10 Games and Their Classic 8-Point Story Arcs

It is generally agreed that most stories are structured around the classic, reliable 8-Point Story Arc – a formula that dictates every story should be built around these steps;

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. The Quest
  4. Surprise
  5. Critical Choice
  6. Climax
  7. Reversal
  8. Resolution

I always thought this was a bit contrived; the choice of wording is constricting and a bit too formulaic. Luckily, film-making masters and narrative geniuses Pixar released a sort-of field guide to writing that they feel helps stories become more appealing. At #4 in the list, they give a phenomenally brief but ostensibly practical summary of a story formula;

‘#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.’

In the spirit of this idea, I decided to adapt the clear vision of this formula to some of my favourite games – maybe to see how they’d look stripped down to their minimum, maybe to learn a thing or two about what makes a good game so good.

Crash Bandicoot

Once upon a time, there was a peaceful bandicoot. Every day, he ate mangos that grew on his island home. One day, an evil villain named Dr. Neo Cortex arrived. Because of that, the bandicoot’s mate was imprisoned, and he was accidentally turned into a more dextrous, intelligent animal. Because of that, the villain repeatedly tries to kill the bandicoot. Until finally, the bandicoot is successful in retrieving his mate and forcing Cortex off his island.


Once upon a time, there was a land called Kanto. Every day, children would dream about owning their own mysterious creatures – powerful beings called ‘Pokémon’. One day, a generous professor in a small town gives a small boy his own Pokémon and asks him to conduct field research on his behalf. Because of that, the boy sets off on an adventure, encountering a villainous group of Pokémon thieves named Team Rocket that constantly interrupt his journey to travel the world. Until finally, the boy logs all the creatures in the region and becomes a stronger, more-rounded individual.

Mass Effect

Once upon a time, there was a fairly peaceful galactic community. Every day, the people of the galaxy would get on with their lives; integrating new races from distant systems, combating their own maliciously programmed AI creations, conducting political scandal. One day, a human soldier discovers an ancient alien threat that could wipe out the entire universe. Because of that, he assembles a crack team of specialists to combat the alien threat. Because of that, the alien threat steps up their campaign to invade and destroy the universe. Finally, the threat is overcome thanks to the heroics and sacrifices of the human and his companions.


Once upon a time, there was a planet with a mystical vault, said to be filled with the most glorious treasure. Every day, intrepid explorers (Vault Hunters) would come to the planet, looking to loot the place. One day, a motley crew of skilled hunters began exploring the planet (initially on a big yellow bus). Because of that, they encountered insane locals, vicious fauna and some nasty gangs. Because of that, the hunters kitted themselves out with the best weapons they can, took on the planet’s biggest and baddest, and finally… came away with all the treasure, the ladies and a bajillion guns.

Abe’s Odyssey

Once upon a time, there was a company called Rupture Farms that offered only the tastiest and meatiest snacks. Every day, they’d process the meat of a million animals (some nearly extinct!) to deliver their exciting products to customers. One day, a drone worker (Abe) employed by the mega-industry discovers their diabolical plan to raise profit margins; namely,  harvest his species for a delicious new treat! Because of that, he runs away, encountering more of his kind the factory has enslaved, some with their mouths or eyes sewn shut. Because of that, he is inspired to rescue his fellow mudokons, gaining their trust and setting them free, until Abe finally frees them all and is heralded a hero and a saviour for destroying Rupture Farms.

Gears of War

Once upon a time, a human experiment went horribly wrong and created a violent race of self-preserving, subterranean troglodytes. Every day, people would try to repel the force that they created who were brutally trying to expand their land. One day, a substance called “emulsion” – akin to fuel – begins to pollute the underground lairs of the so-called Locust hordes. Because of that, the Locust are forced into a more desperate quest to claim land from humans. Because of that, they get careless and provoke the aggression of their creators and are, finally, destroyed by a machine designed only to obliterate their DNA, a cynical reflection of the human spirit.

Final Fantasy X

Once upon a time, a giant, destructive entity named “Sin” roamed the world of Spira; his intention (according to the religion of Yevon) to punish the world for their use of machinery and their subsequent “laziness”. Every day, inhabitants of the world lived in fear of “Sin” and religious institutions trained “Summoners” that were capable of defeating the entity. One day, after meeting an enigmatic stranger that seemingly appeared from no-where, the Summoner Yuna sets out on her “pilgrimage” – a quest undertaken by Summoners to acquire the right tools to defeat “Sin”. Because of that, she becomes privy to some clandestine information about the nature of “Sin”, and the role of the Summoner in shaping the world. Finally, she discovers that Summoners don’t kill Sin – merely renew it, fueling its body with their essence, and that Yevon had been perpetuating this cycle for centuries. Yuna and her crew promptly wipe out the entire religion and even kill their God.

Fallout 3

Once upon a time, a boy lived in a vault below ground. Every day, he’d be told that life didn’t extend beyond the steel walls that surrounded him. One day, his father manages to escape the vault, and the son – his entire world pulled from beneath his feet – begins a dazed quest to track him down. Because of this, he explores the new world that has opened up before him, exploring the strange and bastardized cultures that have evolved throughout what used to be Washington DC. Because of that, he eventually discovers the location of his father, and the utilitarian project he’s been working on – a water purifier that makes water once again free and safe to drink. The Boy, through a mix of surprising circumstance and sharp decision-making skills, ends up holding the potential fate of humanity in his hands – help protect/complete the project, or destroy it to suit his own  self-serving ends?

Assassin’s Creed

Once upon a time, a group of conspirators (originating within the medieval Templar community) attempted to gain control of a mind-controlling religious artefact. Every day, the shadowy, corrupt and power-hungry Templars would be resisted by a protesting faction that simply called themselves “the assassins”. One day, a man with access to his “DNA memory” (effectively the memories of his ancestors) taps into the consciousness of distant relatives who lived during the times of the Third Crusade, the Italian Renaissance and the American Civil war. Because of this, he became aware of the escalating battle between Crusaders and Assassins that had spread throughout the world, and throughout history. Because of this, he is pushed to his mental limit and  falls victim to a coma, in which he retreats back to the worlds of the past. Finally, he may yet save the world from the hands of the Templars, and ensure the enigmatic artifact – the Apple of Eden – never falls into the wrong hands again…


Once upon a time, there was a laboratory that conducted tests on live subjects (but all in the name of science). Every day, an AI named GLaDOS programmed tasks for its human subject to perform. One day, the human sensed an opportunity to escape and used the innovative “portal gun” given to her aid her flight. Because of that, GLaDOS attempts to manipulate the subject into staying, enacting a variety of emotionally stimulating scenarios. Because that doesn’t work, GLaDOS moves onto more harmful tactics – and perhaps intentionally diverts the subject to its brain. Finally, there is a confrontation, and the subject supposedly destroys GLaDOS and earns her escape from the facility.

So, although I’ve diluted the “8-point story arc” idea a little, its core values still remain – and offer proof that storytelling in games is just as valid as any other medium, be it films, books, stage shows or television. I think there is a lot to be learned from how we are fed narratives in gaming – from games that belligerently beat you into a tight, constrictive 1-plot progression (BioShock springs to mind), to games that plonk you into a world and say “go!” (Fallout), our medium is becoming more and more exploratory and experimental in its approach to storytelling.

Yes, there is saturation in some areas; the meteoric rise of the FPS this generation has lead to lazy storytelling, banking on ‘safe’ ideas to assure sales and keep fanboys/girls happy, but we are also seeing some incredible developments in other areas. The very fact that games like DayZ can be made proves this – a game built wholly on user-interaction and player-driven narrative? Amazing. Not to mention the non-vocal/verbal Machinarium, the epic choose-your-own-adventure stylings of Bethesda’s offerings or the metafictional smorgasbord of intertextual references that is Alan Wake…

These are heady days for writers everywhere – never before has there been so much scope to tell stories so diverse and vibrant. Games really are starting to push boundaries with what they’re trying to do, and I feel incredibly lucky to be around to see the fruits of our 30-years-young industry blossom so early.

Last five articles by Dom



  1. Michael Author says:

    Loved this article. Absolutely astounded that all those games came down to 8 points!

  2. Chris Toffer says:

    I feel incredibly lucky to be around to see the fruits of our 30-years-young industry blossom so early.

    This, but not just for story telling, for the whole industry.

    Great article mate.

  3. Ste Ste says:

    Enjoyed this. Keep it up.

  4. Edward Edward says:

    I thought I’d already commented on this!

    Great stuff as always Dom, always interesting to see how well stories can be condensed yet still sound completely disparate from each other :D

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