The Story Circle, Part One
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
At the top of the Story Circle, the journey begins with a character: ‘You.’ In books and movies, ‘You’ represents the protagonist. Harmon refers to the protagonist as ‘You’ because they act as the audience surrogate1; they are the person the audience roots for, as the story is centered around their journey. Video games add an additional layer of immersion to this experience, as Harmon’s ‘You’ is often a player-controlled character. In other words, you are You. Some video games feature multiple player-controlled characters, but the first character the player controls is usually the protagonist. Games that subvert this trope by switching protagonists can leave players feeling tricked, as they have already formed a connection to the character they believed they were going to follow.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus is the first character introduced to the audience. After a brief voiceover where he introduces himself and sets up the frame story—a campfire retelling of the game’s major events—the timeline moves backward to show Tidus in his home city of Zanarkand. In a few quick scenes, the audience learns that Tidus is an upbeat, popular Blitzball player who always makes time for his fans. His life is not perfect, however, as he lives in the shadow of his Blitzball-star father, Jecht, who disappeared ten years ago.
The second step in the circle, Need, establishes that something is amiss in the hero’s world. In Harmon’s words: “If this is a story about a war between Earth and Mars, this is a good time to show those Martian ships heading toward our peaceful planet.”2 Harmon’s example works for stories with large external threats, but the Need step can also describe internal motivations. In an adventure story, this step may show the hero’s boredom in their everyday life; in a romance, this step may focus on the hero’s loneliness. Unlike Harmon’s example, these steps suggest a lack of something good, rather than the presence of something bad, but they both boil down to the same idea: something is wrong in the hero’s world.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus experiences the Need step when a giant monster called Sin attacks his city. Tidus wants to flee, but his mentor, Auron, has other ideas. As the city is torn apart around them, Auron shows Tidus how to fight, and they approach the monster head-on. This step passes quickly, as it does in most video games, as players prefer to have an immediate goal when they take control of their characters.
Step three, Go, is the step that represents the descent into the world of the unknown. Here, the hero crosses the threshold—sometimes literally—into unfamiliar territory and begins their transformation into someone new. Harmon also notes that this is the point in the story where the premise gets to shine. “What’s your story about?” he asks. “If it’s about a woman running from a killer cyborg, then up until now, she has not been running from a killer cyborg. Now she’s gonna start.3” This holds true in video game narratives, as well. In an adventure title, this is where the hero begins his adventure; in a first-person shooter, this is when the hero picks up his gun. This is when the player becomes the protagonist, drawing them into the world they’ve been imagining since they first got a glimpse of the box art.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus experiences the Go step when he comes face-to-face with Sin. Instead of fighting Tidus, Sin sucks him through a portal, transporting him to a foreign world. This quiet, tropical island is nothing like the loud, hi-tech metropolis that Tidus came from. The strangeness is compounded when the islanders tell Tidus that Sin destroyed Zanarkand over a thousand years ago. The struggle against Sin continues to this day, but the holy church of Yevon is working hard to train summoners and their guardians to fight against it. When the summoners aren’t fighting Sin, it’s their sacred task to send the world’s lingering spirits to the afterlife. This strange world of spirits and summoners is nothing like the world Tidus knows, but it’s the only world he’s got.
The fourth step, Search, is closely correlated with the first set of obstacles in the Three-Act Structure. In Harmon’s words: “The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.”4 This step appears in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Structure as well; there, it goes by the name ‘Fun and Games‘5. Although the names may be different, the function is the same: this is the place where the story’s unique premise gets to shine. This also works for video games, as the Search step is where the majority of the gameplay takes place. Adventurers adventure; romantics romance; shooters shoot. No matter the genre, this is where the player is in control.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus must find a place for himself in this new world. Along the way, he gains new friends and allies, including the dedicated summoner, Yuna. He also reunites with Auron, but Auron does not come bearing good news. He reveals to Tidus that Sin contains the unsent spirit of Tidus’s father, Jecht. To save the people of this new world, Tidus agrees to become one of Yuna’s guardians and help her fight Sin, all while hiding the secret of Sin’s origins.
1, 2, 3, 4 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel101, 2009.
5 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 80). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: dansg08. Final Fantasy X HD Remaster – The Movie – Marathon Edition (All Cutscenes/Story). YouTube, 2014.
** Reference Script: Auronlu. Final Fantasy X Game Script, version 4.0. Istad.org, 2007.