The Story Circle, Part Two
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Step five, Find, takes the hero to the very bottom of the Story Circle: the Midpoint. “Imagine your protagonist began at the top and has tumbled all the way down here,” says Harmon. “This is where the universe’s natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness…This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability.”1 As with any good Midpoint, this is where the course of the narrative changes, and all the tension that has been building is released in either a false victory or a false defeat.2 If the hero has been hunting for a treasure, his ally may steal it and run; if the hero has been pursuing a heroine, he may reach her only to find she is not who he thought she was. In other words, our princess is in another castle.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus’s world is turned upside-down twice-over at the Find step. First, he experiences an external setback when he learns that the leaders of the church of Yevon are unsent spirits, which violates the core of their sacred doctrine. Next, he faces an internal setback when he learns that Yuna must die in order to defeat Sin. Everything he believed in up to this point is a lie; his idea of success has been completely redefined.
Step Six, Take, is the is the darkest point in the hero’s story. It’s when the hero meets their maker, either figuratively or literally, and learns harsh truths about the world. Harmon notes the parallel between Step Two and Step Six, saying: “Think about what really happened at (2). Things were “fine” at (1) but they just weren’t quite good enough. That’s how we got into this whole mess in the first place.”3 Just as things weren’t quite good enough at Step One, things aren’t quite bad enough at Step Five. Now, Step Six is here to make things worse. In adventure games, the hero may be knocked so far off-course that it feels like they’re at the start; in role-playing games, an antagonist may reveal a truth so devastating that the hero doesn’t want to go on. Both situations represent the worst-case scenario: the ‘All is Lost’ moment.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus is certain he can find a way to defeat Sin without sacrificing Yuna, but his optimism is tested when he literally meets his maker. It turns out that the spirits Yuna has been summoning are all that’s left of Tidus’s long-lost Zanarkand, and they’ve spent the last thousand years dreaming of the city they lost. Furthermore, Tidus is a part of that dream, and he’ll disappear if those spirits are ever sent to the afterlife. Tidus does not want to disappear, but he feels for the spirits who have been unsent for so long.
Tidus’s story converges with Yuna’s when she meets her own maker, Yunalesca: an unsent spirit who was the first summoner to defeat Sin. According to Yunalesca, defeating Sin will have a higher cost than Yuna first anticipated. Not only must Yuna die to defeat Sin, but she must also sacrifice one of her guardians to destroy this form of Sin. Worse yet, the sacrificed guardian will eventually become a new form of Sin, just as Tidus’s father did. This ensures the cycle will repeat itself, as Sin will eventually return. Their sacrifices will be a temporary stopgap; they will trade their lives for a few years of peace at best. Tidus rejects the idea that others must die to continue the cycle. Yuna and her other guardians agree, and together they battle Yunalesca and put her spirit to rest. Defeating Sin will be harder now, but they believe they can do it for good.
Step Seven, Return, marks the hero’s ascent from the world of the unknown. This parallels Step Three, Go, where the hero departed from their familiar world. The hero has learned a great deal in the time between Go and Return; that’s why they’re able to leave now. Harmon defines this point differently for different genres, saying: “For some characters, this is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out.”4 This genre-dependence shows up in video games, as well. In role-playing games, this may be a sprawling quest to bring the protagonist’s allies together after they’re split apart; in an adventure game, this may be a quick trip across a bridge to the final dungeon. Like Step Three, this threshold crossing can be figurative or literal, depending upon the narrative’s needs.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus and his allies experience the Return step with a literal return to the corrupt church, where they learn Sin’s true nature. It is not merely its own creature; it is a living armor surrounding Yu Yevon, the great summoner who called upon the spirits to create the dream Zanarkand. If Tidus and his allies can get through that living armor, they can destroy Yu Yevon and ensure Sin will never return. This will also end the dream of the unsent spirits, along with Tidus’s life, but it’s a sacrifice Tidus is willing to make.
Step Eight, Change, is the final step on the Story Circle. This is the point where the hero can show off everything they learned from their journey and prove that they’ve transformed into someone new. According to Harmon, this is the perfect place to use specific lessons and tools the hero picked up along the way. “When in doubt,” he says, “look at the opposite side of the circle.”5 He’s talking about Step Four, the Search step, where the hero gained most of their skills and allies. This step is practically tailor-made for video game narratives, as the gameplay can (and should) integrate the items and techniques that the player picked up along the way. If the hero of a shooter picked up a rocket launcher, this is the time to fire it; if the hero recruited a party full of powerful allies, this is the time to use their power. The best games will artfully weave gameplay and narrative together in this final step, showing how the player has grown alongside the hero.
In Final Fantasy X, Tidus demonstrates the Change step during the final battle with Sin. When he and his allies fight their way through the living armor, Tidus takes the opportunity to reconcile with his father before Yuna frees his spirit. This brings them face-to-face with Yu Yevon, who is no match for Yuna and her guardians after everything they have learned. Yu Yevon falls, and the world is saved, but the end of Yu Yevon’s dream means the end of Tidus’s life. After saying his goodbyes to the others, he fades away and is reunited with his father in the afterlife, where they can both finally rest after a long journey.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle provides a compelling alternative to act-based structures. Its focus on character helps writers refine a narrative arc and a character arc in one step, and its simplicity ensures writers can apply it to almost any genre. The emphasis on the divide between the known and the unknown worlds works particularly well with video games, as players enter unknown worlds every time they take control of a new character. This parallel growth between player and protagonist makes the Story Circle a strong choice for any writer looking for a template to use when developing a video game narrative.
1 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel101, 2009.
2 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 82). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
3, 4, 5 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel101, 2009.
* 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.