The classic idea of film and stage play plots is that there are naturally three parts (often called simply Act I, Act II, and Act III rather than use descriptive names). These Acts involve first introducing the protagonist, then introducing the problem or antagonist(s), and finally resolving the conflict and sorting out the aftermath. Wikipedia (accessed 20 May 10) describes it this way:
“A three-act structure is a type of dramatic structure. It includes three broad actions:
1. Setup (of the location and characters)
2. Confrontation (with an obstacle)
3. Resolution (culminating in a climax and a dénouement ).” [the “ever after”, or at least the beginning of it]
This is a structure for dramatic tales, tales of conflict, not necessarily for all kinds of stories. Some people believe the structure is common in games (e.g. see Jeff Tidball’s http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_195/5909-A-Videogame-in-Three-Acts). (I’m going to use the word “stages” for the rest of the article, if only because plays occur on a stage, though when dramatic structure is not the subject I prefer to use “phase” as in my previous post, explicitly to get away from the idea of dramatic acts or stages.)
Insofar as games sometimes tell dramatic stories and often involve conflict, they may follow this path; but games, especially rules-emergent games, games that don’t explicitly impose a particular story, tell so many different stories that there’s no expectation of three-act structure.
The three-act system has been taught in film schools for many years, but there’s a trend to say “there’s no such thing”– or that it’s five, or nine, acts. Nonetheless, the idea that there are different stages along the way to a dramatic story’s endpoint can be useful to a game designer. While many games are not explicitly stories, there’s always a narrative in the sense of the player being able to say “this is what happened to me when I played this game”.
Games tend to vary over time in what happens, in what the players DO, in the focus of activities. This variance is generally desirable, as it increases the variety in the game and therefore the potential interest and replayability. Arcade-style games going back to Pong and Space Invaders typically have just one stage or phase, with speed increases providing the variability. Further, games that tend to have the same gameplay over time may be more like puzzles than like games (think Tetris or Bejeweled).
From my point of view, video games that are trying to tell an explicit story, which includes many of the well-known AAA games because those very expensive games are offering players an “experience”, may follow the three act structure or some variation of it, but most games do not. And dramatic stages don’t always correspond to game phases. Nonetheless, as an exercise in a class I was teaching we tried to list three-part games. These three parts often don’t correspond to the three acts of dramatic structure but I think the result is interesting.
[Because Blogger isn't friendly to tables, I'll have to provide a link to this one: http://www.pulsiphergames.com/presentation/three-part-games.htm
In the end these are more strategic than dramatic stages. Other games have different stages, for example Spore with five parts Britannia with four historical parts. And many shorter games have only one stage.
In many of the games listed above the stages arise out of the nature of the gameplay. Some games have stages ordained by the rules (including order of appearance) rather than by the evolution of play. For Power Grid there are three “steps”, for Britannia there are four phases (Roman conquest and defense, Anglo-Saxon dominance, Vikings, 4 Kings) defined by the reinforcement order of appearance and by “major invasions”. While history usually has an element of drama, there is nothing very dramatic about buying and supplying power stations and cities.
I suspect that three-parts is more common in video games than tabletop games, perhaps because video games more often follow a dramatic story.
Most games are not dominated by an explicit dramatic story, if such a story exists at all in the game. For most game designers, gameplay is more important than story, and the story must conform to the requirements of gameplay. I disagree with Tidball and others, and conclude that games, by and large, are not subject to the classic three dramatic acts, leaving it to others to decide whether films and novels fit the three act form.