I’ve been throwing the terms “plot” and “story” around a lot lately, and it’s really time to define the two. A plot is a series of causal events while a story is a series of events that may or may not influence the ultimate outcome. For example:
Event A: “Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom at the time of it’s greatest need.”
Event B: “Mario slaughters thousands of sentient mushroom and turtle people on his journey.”
Event C: “Mario defeats King Koopa and saves Princess Toadstool.”
Stringing events A, B, and C together is the story. Whether or not Mario decides to murder all these nice little Goombas and Koopa Troopas doesn’t really have a lot of importance to the end goal of defeating King Koopa, so event B can be omitted and events A and C still make sense together. These two events make up the plot: “Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom at the time of it’s greatest need, and so defeats King Koopa and saves Princess Toadstool for glory.” This isn’t to say event B isn’t important to making the story interesting, but it has little effect on the plot itself.
Mario, you MONSTER!
SPOILER WARNING! – I probably should remind you that this article will expose the entire plot to Final Fantasy VII.
The Dramatic Structure
There are several approaches to narrative plot structure that can be applied to video games, and you’ve probably learned of some in school. For example, Freytag’s Pyramid is a pretty common tool in plot analysis, and I remember using it a lot growing up. This tool splits a plot up into a 5-act structure including the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement, or resolution. This method was developed by Gustav Freytag in the nineteenth century to specifically look at ancient Greek and Shakespearean dramas.
So how can we apply a structure based on the study of ancient plays to video games? Well, look no further than one of the most insanely popular video games on the planet, Final Fantasy VII. I’m choosing Final Fantasy VII for two reasons. The first is how incredibly popular and well known it is. To reach the broadest possible audience for what is essentially a high school English lesson, I figure I need to keep things interesting and use a game a ton of players can relate to. The second reason is that Final Fantasy VII lends itself VERY WELL to these types of plot analysis due to how the plot was crafted by those clever minds at Squaresoft.
An exposition establishes your main characters, setting, and other important information to get you started on your journey through the story to be told. In Final Fantasy VII, the events leading up to the escape from Midgar are exposition. You meet Cloud, the main character and protagonist, Aeris, one of the most integral characters to the plot, and the majority of your party members that play important roles throughout the game and the setting of the game is established. Cloud and his party are fighting against the Shinra Electric Power company who uses Mako energy, a nonrenewable resource that provides life to everything on the planet, to power their cities, including the mega-city Midgar. Shinra captures Aeris due to her connection with an ancient race of people known as the Cetra. The Cetra have the ability to speak with the planet and find the legendary “Promised Land,” a place filled with limitless Mako energy.
These events lead up to the Inciting Incident, which sets in motion the main conflict between Clouds group, and the primary antagonist of the game, Sephiroth. Cloud and his friends infiltrate the Shinra headquarters to save Aeris. During the mission, Sephiroth shows up, kills the president of the power company, and steals the remains of the otherworldly being, Jenova, whom he mistakenly believes is his mother. Cloud and his friends escape Shinra and leave Midgar in pursuit of Sephiroth, who will likely use the power of Jenova to take over or destroy the planet.
The rising action of a plot are all the events that occur to build up tension leading to the plot’s climax. In Final Fantasy VII, these are all the necessary events that happen which lead Cloud to his final confrontation with Sephiroth. There can still be elements of exposition during this part of the story, such as meeting new but less important characters or establishing background story to certain important events. Cloud and his party chase Sephiroth across the planet until they catch up with him at the Temple of the Ancients, where the mythical Black Materia is located. The Black Materia would give Sephiroth the ability to summon Meteor to critically cripple the planet. The planet uses Mako energy supplied by the lifestream to heal itself, and Sephiroth would absorb this energy to become all-powerful.
Sephiroth manipulates Cloud into giving him the black materia. Cloud attacks Aeris and Sephiroth escapes. When Cloud comes to, he realizes what he’s done and blames himself. The party takes off after Aeris, who has gone to the City of the Ancients to face Sephiroth alone. When they catch up, Aeris is killed by Sephiroth while she is praying to the planet for help. Cloud is plunged into a deeper depression. The party finally catches up to Sephiroth, who is waiting for them at the North Crater, where Jenova’s remains were found a few decades earlier. Sephiroth again manipulates Cloud into helping him with summoning Meteor. This unleashes the planet’s own defensive system, four monsters known as “Weapons.” Cloud falls into the lifestream during this event and is lost to the party.
The party carries on without Cloud, trying to find a way to destroy the summoned Meteor, and put a stop to the rampaging Weapons. When they finally find Cloud again, he is in a catatonic state. Tifa, Cloud’s childhood friend and party member, stays behind with Cloud and helps him recover. Cloud’s muddled past is revealed and Cloud comes to terms with the lies he’s told and the mistakes he’s made. The party learns that Aeris was trying to summon Holy, which is the only way to counteract the magic of Meteor. Sephiroth has been preventing Holy from emerging and saving the planet. Cloud, rested and resolved, leads his party to the final battle against Sephiroth to save the world.
If you are already familiar with the story from Final Fantasy VII, you’ll notice that a lot was left out, but the main idea behind the events leading up to the final battle are still intact. You can reasonably follow the events of the plot and still understand how the party got to the final confrontation with Sephiroth. This doesn’t mean that the story lines that were left out are unimportant. These extra story lines are important to developing the setting and characters, and giving the player a reason to care about the final climactic battle and it’s outcome.
The climax is the turning point in the story that resolves or partly resolves the main conflict between the protagonist, in this case Cloud, and the antagonist, Sephiroth. The final battle between Cloud and Sephiroth is an incredibly climactic moment, facing each other on a dark stage, Cloud unleashes his most powerful attack to finally kill Sephiroth once and for all.
The falling action of a narrative is what happens after the main conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is completed. In Final Fantasy VII, Cloud defeats Sephiroth, but it’s almost too late. Meteor descends on the planet and nearly destroys Midgar. The party watches in disbelief as Holy finally rises up from the planet and stops Meteor.
The denouemont is the conclusion of the plot. It is the actual ending scene of a narrative that gives the player a sense of catharsis, the release of tension over the outcome of the story. There isn’t a lot of information in the final scene of Final Fantasy VII, but it does show that life has survived Meteor. Red XIII, one of Cloud’s party members, and what look to be his children, run through a very green landscape, arriving at a vista overlooking an overgrown Midgar. This lets us know that at least one party member survived the event, and that the planet is still alive and even thriving.
Does Final Fantasy VII fit this structure?
Final Fantasy VII seems to fit this structure fairly well. Most of the main events of the game are addressed and fit into each act of the pyramid without too much trouble. However, there is a much better approach to the plot of Final Fantasy VII than Freytag’s structure.
The Three-Act Structure
The Three-Act Structure splits a narrative into, obviously, three acts. This structure is used very often by Hollywood filmmakers, so you’ll see it in just about every summer blockbuster. Using this approach to Final Fantasy VII is incredibly fitting, seeing as how the game was marketed in North America as some sort of epic summer action movie.
The first act is titled “Setup.” This incorporates elements from the Exposition in Freytag’s approach, such as the Inciting Incident, as well as the use of a turning point in the plot, which changes the protagonist’s life forever. The turning point spurs the second act, “Confrontation.” During this point, the protagonist can not resolve the conflict with the antagonist yet because he or she does not yet possess the skills to do so. This starts a character arc for the protagonist. During Confrontation, a midpoint event of the entire plot occurs, and finally, a second turning point. The second turning point kicks off the third act, “Resolution.” The Climax and Falling Actions happen during this point.
Let’s Breakdown (I went there) the Three-Act Structure with the events I already laid out previously.
Act 1 – Setup
1. Characters are met and the setting is esablished. You meet Cloud, Aeris, and the rest of the cast. You find out about Shinra, Mako, and Midgar.
2. The Inciting Incident occurs. Sephiroth kills President Shinra and escapes with the remains of Jenova. Cloud and his party set off to stop Sephiroth from destroying the planet.
3. The events leading up to the first turning point occur, most notably the events at the Temple of the Ancients.
4. The First Turning Point happens when Sephiroth kills Aeris. This sets Cloud into his main character arc of trying to figure out who he is and come to terms with Aeris’ death.
Act 2 – Confrontation
1. Events leading up to the confrontation with Sephiroth at the North Crater.
2. The Midpoint occurs, where Cloud confronts Sephiroth and fails. He falls into the lifestream and is temporarily lost to the party.
3. The events prior to finding the lost Cloud happen. The party tries to find it’s way in the fight against Sephiroth and Meteor without Cloud.
4. The Second Turning Point occurs. Tifa helps Cloud recover from his swim in the lifestream and leads him to come to terms with Aeris’ death and his muddled past, finishing his character arc and giving him the strength to face Sephiroth.
Act 3 – Resolution
1. The events that lead up to the final confrontation with Sephiroth occur. Cloud and his party fight back to the North Crater to face Sephiroth.
2. The Climax where Cloud finally kills Sephiroth takes place.
3. The Falling Action where the party watches in awe as Holy barely manages to stop Meteor.
4. Red XIII and his children view an overgrown and lively world with Midgar at the center from a vista in the Denouement.
Using different plot structures can really help you understand what is happening in any given narrative. In harder to follow video game stories, this can be applied as well, as I’ve shown you. We’ll continue to explore other literary devices over the course of this article series to learn more ways to Breakdown (I did it again) and analyze stories in video games.