The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Structural analysis, Act I
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess hits all the beats of a Three-Act structure (except for ‘Second Thoughts’), but the pacing leaves much to be desired. The Inciting Incident doesn’t occur until almost an hour of playtime has passed, and its Midpoint extends beyond the moment of false defeat and bleeds into the latter half of the Second Act. The pacing evens out in the Third Act, but many of the elements set up in the First and Second Acts are not paid off, leaving facets of the story feeling incomplete and unfulfilling. Fortunately, the plotline that comes to the forefront in the latter half of the story—Midna’s return to the Twilight Realm—receives a satisfying conclusion, which balances out some of the issues with the story’s first half.
Golden-age Hollywood director Billy Wilder once famously said of story structure: “If you have a problem with the Third Act, the real problem is in the First Act.” Twilight Princess possesses a deeply flawed First Act, introducing characters and concepts that are all but forgotten by the game’s end. As a consequence, major characters and thematic elements that dominate the Third Act are given little emphasis in the First Act, which leaves the game feeling like two halves of an incomplete whole.
Twilight Princess opens by breaking with established series tradition, skipping a legend-based prologue in favor of a dialogue between Link and a local man from their village. While this isn’t a bad choice on its face, the way their conversation progresses fails to build anticipation for the game’s next segment, as it doesn’t introduce a source of conflict. When the scene begins, Link and the unnamed man are seated together by a pond at dusk, and as the light dims around them, the local man reflects on the strange feelings that come with the setting sun, saying:
“Tell me…Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls? They say it’s the only time when our world intersects with theirs…The only time we can feel the lingering regrets of spirits who have left our world. That is why loneliness always pervades the hour of twilight…”
This conversation introduces the story’s twilight motif, but the potential to expand on the motif is lost when the unnamed man abruptly changes the subject. He needs Link to journey to Hyrule to deliver something to the royal family. While the man doesn’t explain why he won’t take the task, even when the mayor directly asked him to do it, he notes that Link has never been to Hyrule. Link shows no physical signs of agreement or disagreement—a feature that comes to define his Twilight incarnation—and the conversation comes to an abrupt end.
Through this single exchange, one of Twilight Princess’s largest problems makes itself known. There’s no sense of urgency at the close of the scene; it merely ends because the pair decide to leave the pond. Link’s lack of reaction is also strange, as this is his first chance to visit a new and distant place. The lack of dialogue isn’t surprising, as Link is a silent protagonist, but his lack of emotion extends to his animations as well. In the absence of any dialogue, sounds, or gestures, there is nothing to indicate that Link cares about his quest. While it’s certainly possible to write a compelling story with an apathetic protagonist, it’s significantly easier when the protagonist shows interest in the narrative’s events. Players want to empathize with the protagonist, especially in role-playing games, so when the protagonist doesn’t care, the player won’t care, either.
The next sixty-odd minutes of playtime feature similar character introductions and player interactions, none of which arouse emotion from Link and all of which saddle the player with tutorials masquerading as chores. The first such chore, herding village goats, involves a detour to meet the horse, Epona, and the local girl who cares for her, Ilia. Ilia’s introduction focuses on her feelings for Epona, rather than Link, and Link’s lack of reaction makes him feel like an afterthought in his own game.
The introduction of the village children—Malo, Talo, Beth, and Colin—is slightly more effective, as it directly focuses on their relationships with Link. Each child is given surface-level details to their personalities and appearances to make them unique, and they are all equally excited to help Link learn how to use his tools. Although this is a clever conceit for teaching the player the skills necessary to play the game, it quickly wears out its welcome as the story slows to a halt. Ironically, the characters become obstacles to the progression of the narrative.
The extended tutorial segment comes to an abrupt end when a monkey wanders into the village, and the children chase after it. Link rides Epona to the Forest Temple, passing most of the children, and finds Talo and the wayward monkey locked in a wooden cage. Using his sword, Link frees Talo and the monkey and returns to the village. Although this sequence represents the game’s first point of conflict, it does not serve as the Inciting Incident, as it ends with a return to the status quo. To say none of it mattered would be an oversimplification, as some of the characters introduced have future roles to play. Still, the amount of time it takes for tension to develop in the narrative is excessive, and the developers could have trimmed the introduction extensively without sacrificing essential details.
Both the timing and the content of Twilight Princess‘s Inciting Incident present problems for its narrative. Timing-wise, the Inciting Incident begins over an hour into the game, which is exceptionally long for both adventure games as a whole and the Zelda series in particular. The content has its own issues, as the Link in the Inciting Incident is an overly passive protagonist. His choices rarely dictate the direction of the narrative, and he is pulled from scene to scene by the actions of others.
The Inciting Incident begins when Link is ready to go to Hyrule Castle. To make the long journey, Link first needs Ilia’s permission to ride his injured horse. Once Ilia learns that Link injured Epona while rescuing Talo, she begrudgingly allows Link to ride her on the condition that he won’t do anything out of his league. This request is the first time Ilia shows any concern for Link’s welfare, rather than Epona’s. It’s a perfect opportunity for Link to respond in kind, but the option is lost when a crew of bulbins rides in to cause trouble. They charge in on massive boars, then sweep Ilia and Colin into their arms. When Link tries to fight back, he’s clubbed on the back of the head and temporarily knocked unconscious. This knock-out blow allows them to leave without providing any hint of their motives, which foreshadows a recurring problem with the bulbin threat.
Moments later, Link wakes up and runs after his friends. The world has turned an oppressive amber color around him, and a dark door has formed outside the village. When he gets too close, a black, gangly hand pulls him through. On the other side, the beast appears in full. It’s a tangled mass of shadows wearing a silver shield as a mask. It grabs Link by the throat, but then the triangles on the back of Link’s hand glow with holy power. The monster drops him and flees, and Link collapses, overcome by the amber light. His body undergoes a transformation that turns him into a wolf. The shift is so taxing that he passes out, and the beasts drag him into the darkness. This collapse marks the second time Link has transitioned from scene to scene via unconsciousness. Link is not moving through the story by his own choice; instead, the story forces him forward, making him a passive character.
When Link wakes a second time, he’s chained by the paw to the floor of a crumbling dungeon. Finally, the narrative slows down enough for both Link and the player to figure out what’s happening. He’s still in the body of a wolf, and he’s locked inside a prison cell with an orange-haired imp. After some not-so-good-natured teasing, the imp offers to help Link out of his prison, but in exchange, he has to do everything she says. It’s not a great deal, especially once the imp decides she’ll be riding on Link’s back, but it’s the best option he has. It’s also a situation where he’s presented with a choice, which allows him to be an active character again.
With the imp’s help, Wolf Link ascends the tower of what he comes to learn is Hyrule Castle. This is not the castle he imagined, however, as the entire building has been plunged into artificial twilight, and its occupants have been reduced to cowering wraiths. When Link and the imp finally reach the top, a young woman in royal garb awaits them. She greets the imp, calling her Midna, and apologizes for what’s happened to Link. It’s her fault, she says; she’s Hyrule’s Princess Zelda, and it was her decisions that plunged the world into twilight. This is the first hint of the game’s primary theme: the role of a ruler.
The scene cuts away to a flashback. Inside Hyrule Castle, a mysterious enemy approaching Zelda in her throne room. He taunts her, telling her that she must surrender her kingdom, or all her people will die. Faced with an impossible choice, she submits, and Hyrule is overtaken by twilight. When the scene returns to the present, Zelda says the beasts are looking for Midna, and she should take Link and flee the castle. Midna agrees, moving the story forward without giving Link a choice, making him passive once more.
Once outside the tower, Midna says that she can take Link back to the village, but he might want to stick around to solve the problem that brought him there: his missing friends. She’s willing to help rescue them, but she needs Link to be her servant in return. It’s a lot of information to digest at once, but it’s also not much of a choice. With nowhere else to go and no idea how to get his body back, Link’s got very little room for Second Thoughts.
Twilight Princess lacks a concrete Second Thoughts beat for two reasons: structure and character. Structurally, Link has no Second Thoughts because he’s already passed the story’s point of no return. His friends have been kidnapped, and he’s trapped in the body of a wolf, which means he cannot return to the status quo by refusing the call to adventure. Midna says as much to him as they leave Hyrule Castle, then adds insult to injury by transforming into Ilia and Colin. It’s an effective way to keep Link motivated, but it’s ultimately unnecessary, as Link has no other option but to follow her.
Link’s inability to speak or show his emotions also leaves him with little room to express doubt. As a wolf, his cartoonish features allow for a greater range of emotion, but his human face often wears a blank expression. His lack of emotion can’t be blamed on graphical limitations, either, as previous entries in the series on older consoles had Links capable of demonstrating a full range of emotions. In other words, Link’s limited emotional range was not a graphical concession but an artistic choice. There are several potential reasons for this decision—matching a darker tone, perhaps, or meeting the expectations of an older audience—but the logic behind it makes no difference to its impact on the narrative. When considered without any meta-textual knowledge, Link’s inability to express himself is only important insofar as much as it affects the story. At this point in the narrative, this lack of expression from the protagonist costs Twilight Princess an essential structural beat, forcing an unceremonious jump from the Inciting Incident to the First Turning Point.
Turning Point One
Twilight Princess‘s First Turning Point encompasses Link’s effort to regain his human body, ending with his successful return to form. Although the point is bogged down with the same extraneous mechanical challenges and character introductions that plague the rest of the First Act, the Turning Point is still an effective transition between acts, as it ends when Link achieves his goal and receives guidance on the path ahead.
When the Turning Point begins, Link is back outside Ordon Village, but he’s still stuck in the body of a wolf. Midna is willing to help him, but first, she needs Link to arm her with a sword and shield from the village. As Link clears out the bulbins on the periphery of town, a curious squirrel gets his attention by clearly speaking to him. Now that Link is a wolf, he can understand all of the other animals around him, which gives him a unique advantage over his human form. This new skill quickly pays off when the squirrel explains that the children of Ordon have all been kidnapped by the bulbins who took Ilia and Colin.
With the help of the other animals, Link finds both a sword and a shield and prepares to return to the twilight. He’s about to leave the area when a voice calls out to him from the spring. Link tries to approach, but a shadow beast blocks his path. Defeating the beast frees a spirit of light, who thanks Link for his good deed. He then tells Link that there are three other beings of light who need Links help, and the one in Faron may be able to restore Link’s body. It’s a little convenient that this entity has a plan for restoring Link’s body at the exact moment when he had no real plan for what to do next, but the coincidence keeps things moving, so it’s easier to forgive. The important thing is that Link has an idea of where to go next: to Faron Woods, where he’ll help the next light spirit.
Link finds the spring in Faron Woods to be in a similarly dire situation. After dispelling the shadow beasts plaguing the area, the voice of another spirit calls out to him and says Link must collect the malevolent insects scattered about the valley to restore its body. Working together, Link and Midna gather them up and revive the light spirit, Faron. In doing so, Link regains his human form, but something’s changed: he’s wearing a green hat and tunic, which marks him as Hyrule’s hero. Faron explains that it is Link’s destiny to free the other spirits and fight the king of shadows. This strange, powerful foe is the same fiend who demanded Princess Zelda’s surrender and cloaked the world in twilight. To do so, Link must gain the power of shadows himself, part of which he can find in Faron’s Forest temple. Link now has his body back and a path forward, which brings Act One to a conclusion and kicks off Act Two.
* Reference Run: SourceSpy91. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – MAIN QUEST – FULL GAME Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Script: Ashley Bakaitus, Eleanor Bennett, and Daniel Brabander. Twilight Princess Project. http://zelda.obdurodon.org, 2008.