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What is the Disney formula? And can it be used in Games?

  • March 26, 2015
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It’s no secret that Disney’s formulaic storytelling has allowed for many of their works to be exceptionally entertaining without much new innovation. This magical formula has been working for so many years, however it hasn’t been used in many mediums other than film. This brings us to the question of whether it can be used in other ways, such as in a video game.

No one can know for sure what the exact formula could be, nor would anyone’s claims be completely accurate due to each film having their own approach; that said here is a comprehensive list of facts about Disney’s movies that hints to their formula:

01 Up Carl without Ellie
One or both parents, or an important figure, has to die or be dead

Some may not realize it right away, but nearly all of Disney’s protagonists either lose a parent figure, or lost one before the movie even started. We also say an important figure, because in movies similar to 2009’s Up, the lost one isn’t the parents (and in Up’s case, it’s the protagonist’s wife). Death can play a central role in the story; for example, Bambi’s plot is a young deer growing up in the forest after his mother is killed by hunters and the ways he copes with the loss. In other cases akin to Disney’s hit Frozen, the protagonist’s parents both die early on in the movie, however the occurrence doesn’t drive any major plot points. Regardless, the parental figure has been lost.


02 Cinderella and Prince Charming
True Love appears

In every Disney movie that follows the formula, some form of true love always begins between typically the protagonist and an interest that is introduced late into the first act. We leave this solely as true love rather than a love interest to account for films that broke the formula. Disney’s Frozen challenges the original principle by having true love appear in the form of sisterly love, rather than the classic true love’s kiss. Wall-E changed this by only having the main protagonist, Wall-E, fall in love with Eve after she lands on earth. She becomes attracted to Wall-E during the second act of the film. The classic example of true love still exists through timeless films such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, where finding the “Prince Charming” was the central point of the plot.


03 Elsa and Anna
Be willing to give up everything for your true love

In many of Disney’s movies, the protagonist gives up almost everything for the person they are pursuing. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel falls in love with Eric at first sight. She has to get him to kiss her so that she can get her voice back; in doing this, she gives up all her family and friends in order to remainq human and marry him. Then we have movies like Frozen that bend the rules; Anna still does anything for Elsa, but the end goal and the reasoning behind it are very different than the classic Disney movies.


04 Lion King
Why does the Disney formula work?

The formula was mastered by Disney to appeal to all audiences; to keep their attention, and to make their content simple, yet astonishingly enjoyable. It is the exact “happily ever after” that audiences want to see. This has been proven to be true throughout Disney’s history since the Disney Renaissance period; movies from that era that followed the formula are, more often than not, the most memorable and performed the best at the box-office and home distribution. Movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast were loved by audiences so much that they were remastered several times for each new distribution mediums.


05 Last of Us
How could Disney’s formula be applied to games?

Disney’s formula isn’t built specifically for films, the formula could be applied to any form of storytelling including a game’s narrative. The overall story could be based around the 3-act system that Disney has followed where you play out the events of the game as the protagonist.

This can be seen in some games such as Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series. Both games traditionally follow the “Hero’s Journey/Monomyth” method of storytelling, however there are many aspects of Disney’s formula found throughout their plots.
In The Last of Us, the lead characters both have lost people close to them. Joel, the adult male, is a single parent, who loses his daughter in the fungi pandemic. Through the first few events of the game, he meets Ellie, a young teenage girl, who is alone, has no family, and is immune to the deadly effects of the fungi. Throughout the events of the game, John and Ellie develop a close father-daughter relationship with each other; by the game’s conclusion, its easy for the player to see how they would do anything for the other, even if it means sacrificing their own lives.

The Last of Us is the most awarded game of all time, winning 230 “Game of the Year” awards and is praised for its critically acclaimed plot.

In order for the Disney formula to work akin to one of Disney’s films, the game would have to immerse the player into the storyline; the player must feel like they are the character, living the story that unfolds beneath them, rather than controlling an entity in a fictional world.
The game doesn’t necessarily have to be a long epic with 20+ hours of main gameplay either; games built for the casual playing audience could achieve the same effect as a feature console game; the effort shouldn’t be in the depth of the gameplay and the length, it’s in the delivery and how immersive the story is.

To learn more about applying the Disney formula to your game or app contact us at

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