The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Structural analysis, Act I
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows a traditional Three-Act Structure, featuring a strong Inciting Incident and Midpoint. Ocarina of Time also features a Second Thoughts beat, which is uncommon in stories featuring silent protagonists with flat arcs. While Ocarina of Time does not possess a particularly complex narrative, its clean execution of a traditional structure makes it a perfect tool for teaching the basics of the Three-Act Structure.
According to author K.M. Weiland, “[There] are only three integral components necessary to create a successful opening: character, action, and setting.”¹ Ocarina of Time deftly handles all three of these elements in its opening scenes by introducing Link, the young boy without a fairy in a forest where all the children have fairy companions. The player is introduced to Link’s unique predicament by the Great Deku Tree, the spirit guardian of the forest who acts as a narrator for the game’s opening scenes.
Once the Deku Tree relates Link’s unfortunate circumstances to the player, the scene shifts to young Link tossing and turning in his bed. He’s having a nightmare about a girl fleeing a palace in the middle of a storm. As he looks on from the side of the moat, a black-clothed man rides out of the palace on a massive horse. Both the nightmare and the man in black are commonly used tropes in fantasy, but those tropes are useful because they convey a lot of information with a minimal amount of dialogue. Like nightmares, storms and strangers in black clothes are often considered ill omens, which tells the player that the man in black is a potential source of conflict.
As Link’s nightmare ends, the scene cuts back to the Deku Tree. He summons Navi, a childless fairy, and asks her to bring Link to him. He proclaims that a great evil is approaching the land and he alone cannot contain it. “It seems the time has come for the boy without a fairy to begin his journey,” he says. “…The youth whose destiny it is to lead Hyrule to the path of justice and truth…The fate of the forest, nay, the world, depends upon thee!” This establishes the stakes straight away, informing both Navi and the player that the upcoming task is of utmost importance. The story now has its source of action, in addition to its character and setting. With these three elements established, the narrative can move forward from the Opening to the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident is the first major plot point in a narrative, introducing the central problem that must be solved by the story’s end. In the screenwriting guide Story, author Robert McKee defines this point as a moment that “…radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.”² Ocarina of Time accomplishes this by taking the fairy-less child, Link, and providing him with a fairy at a heavy cost. The Deku Tree needs Link and his fairy, Navi, to journey inside the Deku Tree’s rotting trunk and find the source of the contagion spreading throughout his roots.
Unfortunately, Link is too late to save the Deku Tree, even though he succeeds in eliminating the parasite that caused the decay. With his last words, the Deku tree reveals that there is a greater evil threatening the land beyond the woods, out in a vast land that the children of the forest and their fairies are usually forbidden to visit. To combat this evil and save the world, Link will have to leave his childhood home and his friends behind. Even with the help of a fairy, it’s a big task for a small child, and it’s far beyond anything he’s been asked to do in his life thus far. Adding in the overall threat to the world—a problem that must be solved—makes this moment a textbook example of an Inciting Incident.
The Second Thoughts plot point, the last point before the shift to Act Two, is the moment when the protagonist considers whether or not to accept the task they’ve been given. This plot point is unique because it is not included in every story. In some narratives, the protagonist will have no doubts about how to proceed and will accept their mission without debate. This is especially common in The Legend of Zelda series, as Link is both a silent protagonist and a character with a flat arc. As a silent protagonist, it’s harder for him to express doubt; as a character with a flat arc, he’s uniquely possessed with a drive to do what is right. These two traits combine to create a character who rarely questions the tasks he’s given, and instead faces them head-in with enthusiasm. Ocarina of Time breaks that pattern by illustrating a moment of doubt in young Link’s journey, which occurs as Link makes his way out of the forest.
The scene begins with Link taking the last bridge out of town—the symbolic connection between the old world and the new. As he makes his way across, he’s confronted by his closest friend, Saria. The weight of the moment is made clear as the music gives way to silence, leaving the sound of birds to act as the sole soundtrack for the confrontation. Saria seems wistful as she clutches the side of the bridge and says: “I knew…that you would leave the forest someday, Link…Because you are different from me and my friends….But that’s OK, because we’ll be friends forever, won’t we?” This simple exchange is an example of what Ocarina of Time’s writing does best: conveying a large amount of information in a small space. Here, the player learns that even Link’s closest friend has viewed him as an outsider for their entire lives, to the point that she assumed he would leave them all behind. His outsider status doesn’t matter to her, however, as she sees their friendship as something that transcends their differences. This is the first point where the game touches on one of its major themes: the importance of friendship.
As a token of their friendship, Saria gives Link the Fairy Ocarina, which allows him to play different notes to create songs. When handing it over, she says: “When you play my Ocarina, I hope you will think of me and come back to the forest to visit.” This is a solid example of dialogue that serves both a mechanical and a narrative purpose. Not only does it add a personal meaning to the gift, it also provides the player with a key hint that will become useful later.
The moment that follows the gift exchange is where this scene becomes the Second Thoughts moment. After Link receives the ocarina from Saria, he begins slowly backing away from her. His steps are tentative, as he can’t bring himself to look away. It only lasts for a moment before he turns and breaks into a run, but that moment of hesitation is all it takes to show that talking with Saria has had an impact on Link. Although he still chooses to leave, his hesitation shows that he has priorities beyond his quest. Ocarina of Time’s Link may be a silent protagonist with a flat arc, but leaving the forest still has meaning because it comes with a personal cost.
Turning Point One
In the Three-Act Structure, Turning Points mark the dividing lines between acts. Turning Point One serves as the dividing line between Act One and Act Two, where the protagonist crosses a point of no return. Ocarina of Time’s first Turning Point is a quick one, but the dialogue combines with the visuals and the music to make the demarcation clear.
In Ocarina of Time, Turning Point One occurs when Link crosses the literal threshold from the forest to Hyrule Field. Both the music and the scenery are brighter than the woods Link left behind, signifying a new phase of the adventure. The significance of the moment is confirmed when Link is greeted by a wise owl, Kaepora Gaebora, who says: “It appears that the time has finally come for you to start your adventure! You will encounter many hardships ahead… That is your fate. Don’t feel discouraged, even during the toughest times!” He then points Link in the direction of the castle, which is Link’s first goal as he explores Hyrule. At this point, the player has everything they need to begin their journey in earnest, and the narrative has everything it needs to break into Act Two.
¹ Weiland, K.M.. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 3) (p. 22). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
² McKee, Robert. Story (p. 189). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run: ZorZelda. Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D 100% Walkthrough 1080p HD. YouTube, 2017.
** Reference Script: TheSinnerChrono. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Game Script, v01. NeoSeeker, 2008.