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Justin Webb: When Beats Go Wrong

Column By Justin Webb on March 09, 2010

Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Fallout 3 and the movies Serenity, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar.

This weekend was the Oscars. The Hurt Locker pretty much trounced Avatar, which I was hoping for. However, I was surprised that Avatar didn’t completely clean up on the technical awards. Anyways, the award I really really wanted the Hurt Locker to win was Best Original Screenplay … and it did. Yay!

You see, I’ve always been interested in scriptwriting and how a movie narrative is constructed. Luckily, there are many many books on the subject, many geared at teaching the basics to budding screenwriters. The most famous is probably Syd Fields’ Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which is a superb stylish exploration of the three-act format, but which focuses (to me) a bit too much on the “art” of writing a script. I’m more interested in understanding the nuts ‘n’ bolts of the process, and at looking at screenwriting mechanically from the outside.

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My favorite book on the subject is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder. If you have any interest at all in story design, I urge you to check it out. Despite the attention-catching title, the basic premise of the book is that all movies essentially share the same three-act structure and that they all have the same fifteen story “beats”. (Blake’s “Beat Sheet” can be found here.) This isn’t a unique concept – many screenwriting books have trod this ground before. The book then gives a lot of really good advice about understanding what beats mean in the context of putting a script together.

(Note that this systematic breakdown of the myth story isn’t anything new. Sixty years ago, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces nailed how legends and myths are constructed systematically from reoccurring always-present “stages”, and has been an inspiration to screenwriters ever since. George Lucas’s use of Campbell’s book as a blueprint when constructing the Star Wars story has been well documented. Snyder uses the word “beat” in his manifesto instead of “stage”, but his overall premise is identical to Campbell’s, albeit a bit more mechanical.)

OK. What are beats? Beats are the major thematic events that occur in a story. For example, according to Save the Cat, Beat #11 (All is Lost) and Beat #12 (Dark Night of the Soul) both occur at the end of the second act.  All is Lost, also sometimes called “The Whiff of Death”, requires that something/someone must die at this point in the story. The death can be physical or metaphorical. Dark Night of the Soul is a contemplative beat, where the main character reflects on what was “lost”, just before deciding on what “they must do” in the Finale (Beat #14).

For example, Obi Wan sacrificing himself to Darth Vader in the Death Star hangar; Gandalf plummeting to his death in Moria; and the Big Tree getting sploded in Avatar, are all examples of All is Lost. All three of these movie scenes are followed by appropriate Dark Nights of the Soul. It’s like Madlibs. Just change some of the nouns around and you get your favorite movie!

Save the Catalso goes into a lot of detail in defining what all those beats “mean” and when they should happen. It stresses that if any of the beats occur out of sequence, at the wrong time, or even not at all, then the movie will fail. To back up his assertion that all movies are the same and have the same beats, Snyder also makes the following interesting point: Try explaining the plot of Fast and the Furious to a friend, but substitute cars for surfboards. You get Point Break.

When I’m talking about movies here, I’m really just talking about “stories”. People love a good story. They’ve been around since the first campfire. Movies are just the way in which most people prefer to digest those stories these days, although video games are quickly becoming a legitimate story-telling medium. However, a story isn’t just a way to pass the time. They are intrinsic to the human experience. They have rules that must be followed. You can’t just string together a handful of random narrative events, like a three-year old might – it won’t work as a story, no matter how charming. Stories are crafted … but they have important rules. We all have an innate primal unconscious understanding of what a story is, and when a story goes wrong it sets off all sorts of alarm bells in our heads.

Imagine this scenario: You’re watching a movie. Something happens in the movie that inexplicably (and maybe subconsciously) makes you go “huh!” (Maybe it happens more than once). It’s hard to define what, but the end result is that the movie became “bad”. There’s a really good chance that the movie just messed up one of its beats.

For example, many people have a “huh!” moment when Wash is impaled and dies at the end of the Reaver chase in Serenity. It just doesn’t feel right. This is because the movie already gave us All is Lost and Dark Nights of the Soul beats about 20 minutes earlier when Book died. During the chase, we are not expecting another major loss – our brains are expecting a swashbuckling finale instead. The  combination of  premature beats followed by an out-of-sequence beat (there’s no subsequent “real” DNofS beat) is really confusing, and creates a “huh!” moment. Ask anyone who’s seen Serenity which bit they like the least. I guarantee they say “the death of Wash”.

I hope at this point we can all agree that all “stories” share a lot of intrinsic common elements, and that when those elements get messed up, the story begins to suck. With this in mind, I find it very curious that so few MMOs construct their “stories” using the tried-and-tested formulae that screenwriters have been using for years.

There is also a big difference between “story” and “setting”. In an MMO, the “story” (often referred to as “lore”) is usually well written and interesting, existing above and to the side of the play experience. However, most players don’t really care about it. Their journey very rarely bumps into this main storyline. They are more interested in creating their own personal stories in the “setting”. For example, does anyone actually know the story in WoW? Something about a lich king I think.

What players really care about is the ”setting”. And, in the “setting”, they perform chunks of content called quests. Quests are the “stories” that players care about ... or despise with a passion if they are done wrong. This is the level at which MMOs could apply the beat concept (and elevate the medium in the process). My favorite quest chain of all time is the Link(en) quest in WoW. The one that starts at a sunken rowboat in Ungoro Crater. This quest feels like a movie. It has great beats. Why aren’t all epic quests like this one?

Most games have the concept of the “epic quest”. However, “epic” has become a descriptive word that just means that the quest has many stages, not that it is awesome and/or special. Also, there is nothing epic about killing ten rats. Why do so many players complain about quests? It’s because the beats are all messed up. At some point, your brain recognized that you were taking part in a story, and you began to buy into it. Then the beats went haywire and you had a “huh!” moment. From then on, quests in that game became “bad” to you, maybe becoming too repetitive and/or grindy, and you started complaining about them on forums. The thing is, you’re right.

I would love to play an MMO where the epic quests played out like movies, and not just a sequence of “kill X monsters” or “take item Y to NPC Z”. It shouldn’t be hard to do if you understand the medium, and understand what a story “is”. Clearly, many quest writers don’t … or don’t care. It doesn’t involve that much more time and resources to craft an epic quest experience over just connecting a dozen boring quests together and giving away a blue at the end. It’s all about just hitting the beats.

For example, Fallout 3, while not an MMO, hits all the beats perfectly. The first act takes place in the Vault. There is a Catalyst (Beat #4: Your father running away), a Debate (Beat #5: Should you stay or go?) before you emerge into the wilderness and the lengthy second act. After Fun and Games and the exploration of many B-Stories (Beats #7 and 8), the second act ends tragically with the death of a major character (Beat #11: All is Lost). In the final act, the player picks up the mantle of the fallen character and completes the mission. It’s structured just like a movie. Fallout 3 does a phenomenal job at providing all the necessary “story” beats while also creating a “setting” that can allow the player to wander away from the main storyline and do their own thing. There’s no reason at all why your favorite MMO can’t do this a bunch of times too.

Investing players into narrative structures that they are intrinsically familiar with (stories with the beats in the right places) will result in games where the content grind stops feeling like a grind. And that’s what we all want, right?

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