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Epic's Jim Brown on why games should ditch the three-act structure

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Epic Games' Jim Brown delivered a talk at GDC Europe last week about a largely untapped narrative force available to games writers: giving players control over the story rather than giving it to the writers themselves.

In an interview with Polygon before his talk, Brown posited that most game narratives are based on models of more traditional media. Storytelling styles and structures have "rolled downhill" into gaming, which abandons the opportunities afforded writers by the interactive nature of our medium.

"The one thing that separates us as a medium is that we're very, very interactive," Brown said. "So I wanted to focus in on that, and see how we were different, and kind of find some ways that we can use that to separate ourselves from those other forms of media."

It's not just emergent games — titles that give players free reign to explore their own uses for preset mechanics — that can tap into that force, Brown said. Even linear titles, like Epic's Gears of War series, can let players feel like they're in control of the story being told.

"It's not necessarily emergent storytelling," Brown said. "For me, it's more about about giving the player context, and allowing them to make that story their own. On the developer side, that's really, really hard, because we have this idea of what the game should be in our head.

"I'm suggesting that perhaps we should create an opportunity for the story to happen," Brown added. "However the player chooses to go through that, is what that story will be. Whether it's a tightly linear level or linear storyline — that's fine. You can still have emergent opportunities and things that happen in that world, just the same way you can have a really cool story that happens in a 10-minute multiplayer match."

"I'm suggesting that perhaps we should create an opportunity for the story to happen."

The biggest thing games writers need to do, Brown said, is ditch the three-act structure; a storytelling design that dates all the way back to Aristotle.

"He said a good story is anything that has a beginning, a middle and an end, that that was the origin of this three-act ideal that a lot of people use when they're setting up a structure, or setting up a story," Brown said. "But if you look at poetry, as an example, they don't have that three-act structure, but they tell incredible stories. Paintings are another one; you can get these really deep and rich story lines out of a painting if you know what to look for."

The idea of a three-act structure is antiquated, according to Brown. It's found its way into games because it was a model utilized by radio and TV shows out of necessity; a 30-minute show with two commercial breaks could use it logically, because it fit its required structure. Games don't have that requirement, and therefore writers shouldn't feel obliged to stick to the model.

"There's different ways that we can tell stories, and I'd like to see more people take that interactive aspect into account when they're coming up with and designing these stories," Brown said.

Check out the video above for our full interview with Jim Brown, who was tight-lipped about Epic's upcoming, Unreal Engine 4-powered project, Fortnite.