Western culture is preoccupied with the number Three. Everything comes in Threes: husband, wife, child; life, death, limbo; solid, liquid, gas; beginning, middle, end. Even the symbol “3” appeals to us because it is round, balanced, and resembles both breasts and a butt at the same time. This social obsession with Three is apparent in many video games, which often employ what is known as “The Rule of Three.” This is the method of breaking down parts of a game into Three essential and distinct segments, levels, or rounds.
The Rule of Three “dictates that a certain action must be repeated three times, usually when fighting a boss battle, in order to complete an objective” (Rule of Three). Alternately, The Rule of Three has been interpreted as presenting a player with new concepts in Three steps of increasing difficulty (Doucet). The pattern of using Three is so common that the player can easily predict the methodology for any given scene in certain games. For example, when playing the Legend of Zelda games, a seasoned player knows that to defeat any boss they will have to face it in Three rounds or on Three levels of difficulty. (Not to mention that the series is based entirely on the triforce–shown above in the center of the Hylian Crest–a spiritual artifact embodying power, wisdom, and courage.)
The human mind operates in patterns, in creating and identifying repetitions and designs. The Rule of Three is an old and anticipated trope that players come to expect and sometimes even count on. Once the brain decodes any pattern, in video games or elsewhere, the pattern ceases to be interesting (Koster). What is yet to be understood is what is different about Three; why humans appreciate it instead of tiring of it. When we apply this to video games, it will become clear why game developers arrange games in Threes.
In literature, history, math, religion, and science, among other fields, Three prevails as the most favored and frequently encountered. Three has been important to humans since primitive times, when people’s “ideas of number [did] not go beyond 3” (Lease). This seems natural: there may be one, two, or more of any given item, and this “more” is often unimportant. For example, when in conversation while holding fruit, a primitive person may think they could easily eat a fruit, share a fruit, and have one left over: Three. This universality of Three lent itself to Earth’s early faiths. Greek and Roman mythology made use of Three in their separation of Olympus, Earth, and the Underworld. The Christian faith is saturated in Three, from the Holy Trinity to the notions of Heaven, Hell, and Earth. Because of this primitive concept of Three, humans have grown irrevocably attached to its familiarity and apparent perfection.
Humans can be naturalized into believing anything. American colonists were naturalized to believe that slavery was moral; as a whole we are naturalized to perceive Three as mentally and aesthetically pleasing. Therefore we expect to see Three in artwork. Unbalanced art is hard for humans to relate to and the lack of logical order makes us anxious. We look for patterns in art because the works are hard to understand sometimes. This applies to gaming as well. In the Legend of Zelda series, the triforce is everywhere: literature, armor, buildings, even creatures’ skin. It is beautiful because of its levels of symmetry, and because of this, the land of Hyrule is littered with it.
Scholars as antique as Aristotle considered three to be “the number of the complete whole, inasmuch as it contains a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Lease). In games like The Legend of Zelda, this comes across in the narrative. A satisfying narrative conflict involves a beginning, middle, and end; it’s not worth playing a game to simply walk up to every opponent and slice their heads off. The player must be challenged, fight in his own defense, and overcome the enemy, which are the Three stages of battle. This applies to battles with each opponent in minute-to-minute gameplay, as well as the overarching plot.
Take your average boss fight in many colorful, linear, relatively basic RPGs. The beginning is the first round of a boss fight, in which the player is challenged and displays that they are capable of overcoming the enemy, which they can do at this easiest level. The second round of a boss fight tends to be the middle. Here the player does the meat of their battle, stuck between the full health they had at the beginning of the fight and the reinvigoration that comes in the final round. In the last round, the player almost always nears death, but the fact that they know the end of the duel is near carries them through the higher-level fighting and ultimately to success. After the rise, the struggle, and the fall, the player is able to experience a sense of completion of the narrative.
Doucet’s version of the rule applies to the story of improvement, or the narrative of a player is learning a skill. This, too, enables the player to experience a satisfying story arc. It begins, again, with a challenge, this time the less threatening challenge of the player simply not having a particular skill yet, and the first few attempts, which often end in failure. The middle of the narrative is the act of practicing, whether in the world or in a specific setting, such as with a master. This portion draws the player gradually toward the desired outcome–mastery of the skill–which is the happy resolution.
Video games follow The Rule of Three for a variety of reasons. Presenting the player with challenges in a series of Three allows them to experience a satisfying narrative experience consisting of a beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, Three has been so naturalized into the human consciousness ever since cavemen began to count that it makes us uncomfortable to not see it everywhere. Because Three is visually pleasing and offers us the satisfaction of a whole story, we don’t get bored of seeing it in video games; in fact, it’s a part of what we love.