Three-Act Structure, Act II
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Act Two begins the protagonist’s trials, so it stands to reason that the act opens with Obstacles. Obstacles are the lesser hurdles a hero must overcome to meet his ultimate goal. These hurdles exist within every story, but the way they manifest themselves changes depending upon the genre. In a romance, an obstacle can be as simple as a rival for the love interest’s affections; in a thriller, an obstacle can be a massive criminal syndicate that wants the protagonist’s head. With the advent of video games, the medium in which the story is being told also makes an impact on how the Obstacles plot points are represented. Video games differ from other forms of media because they allow for audience interaction, which means the player can share in the burden of the protagonist’s obstacles. This is why video game protagonists so often spend Act Two confronting sprawling temples, complex puzzles, and intense combat: all things that require player interaction. The best video game Obstacles points will seamlessly blend gameplay and narrative to give players an engaging, immersive experience.
Unlike other plot points, the Obstacle plot point can (and should) occur more than once. While there is no set number of obstacles a protagonist should face, audiences and players alike will only put up with so many trials before they grow tired of the lack of forward progression. A romance where the protagonist must thwart one rival is interesting; the same romance with a ten equal rivals is less compelling. Either the story is ten times as long, fully developing each rival, or the rivals are one-tenth as developed as they could be. Both options tax the audience’s attention beyond its limits. By the same token, video games can only add so many temples, puzzles, and combat sequences between plot points before the player loses interest in the story. With no set number to use as a guide, writers and developers must rely on intuition, experience, and feedback to get it right.
In A Link to the Past, Act Two begins when Link leaves the sanctuary to find the Master Sword. His first clue on its whereabouts comes from the priest in the sanctuary, who claims that the Kakariko Village elder will know the details. With the addition of this task to Link’s schedule, he now has three goals, each nested within each other. The overall goal is to defeat Ganon; the goal of the act is to find the Master Sword; the goal of the sequence is to find the village elder. In that sense, each of the sub-goals is the obstacle towards the greater goal. Link cannot defeat Ganon until he has the Master Sword, but he cannot find the Master Sword until he finds the village elder. The village elder is not the only obstacle in the way of the Master Sword, however; he is only one in a series. Link learns this when he finds the elder, who tells him that Master Sword can only be used by someone who possesses three magical pendants. The search for these pendants becomes the new sequence-level goal, beneath the act-level goal of finding the Master Sword. Once Link has those pendants, he’s got everything he needs to pick up the Master Sword, which means he’s reached the act goal and is ready to progress to the Midpoint.
In the Three-Act structure, the narrative’s midpoint occurs at the halfway point in Act Two. It’s the moment when the protagonist has overcome the first round of trials placed in front of them, and believes themself ready to take on a greater challenge. To the protagonist, unaware that they are in a story, this may seem like the climax. Audiences know better; they know the protagonist has a much longer road ahead. What they expect here is a reversal of fortune.
In Save The Cat, Blake Snyder divides the midpoint into two types: the false victory or the false defeat. In his words, “…[A] movie’s midpoint is either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out.”1 In a romance, a false victory often occurs when the protagonist and the love interest confess their love for each other, only for something to pull them apart. In a thriller, the protagonist may bring down the shadow organization set against him, only to find out that there was a greater, more powerful organization behind them all along. Conversely, the false defeat is when the protagonist fails, then finds a glimmer of hope. In the romance, the love interest might choose the protagonist’s rival instead, but then the rival does somerthing to make the love interest realize the protagonist is the right choice after all. In the thriller, the protagonist may fail to take down the shadowy organization, only to make contact with an informant who has a fool-proof way to get rid of the organization for good. In the case of both the romance and the thriller, the story’s endings will be the same, but they way they get there will make all the difference.
The Midpoint in A Link to the Past occurs when Link retrieves the Master Sword from the Lost Woods, completing the act-goal. At this point, Link appears to have everything he needs to rid Hyrule of Ganon, but his good fortune is reversed when he returns to the Sanctuary and finds the priest has been mortally wounded. With his last breaths, he tells Link that Princess Zelda has been taken to Hyrule Castle, presumably to meet the same fate as the other missing maidens. Link races to the castle and fights his way through, bringing him face to face with the wizard Agahnim. Before Link can stop him, he shoots Zelda with lightning and she disappears. Link fights Agahnim to a stand-still, but the wizard escapes by banishing Link to an unfamiliar region called the Dark World. At this point, Link is further from victory than ever, and it seems as though he has been defeated. It is only a false defeat, however, as the village elder Sahasrahla calls out to him across time and space with a message of hope. The seven maidens that Agahnim kidnapped are trapped in the Dark World with Link; by gathering them together, Link will be able to seal the Dark World, which is the source of Ganon and Agahnim’s evil powers. This gives Link a path to victory, proving that his defeat in the midpoint was a false one.
The Obstacles plot point returns, mirroring the first half of Act Two. This time, the stakes have been raised, as the dangers have risen along with the price of defeat. Video games raise their stakes in a similar fashion, but they have the added ability to increase the difficulty levels of player interactions. Enemies will be faster, stronger, and more numerous; puzzles will be larger, trickier, and more time-consuming to solve. As a result, the narrative will often slow down to compensate for the increased amount of gameplay. This is especially common in both action games and role-playing-games, as the second half of Act Two is the point at which players will gain their greatest degree of freedom to interact with the world. This freedom allows both them and their characters to grow as they gain items and skills to aid their progress. By the end of Act Two, they should have the ability to visit almost every area, take on almost every monster, and solve almost every puzzle. The only portions of the game that will remain off-limits to them are the ones connected with the game’s finale: the end of the story.
In A Link to the Past, the trials in the second half of Act Two are similar to those from the first half, but marked by a greater degree of difficulty. Instead of finding three pendants in three temples, Link must now rescue seven maidens in seven dungeons. These seven dungeons are also more complex than previous dungeons, requiring more time and effort to complete. As an added layer of complexity, the dungeons can also be completed in different orders, which gives players the freedom to engage with the world in their own style. This freedom comes with a drawback, however, as events need to be locked into a specific sequence in order to build off each other. In other words, the developers of A Link to the Past were unable to add a linear sub-plot that involved each of the dungeons, because they couldn’t guarantee that the players would approach the dungeons in a linear fashion. They instead had to view the sum of the dungeons as a single obstacle that gated the narrative’s progression. For the player to move onto the next plot point, the order in which players met the sub-goals didn’t matter; all that mattered was that they completed all of the dungeons. Once Link has completed those, he’s able to move on to the next plot point: the Crisis.
The Crisis plot point, also called the Disaster or the ‘All is Lost’ moment, is the point at which the hero their lowest point. According to author Robert McKee, “The Crisis is the story’s Obligatory Scene. From the Inciting Incident on, the audience has been anticipating with growing vividness the scene in which the protagonist will be face to face with the most focused, powerful forces of antagonism in his existence.”2 Simply put, this is the moment when the protagonist will be pushed to their breaking point. In the romance, the love interest is boarding a plane to leave the protagonist; in the thriller, the shadow organization is about to unleash the terrible secret or weapon that will destroy the world. Video games will sometimes force players into an unwinnable battle here, so they can feel the sting of the hero’s defeat. In other games, the crisis will occur entirely in cutscenes, so that the player feels they have no control over the way events unfold.
A Link to the Past features a fairly weak Crisis point, as Link does not face a ‘do-or-die’ moment that leaves the player to feel as though all is lost. The closest the narrative comes to invoking the feeling of crisis is when Link completes the final dungeon and meets with Zelda. She thanks him for saving her, then says that Ganon is preparing to enter the Light World as they speak. If Link does not vanquish Ganon in the Dark World before then, the evil wizard will cross over and be unstoppable. Although these new time constraints do raise the stakes, the status quo has not fundamentally changed for Link. He still has to defeat Ganon, and Zelda and the other maidens are still available to help him. Had Zelda or the maidens been put in jeopardy at this point, that would constitute a real change in the status quo—and thus, a Crisis—but everyone Link rescued is safe. The only difference between pre-Crisis and post-Crisis is that Link has a deadline on his goal, and the deadline is both nebulous and unenforced. For an otherwise tight story, the lack of a strong Crisis moment is a surprising flaw.
Turning Point Two
Like Turning Point One, Turning Point Two occurs at the end of an act. This second turning point naturally occurs at the end of the second act, and is the protagonist’s opportunity to respond to the Crisis. It’s the decision that marks the progression from Act Two to Act Three: the point at which the narrative turns. Video games further emphasize this dividing line by opening up the remaining areas of the world, along with a slew of sidequests that the player can take on at their leisure. Whether it’s fighting the strongest monsters, exploring the most complex dungeons, or breeding the fanciest bird, there’s nothing an Act Three protagonist can’t do.
A Link to the Past’s Second Turning Point occurs when Link reaches the gates of Ganon’s Tower. It appears the tower is inaccessible, but then the maidens cry out to Link through the ether and combine their powers to break the seal. This creates a stairway for Link to traverse, giving him a literal threshold to cross to enter Act Three. At last, there’s nothing stopping Link from achieving his original goal: defeating Ganon and bringing peace to the Kingdom of Hyrule.
1 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 82). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
2 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 303). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run: Nintendo Complete. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) Playthrough – NintendoComplete. YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Script: Davogones. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Text Dump. GameFAQs, 2002.