Macro Composition

Macro composition involves the structure, timing, sequencing, and arrangement of segments and episodes (as opposed to micro composition, which occurs moment to moment). At this macro scale, there are some general sequencing terms and principles used for composition.

The Hook
The most memorable and interesting part/aspect of the episode (the one with the dragon, the one with the lava, etc.). If an episode doesn't have a clear hook, it is probably weak and should be improved or removed. Segments can have hooks as well, but this often isn't necessary. Each title needs a powerful hook that is made clear early in the experience.

Intro Segment (or Episode)
Introduces anything new that the audience needs to learn for this episode, whether something about a character or plot point, a new ability, a new enemy type, a new terrain type, etc. Should foreshadow what the episode is about, but in a fairly simple form, focusing on the new element. An intro episode introduces the basic characters, plot, abilities, etc. to the audience and foreshadows what the entire title is about.

Middle Segments (or Episodes)
The segments that make up the most of the episode. Sometimes these segments are all different from each other (verse segments) and sometimes these segments are very similar to each other (chorus segments). It is also common to alternate varied segments with similar ones (a verse-chorus structure). In a game, the most common form of variation is increasing numbers, power, or difficulty, in order to increase the tension peak of each successive segment. Variation in type of enemies or other challenges is also common. Middle episodes in a title can also be varied or similar, depending on the nature of the experience, but are much more likely to be varied.

Note that a relatively undirected experience will often have a variable number of middle segments. This could be a variable number of courses at a fancy restaurant (as opposed to the highly directed tasting menu or omakase), or it could be an arcade-style or classic game with just a continually repeated middle segment (that just gets more difficult each time).

Finale Segment (or Episode)
The most intense segment that is the climax of the episode. Often uses whatever was introduced in the intro in a surprising and interesting way. In game, it is frequently a boss battle. A finale episode is the climax of the entire title and should deliver on any foreshadowing done in the intro episode. The finale of an interactive episode can occur at different in different segments, depending on what the audience does and how the episode is structured. For example, in a wave-based arcade-style game, the segment in which the player dies usually serves as the final for that play-through.

Outro Segment (or Episode)
A final segment, often very short, that wraps everything up and finishes off the episode, giving the audience a chance to appreciate what just happened in the finale. Should be more than a fill (see below). An outro episode is also known as a epilogue and should wrap up all the loose ends of the title.

Solo Segments (or Episodes)
A segment or episode which specifically highlights a particular character, weapon, ability, etc. Usually very high tension, often even used as a finale.

Interlude Segments
This is what happens between episodes in a game (non-interactive experiences rarely have interludes), such as leveling up, allocating skill points, buying and selling items, traveling to new locations, or even just selecting another level or a loading screen. Should still be interesting, even if it is just a loading screen.

Fills
These are single loops or moments between segments. Little bits (sometimes no more than moving to a new room or a clever camera pan) that link the segments together. Fills are often neglected, but clever fills can greatly enhance the flow of an episode, and poor or missing fills can often destroy that flow. In a game, fills are particularly necessary when a player dies and respawns--you can't just jump back instantly to the beginning of the segment.

Sequencing Characteristics
The nature of how segments are ordered in an episode, or how episodes are ordered in a title, have five common characteristics:
  • Linear: the sequencing is set and never changes (almost always the case in non-interactive experiences).
  • Branching: the sequencing branches at specific points based on particular actions or events.
  • Unlocking: new sequencing options become available based on particular action or events.
  • Random: the sequencing branches or changes order, but not in a way controlled by the audience.
  • Dynamic: the sequencing is up to the audience, based on what they decide to do at any given time.
While an episode or a title might be entirely linear, entirely branching, entirely dynamic, etc., usually episodes or titles combine multiple sequencing characteristics (primarily linear with some branching, for example). Some games even make episode sequencing choices feel like part of the gameplay, through the use of an "over world", mission planning center, or something similar. Segment sequencing choices in games are commonly integrated into the gameplay, often just through the player moving to different locations or taking different paths. Games that are actually sports (including e-sports) usually have tournament or season structures to determine the sequencing of episodes.

Standard Narrative Sequencing
While an experience can be sequenced in an infinite variety of ways, there are some standard sequencing techniques that have been proven so useful in books, comics, and film that they are worth describing in more detail. These structures are fundamentally about the structure of narrative elements, but they can also be adapted to the structure of interactive elements without too much trouble.
  • Three Act Structure: The standard dramatic structure broken into three acts: setup, conflict, and resolution. A simple, straight-forward structure that can be considered the default for most narrative. 
  • Nine Act Structure: Also known as the two-goal structure. The standard dramatic structure broken into nine acts: backstory, opening scene, inciting incident, character introductions, commitment, complication, reversal, climax, denouement. There are some small variations to this structure and terminology. Useful when a more detailed structure is desired than the three act structure.
  • The Hero's Journey: Also known as the monomyth, this is the classic story-telling structure found in many cultures/myths throughout history. It has many variations, but the basic pattern is roughly: call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting the mentor, crossing the threshold, the road of trials, the inner quest, the final ordeal, the reward, the return home. Structures like this are an excellent default to use for action-oriented narratives that are focused on an external conflict. This structure often creates a more "mythic" feeling to the story than other structures.
  • The Heroine's Journey: A modern parallel to the hero's journey, but focusing on the conflict of an internal duality that must be resolved. Just as with the hero's journey, there are many variations, but the basic pattern is roughly: illusion of the perfect world, the betrayal/realization, the awakening, the descent, illusion of success, all is lost, acceptance of support, rebirth, return to the perfect world. While the original form of this structure focuses on a feminine/masculine duality, it works very well with any internal duality and is an excellent default structure to use when an internally-focused narrative is desired. Also commonly used for the character arc of a villain who redeem themselves (even the rest of the story has a different structure).
  • Jo-ha-kyu: A Japanese structure applied to a wide variety of traditional arts from the tea ceremony to kendo to theatre. It is a three part structure which translates as "beginning, break, rapid". The idea is to start slowly and calmly, then speed up to a climax, followed by a swift resolution. This structure is excellent for heavily interactive experiences, as the slow beginning is a natural place for teaching, and the resolution usually has to be quick if there are not many narrative elements.
  • Kishotenketsu: A structure developed in asian cultures that is not based on conflict at all, but rather the introduction of a surprising new element that is then reconciled with what has come before. It consists of the introduction (ki), the development (sho), the twist (ten), and the reconciliation (ketsu). This structure works well when conflict is not desired, as not all narrative plots need conflict. Nintendo, and Shigeru Miyamoto in particular, often used this structure in game episodes for the structure of the mechanics, components and space, as the need for conflict between interactive elements is not as strong as narrative elements.
Macro Tension
The ongoing tension of an experience is built at the macro scale. Proper sequencing is critical to building and releasing tension effectively. Every segment or episode should be a clear part of the tension/engagement curve of the experience. Those curves are built out of the decisions made for each segment and each episode, and how the audience explores the possibility space created by those segments and episodes. However, to really make this work, the macro and micro scales (and even the meta scale) must be connected and integrated through interlocking arcs that work across different scales.

Re-traversing the Possibility Space
Some experiences are structured to remain engaging when re-traversing the possibility space multiple times. This is often because the possibility space of the experience cannot be fully explored in a single traversal. This could be a deep movie whose meaning changes when viewed for the second or third time, or a game with so much depth it remains engaging after many play-throughs (some games can maintain this for hundreds or even thousands of play-throughs).

Narrative Games as Musicals
Games with multiple episodes of gameplay where the narrative elements are a major part of the experience are best thought of as musicals (operas could work for this as well). In this case, the episodes are usually linear, because otherwise the narrative would make no sense. In a regular musical, the songs are what advance the plot; anything really important that happens narratively must have a song that goes with it. In a narrative-heavy game, the gameplay must advance the plot; anything really important that happens narratively must have a gameplay episode that goes with it. All the important plot points should be directly tied to specific gameplay segments (not just episodes) whenever possible. Interludes can be used to advance the plot if necessary (i.e., a cut-scene), but this is a poor substitute for doing it in an actual gameplay segment.

The ending of a narrative-heavy game is particularly important to handle correctly. In the same way that books are about telling stories and films are about showing stories, narrative-heavy games are about doing stories. In film, the rule is "show don't tell", while in games the rule is "do don't show". Make sure your game ends with the player acting, not observing.