or more of the following plot points. I’m going to introduce them here and go into more detail later on.

  • The Hook is the first one we come across, though it doesn’t hold the same kind of anchoring weight as the other to. The hook should be immediate. Unlike the other plot points, it usually has little bearing on the main storyline. It’s just something to draw the player into the game’s world and the life of the protagonist. Use the hook to introduce conflict right off the bat to engage the player.
  • The First Plot Point/The Inciting Incident is THE MOST IMPORTANT plot point in the structure of your story. It acts as the foundation of your structure. Why? Because the inciting incident is where your story really starts. The inciting incident is where the antagonist gets his big introduction and the player learns what he’s after. He does something to involve us in the main quest of the game.
  • The Midpoint is where everything changes. Up until now, the hero has been reacting to the antagonist. After this point, the hero goes on the attack. The midpoint is very often a “now it’s personal” moment that forces the hero to UP HIS GAME.
  • The Second Plot Point/Point of No Return is when the final information is revealed that allows for the climax to happen. Usually it’s a “all the pieces have fallen into place” kind of moment. It’s very often coupled with a moment of helplessness or an “all is lost” moment for the hero. Notably, after this point, no new information can be brought into the story (else you’ll get a deus ex machina and those are generally not good).

You’ll notice that there’s no plot point defined for the ending. And that’s because the ending is totally up to you.

These points exist in every story and you should pay a lot of attention to them in yours. The Inciting Incident especially sets the tone for everything that comes after. You probably have these points in mind (or in your outline or w/e) already but might not even realize the importance that these points have structurally. Every bit of your game’s story (note that I am talking about a linear main story not sidequests and backstory) should be connected to these moments in one way or another. It keeps the player grounded in your main conflict and keeps him motivated to play.

Okay so now that I’ve outlined those briefly, let’s talk about how they work with a bit more detail. Specifically, we’re MAKING GAMES here, not writing books. The fundamentals of story structure are going to be the same, but since we’re working in an interactive environment, the pacing can be a LOT more flexible. For example, since we’re working with games, the midpoint doesn’t really have to be in the middle at all. The important point is that all of the elements appear in the proper order—that way the story has a natural buildup of conflict and pacing.

So from here on out I’m going to lay out the basic fundamental structure of a story, using those plot points as the major anchors. I’ll use The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time as the example since it’s a game that everybody’s played a bunch of times and it also has a very very simple storyline that’s perfect for this kind of thing.

The Hook
the hook doesn’t have to tie into the main conflict right away, but it’s important to present some kind of conflict to give the hero a reason to do something.

  • In OoT, the hook is that the Deku Tree has summoned the boy without a fairy. Gameplay-wise, the hero is introduced to the game by interacting with the Kokiri as you gather the sword and buy the shield. We are drawn into the fantasy world of the game right away. This is also followed by the Deku Tree—both as a dungeon (which is a hook of sorts to entice us to the game’s dungeons) and the tree’s death as a character, and he sends us off on our quest.

Setup
the setup is the area of story that connects the hook to the inciting incident. structurally, the purpose of this is to continue establishing the hero’s normal life before it all gets shattered at the inciting incident. here we care about the hero and we learn and empathize with what he WANTS.

  • In OoT, I would argue that while the setup is certainly made up of everything up until the inciting incident, the big “i want” moment is when Link first sees hyrule field and is introduced to the game as a large world. running across the field and exploring on your way to the castle gives the player a real sense of the size of the game so we know what is going to be ahead of us to conquer as well as what is AT STAKE.

Inciting Incident
so like i said before the inciting incident is the moment where the player learns what the antagonist wants (which should be in contradiction to what our hero wants). it gives the hero the primary conflict and drives the player towards a goal.

  • In OoT, I believe that this moment occurs in the first meeting with Zelda in the castle courtyard. We are introduced to Ganondorf for the first time, by the young princess, and we are set out on our quest. Pretty straightforward, but it’s a key scene: we are introduced to the BIG BAD and we know that somewhere down the line we’re gonna have to take on this motherfucker ourselves.

Response
the response is chunky bit of story that happens after the Inciting Incident, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: the hero’s response to the inciting incident. typically this involves gathering allies, uncovering information, developing skills, etc. if the hero tries to go after the badguy here, he’s got to fail, because he’s not ready yet.

  • In OoT, this is the other two spiritual stone dungeons and the time Link spends as a kid. Here you become familiar with the world and the characters, locations and items in it. link meets characters who will be much more important later on.

Midpoint
the easiest description of the midpoint is that everything changes which alters the course of the story and motivates the hero to get on the attack. the midpoint moment may be very subtle or it could be a massive “selling-point” twist. either way, this is where i talk about how the player-controlled pacing of an interactive medium like an RPG would be different than something like a book. when you’re making a GAME, the midpoint doesn’t have to be in the MIDDLE at all. in the Oot example, my choice for the midpoint comes somewhat early in the game. But the key to remember is that it’s the midpoint for the game’s story, and that the response and attack chunks of storytime can be squashed and stretched to account for game action.

  • In OoT, the story’s midpoint occurs when Link returns the three spiritual stones but gets sealed away for seven years before being released into “adult hyrule”. it should be clear why this is a huge turning point in the game’s story: ganondorf has WON and now it’s your job to TAKE HIM DOWN. it’s actually a really smart thing to do and the timetravel element is one of the coolest things about the game.

Attack
easy enough: now that the midpoint has changed everything, we want to hurt the badguy. he did something to piss off our hero, and we’re gonna go after that fucker. this is usually where all those allies, skills and knowledge we dug up during the response comes in handy. along the way we are getting stronger with the increasingly heavy knowledge that we will be facing the villain.

  • In OoT, this period of time makes up the most of the gameplay. that’s primarily all the adult dungeons while link is going after the medallions and the sages. along the way we see a lot of what ganondorf has done to ruin the beautiful land of hyrule and we prepare to go after the man himself.

Second Plot Point
something is revealed that allows for—or motivates—the hero to finally go after the badguy. after this moment, nothing new can come into the story. in other words, everything after this moment is “endgame”.

  • In OoT, this is the revelation of Shiek as Zelda and then getting herself kidnapped by Ganondorf. We learn zelda’s whereabouts—the final piece of the puzzle(remember we’re going after the triforce pieces), but then ganondorf takes her which forces us to go take the plunge into his big scary finaldungeony castle.

Climax
the climax is usually described as something like THE HEIGHT OF EMOTIONAL TENSION WHERE THE CONFLICT MUST BE RESOLVED and sure that works. in the context of a videogame, though, i imagine the climax being a series of endgame trials (like a final dungeon) that forces the player into the ultimate test of all the skills he’s spent the game developing

  • In OoT, i would say that the GAMEPLAY’s climax is the entire final dungeon (ganon’s castle including the final fights), but the climax of the story would happen after the tower falls, during the confrontation with final form ganon. notice how they are pretty much overlapping each other. i think that it’s important to match the structure of your gameplay to the structure of your story for a more cohesive whole.

Ending
the ending can be whatever the fuck you want. but remember your player has worked their asses off and put hours into this thing. make it worth their time and effort. IF YOU USE A DEUS EX MACHINA, YOU AREA SHITTY WRITER AND EVERYTHING YOU HAVE WRITTEN UNTIL THIS POINT WILL BE MEANINGLESS.

Whatever you do, THE ENDING HAS TO BE REWARDING.

12 comments

  1. I agree with what you say here. Especially the last part, hehe.

  2. Cartridge says:

    Sweet tutorial, Despain. I have a somewhat irrelevant question: what is wisdom when it comes to demo’s? Should I only implement the hool n the setup?

    • admin says:

      Don’t worry about how a demo falls into this. You’d like to find a good break in the gameplay for a demo, rather than the story. Just make sure that enough of the story is included to make them want more.

  3. Elleyis says:

    Okay Im still confused on plot points can you make an article describing a game like Super Metroid. The reason I ask this is because there is rarely any dialogue other than the opening sequence in the game.

    I understand the hook, Samus a space bounty hunter captures the last metroid and returns it to the Ceres research station.

    The inciting incident, is Ridely killing the scientists on the station and stealing the metroid.

    The Response, is Samus chasing after Ridely to recapture the Metroid.

    The set up, is exploration of the planet Zebes and getting upgrades in the game while fighting the sub bosses.

    So the midpoint, would be Samus discovering the space pirate trying to clone metroids and now she has to stop this because it threatens the galaxy.

    Id like to add an extra plot point:
    The Susprise, Samus discovering the Metriod she took from SR33 is grown and almost kills her but doesn’t.

    The 2nd plot point, is finding out that mother brain is still alive and has orchestrated the whole event and now she must confront mother brain.

    I’d like to add another plot point:
    The dues Ex machina, of the story is the Metroid saving Samus and granting her tremendous power.

    The attack, is when Samus see’s the baby metroid being killed by mother brain and now she super pissed.

    The Final event:
    Is escaping the planet Zebes before it blows up.

    Correct me if Im wrong.

    • admin says:

      In a lot of games that aren’t very story-heavy, it’s harder to clearly see these distinctions—they might not even exist. Your reading of Super Metroid might be right (I haven’t played nearly as much of that game as I should have), but remember that sometimes a game’s style might not make it easy to line up perfectly with the plot points. It’s easier to find a correlation in a game that has a very strong focus on a linear story.

      Metroid tends to be more about atmosphere and the overall experience—I could probably force Metroid Prime into a story dissection like this, but I’d hesitate to do so, because it isn’t that kind of game. It’s about exploring the world, and the story is almost an afterthought (and in cases like these, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the important parts of the game are so perfectly executed.)

      Glad to see you thinking things though, and it makes me happy that you’re applying these ideas to your own experiences. :)

  4. Kaleem M. says:

    Sometimes Dues Ex Machina are good, if they can be believable. Take for example FFVII’s ending. Even though Cloud and the gang defeated the two major antagonist the world wasn’t saved just from that alone. It took something ‘else’, this in the form of Aeirth’s prayer to the planet plus the Lifestream, or soul of the planet, to bring about a positive resolution. Though we were given hints at the beginning to the game as to what may or may not happen, we just didn’t know what to expect at the end until everything was said and done.

    It brings up a more critical understanding of your first point which is the inciting incident. If two forces are wanting something different and they contradict each other, more often than not the antagonist has to get what s/he wants in order to motivate the protagonist to making a decision which brings about the midpoint or second plot point. So doesn’t this often lead the player to just reacting to whatever happens rather than every truly taking the lead?

    No matter how firm a protagonist’s resolve may become, in the end s/he still has to stop the antagonist from getting into a position that threatens them or everything around them, i.e. the world.

    It gives way to the question: even if the characters/protagonist fight their hearts out, will everything really turn out well in the end? Too often JRPGs have it where everything works out fine and dandy once the antagonistic force has been removed from the scene, but in any kind of real-life situation, which most of these games are based off to some degree, can everything really work out well in the end?

    Asking the question of: what would happen ‘if’, and then turning it into something feasible also brings about a believable resolution, no?

    Just a thought.

  5. Aceri says:

    I have talked to a few people, kind of just like story brainstorming with a few friends about things like this. My friends and I are huge zombie fans(which what 20+ year old now adays isn’t a fan of zombies in one way or another), and they all wanted to make a zombie-like game but they aren’t very good in terms of writing stories. I decided I would give it a try and see how well I did making my own zombie apocalypse game(I’m a naturally talented writer in my opinion. It’s the one thing I’m good at haha.).

    When I read this article I thought to myself, “Well what if there is NO antagonist to speak of? What if every single enemy in the game is the antagonist, and there’s no real super evil being that’s the root cause of the problems to face towards the end? How would that work out following the basics of story structure?” Then it dawned on me.

    I am not sure if you guys are familiar with Max Brooks’ World War Z book. In that book there is no major one-above-all bad guy that needs to be killed to bring about a resolution. There is also no protagonist in the most common sense. The antagonists of his book are the ghouls, the psychotic, the environment, other people, ect., but no real shining singularity. On the protagonist side, there is, which I guess you could consider the true protagonist, Max Brooks’ character going around interviewing the survivors of the zombie apocalypse and learning their story of survival or resistance ect.. The protagonists are spaced out through many different characters, each of them having their own fight-or-flight moments, their own climaxes and so on and so forth.

    And when it comes to the “Attack” part of the story, the first paragraph into that new phase of story is literally when he is interviewing a General and he opens up with, ” ‘Attack.’ ‘Oh shit…’ ‘What? Does that surprise you? I bet you thought that the brass would be all chomping at the bits. I don’t know who painted the image of the dimwitted high school football coach of a General Officer. I was scared. More importantly because it wouldn’t be my ass on the line, I was sure I would be sending our soldiers to die. Here’s what they were up against.’ The General hits a switch, and the image on the wall dissolves into a wartime map of the continental United States. ’200 million zombies! Who can even visualize that number, let alone combat it. That was what was waiting for us beyond the Rockies… That was the kind of war we had to fight…’ ”

    Of course that’s just how my mind remembers that part, I haven’t read the book in quite some time so I am sure some words are probably missing, but you get the idea.

    But also in that book they talked about what was called the, “Alpha Teams”. Highly trained special forces operators who’s job it was during the initial rise of the undead to go into towns where the spread of infection was getting out of control, isolate the townsfolk from the rest of the country, and eliminate everything that came in contact with the undead. That’s what my game is based on.

    Well actually my game is a two-parter, where the game will come in two separate games. The first will be about the characters life during what the book calls, “The Great Panic”, and the second game will be based after everything has gone to hell. But one thing I am known for doing is writing stories where the main character of the story actually ISN’T the hero. So in my game the main character is going to be a college professor who ends up aiding the Alpha Team that gets dispatched to his town by giving them shelter and a secured zone to fall back to when things get too dicey, namely the school.

    I think I went off track a little bit. Sorry for such a long post. For the TL;DR’s out there:

    Max Brooks’ World War Z is a great example of a story who has no one-above-all-else evil mastermind, nor does it have really one central protagonist that is present throughout all the story. The book is very much about the side character themselves rather than the protagonist, and I think Max Brooks pulled it off nicely in that book.

    • Despain says:

      Humanity is the protagonist; the zombies are the antagonist. It doesn’t have to be a single person, or even a THING—in lots of stories, the antagonist is an act of nature, an idea, or even a feeling.

      • Aceri says:

        Well yeah that’s basically what I was getting at. Not NEEDING one end-all-be-all evil mastermind be the antagonist, or one particular person being the protagonist.

    • Despain says:

      Yup—it’s a good example. :)

  6. Shade Sorcerer says:

    I have a question about the inciting incident( perfect name for it, by the way :) ). The game I am currently working on is a bit of a mystery game, where the first three-fourths or so is about trying to figure out who the antagonist is, however, you said the antagonist should be introduced in the inciting incident. Would you recommend I change the story, or do you think that in the context of that, that it would be fine to keep it the way it is? I know a lot of people don’t like the whole “I’m the REAL villain” thing ( I’m one of them), but since there is no “fake villain” and I am dropping hints about who the actual antagonist is, I think it should be fine. I’m just wondering if you agree.

    • Despain says:

      Good question dude.

      Don’t rewrite your story to follow the structure laid out here. If you’re story is solid, these points will naturally be present. They might not be perfect literal translations, but think about the PURPOSE behind each of the points.

      The inciting incident doesn’t NECESSARILY need to introduce the villain—what it needs to is establish the primary CONFLICT. Show what the villain WANTS (or if that’s a mystery, present a part of his ultimate goal). The important thing is that it’s in opposition to the desires/goals of the hero. Use the inciting incident to set up the conflict that the hero is going to be facing.

      Here’s an example: take the classic mystery story—a detective hunting down a killer. Now, the hook of the story might be the kill that brings the detective onto the case. Then, some time is spent establishing the detective’s own motivations and goals. Then, the inciting incident is usually a personal attack against the detective. And not necessarily a physical attack—but sometimes a message. Maybe a dead body is discovered, but it has a grisly message carved into its chest: a message directly aimed at the detective, letting him know that the killer knows about him. The identity of the villain is still a mystery, but the game is on.

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