Three act structure is a form of plot found very commonly in film, but which can be used in just about every kind of story. As the name suggests, it consists of three parts: The Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.
Final Fantasy VII was released by Square Soft for Sony Playstation in 1997. A breakout hit for the system, the game had a very cinematic style, and its clear narrative makes it a great example of a game with a classical three act structure. This might be at least partially due to the technological limitations of the system. FF7 originally came on three CD-Rom discs. We can look at each disc roughly equating to one ‘act’ of the three-act structure. Today let’s take a look at the first disc and how it introduces the story and characters. From here on in, we’re cutting right to spoiler territory

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Disc one is the the Setup. We are introduced to ex-SOLDIER Cloud Stryfe, mercenary and former guard for the ruthless and world-controlling Shinra Electric Power Company, and Avalanche, the small band of eco-terrorists fighting against them. We meet them in Midgar, Shinra’s grimy, dystopian capital city, built in such a way that the poor are denied even sunlight.
The first act contains the Inciting Incident, the event in the story which changes the direction of the characters. In Final Fantasy VII, this is the murder of President Shinra. As the head of Shinra corporation, he serves as the main antagonist for Cloud and the others. They break into Shinra headquarters to confront him, only to discover he has already been killed by Sephiroth, a powerful SOLDIER thought to be dead. Sephiroth’s appearance as antagonist, and Shinra’s death, the trajectory of the story changes. Cloud and party escape the confines of the City of Midgar and follow Sephiroth’s trail across the expanse of the world, while they are pursued by the Turks, Shinra’s elite unit of special forces.
The first act ends with a plot point that again changes the direction of the story and propels the action into plot two. In Final Fantasy VII, this is of course another confrontation with Sephiroth and another murder. This is the infamous death of Aeris, a healer with an ancient lineage who may hold the key to stopping Sephiroth. Depending on the player, she is also probably Cloud’s primary love interest at this point. Aeris’s murder serves a dual purpose in the story. It is a setback which removes a potential solution to Sephiroth’s mysterious goals. It also raises the stakes by killing a party member and Cloud’s love interest, assuming the player chose her through his actions. This elevates the journey to find Sephiroth from a search for answers to one of revenge.
Next time, we’ll look at disc two, and discuss Rising Action as Sephiroth’s plan is put into motion, and Cloud comes face to face with who he really is.
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