The Gamer’s Guide To Writing: Final Fantasy VII and 3 Act Structure Part I

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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


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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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing #4: Final Fantasy IX: The Princess and the Play

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Welcome back to the Gamer’s Guide to Writing!  Previously, we discovered that Tantalus, a gang of thieves, were hatching a plot to kidnap princess Garnet disguised as a troop of actors.  Today, we’ll see how their heist goes off.
This sequence gives us a pair of very interesting contrasting viewpoints:  Steiner and Zidane.  While both are playable characters, they have opposing goals.  Steiner’s job as the head of the Knights of Pluto is to defend Princess Garnet, and Zidane’s job is to kidnap her.  Of course, Garnet has plans of her own.  The play begins with a spray of fireworks and trumpets, which delight Queen Brahne.  This will be an interesting little contrast to the end of this scene.  Tantalus plays their part, telling the story of a doomed romance between a warrior and a princess.  After a scene on stage in which the player controls a few swordfights in the midst of some pseudo-Shakespearian poetry.  There is also a mini-game in which you must press the correct sequence of buttons to wow the crowd.
Afterwards, you control Zidane as he sneaks into the castle and tries to abscond with the princess.  He in fact literally runs into her, disguised in a red-lined white hood that long-time fans of the franchise should recognize.  She leads him on a chase through the castle while the control shifts to Steiner, her protector who has noticed she is missing.  With news of the plot spreading though the palace, he has to rally his knights, all of whom aren’t terribly dedicated to the profession, and find her.  The action switches several times, from Steiner to Zidane as he chases the thief through the castle and the Buena Vista airship before ending up on the stage itself.
But in spite of Steiner’s noble dedication, not all is right in Alexandria Castle, and Garnet pleads with Zidane to kidnap her right away, to which he agrees.  On stage, Garnet tries to blend into the play, taking the role of the tragic princess in the story.  Her cover is blown when Vivi, pursued by guards after sneaking in, accidentally sets her hood ablaze with his magic.  With the jig up, Tantalus tries to make a quick exit, but Brahne launches a broadside of chain shot, and even a bomb at them.  Although damaged by the explosion, the Prima Vista limps out into the night and away from the castle.  Queen Brahne orders that they be followed, adding ominously that they “need her alive.”
This scene works really well on a variety of levels.  It draws the player in with a lot of action and things to do.  The castle is a huge area, and while a lot of it is unavailable, it does drop some tantalizing hints.  It also establishes the characters and conflicts that drive most of the first disc’s action.  The rivalry between Zidane and Steiner is a nice microcosm of the greater conflict between Garnet and her mother, which will be explored further.  It’s also a really fun, high-energy chase sequence.  It’s quite spirited and cartoonish, making Steiner the butt of a series of pratfalls and sight gags.  It’s a great contrast to “I Want to be your Canary,” the play Tantalus is performing, which is a classical tragedy.
The play-within-a-play, or in this case play-within-a-game, is a great technique for drawing parallels and establishing theme.  Probably the best known examples come from Shakespeare, who uses it to interesting effect in “Hamlet” to prove Claudius’s guilt, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where it serves as comic relief.  Here, the play is a plot point for getting Zidane and company in the door, but it does a hefty bit of world building and character development as well.  The theme of an impossible affair between a princess and a commoner echoes Zidane and Garnet’s relationship, and the play will come up several more times throughout the plot.
Next time, we’ll explore The Evil Forest and discuss worldbuilding!

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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing #3: Approaching Alexandria

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Previously on “The Gamer’s Guide to Writing,” we looked at the title screen animation and character portraits of Final Fantasy IX.  Today, we’re pushing start and getting into the game itself with two contrasting views of Alexandria, and a heist about to unfold. As ever, spoilers ahead.
Like many games of its cycle, Final Fantasy IX begins with a video cutscene.  Much like the opening scene of a film, credits are superimposed above the action.  We start with a little boat in a storm.  Two figures struggle to keep afloat as waves toss and spin the vessel.  The camera zooms in on one of the figures, a small girl, and then the scene abruptly changes to Princess Garnet, who has fallen asleep in a chair.  She goes to an open window, and we pan to a wide shot of the Kingdom of Alexandria as white birds fly over the city in the light of a setting sun.
The camera follows the birds as they fly towards a massive airship.  It focuses on shots of the figurehead, a mermaid, and the propellers, which appear as stylized towers, before giving an establishing shot of the entire vessel.  This is the Prima Vista.  Onboard the ship, the camera follows Zidane down a ladder and through a door, then puts the player in control.
Zidane is there for a meeting of Tantalus, a group of thieves posing as a theatrical troupe.  As the gang gathers to plan their upcoming heist, they are suddenly attacked by a dragon-headed figure, who turns out to be Tantalus’s leader Baku in a costume.  After Baku cries uncle, the five thieves meet in a side room to go over the plan.
Tantalus is traveling to Alexandria ostensibly to perform the popular play “I want to be Your Canary” for Queen Brahne and Princess Garnet.  Their real objective is to kidnap the princess while everyone in the castle is distracted by the performance.
This establishing scene does a lot of good work world-building and establishing plot.  It also establishes gameplay, letting the player interact a bit with the environment, explore, and fight a brief battle.  The important thing about this scene is that it uses a light touch.  It is mostly exposition-free.  We don’t get a monologue about Baku’s long friendship with King Cid, or Alexandria and Lindblum’s long history.  We get exactly what we need to know that a heist is about to go down, and Zidane is a major part of it.
There is another cutscene of someone watching the airship dock at Alexandria castle.  As the airship glides majestically over the city to the castle, we see it reflected in a huge, mirrored crystal that stands atop the castle, and the credits end with the logo for Final Fantasy IX.
Now, we’re following the little black mage Vivi.  If we previously got a birds-eye view, now we are on the ground with Vivi as he attempts to wind his way through the huge city.  He somehow has a ticket to the performance, but is clearly overwhelmed by Alexandria.  He makes his way to the ticket booth, interacting with street urchins and working-class Alexandrians as he goes.  He even has the opportunity to play a few mini-games.  When he gets to the castle, though, he discovers his ticket is a fake!  If he wants to see the show, he’ll have to find another way in to the castle.
That’s when Vivi meets Puck, a rat-faced street urchin that can get him in, as long as he promises to be his slave.  Vivi, who is completely lacking in street wisdom, agrees, and the pair steal a ladder to make a daring rooftop entrance to the castle.  They sneak inside just as the play is about to start.
Vivi’s journey through Alexandria is first-rate game storytelling.  The player doesn’t get to fight anything, but there is plenty to explore, and doing so in the shoes of earnest and inexperienced Vivi is an excellent method.  As with the Prima Vista, we get dialog that serves both as world-building and character development as he makes his way through the Victorian city.  While the game is not quite so stark as Dickens’ London, we are introduced to a world of struggling shop owners, harried housekeepers, and thieving orphans, even if most of them are willing to stop and play a game of cards.
While the opening cutscene focused largely on the grandeur and majesty of the world, with a fantastic castle and a high-flying airship, the game contrasts this by starting off in a cramped cabin and following some of the least powerful Alexandrians.  This contrast between Nobility and the Working Class, between white marble and sooty cobblestones, is a theme that is established early and continues through the rest of the game in a variety of ways.
Next time: Tantalus puts on a play and the line between the actors and the audience blurs when their kidnapping heist doesn’t go as planned!

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The Gamer’s Guide To Writing #2-Selling your Story from the Title Screen! (FFIX)

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Courtesy gamefaqs.com

Welcome back to The Gamer’s Guide to Writing!  Last week, we introduced the game Final Fantasy IX and talked a bit about where it fits into the franchise of the series.  Let’s start up the game and have a look, shall we?
The first thing that appears on the screen are logos for the publishers and developers.  But the Squaresoft logo fades in to a short cinematic, while soft, medieval-sounding flute music plays.  This is the audience’s first real look at the style and tone of the game, and FFIX goes for an epic tone out of the gate.  We see images of a vast city, its sky teeming with airships, grand castles, and sweeping landscapes, all superimposed with a map detailing their locations.  The screen finally crossfades to the title screen, with the Final Fantasy IX logo over the background of a glowing crystal.
The thing I find interesting is that nowhere in the clip do we see a character, or get any close ups of a human figure at all.  This is the setting and art on display.  It is a promise of a wide scope, of a game that stretches across global proportions.  This is a promise of where you’ll be going.  But if we leave the controller alone for a moment, something else happens.
If left to run by itself, the game will run through a series of still images of the protagonists.  Each of the eight playable characters appears in close up, with a single word description above them and a line of text below.  Nowhere in each picture do we find the character’s name, but each is an efficient little description of who each one is, and what their motivations are in the story.  Each of these is a still shot from a FMV cutscene.
For instance, Zidane, the main character, is an image of him with a horrified expression standing against a bank of dark storm clouds.  It reads “Virtue” at the top and “You don’t need a reason to help people.”  In this single frame, the game tells us that this is the hero of the game.  He’s a good guy, and he is motivated by a strong sense of justice.  Now, this isn’t all there is to the character, of course.  This is especially true of some of his actions during disc one, but when it comes down to brass tacks, he isn’t motivated by greed or status.  He is motivated out of a desire to do good.  Vivi, on the other hand, is motivated very differently.  The text on his image reads “Despair,” and the line underneath says, “How do you know you exist?  Maybe we don’t exist…” While Quina’s states “I do what I want!  You have problem?”  This shows the reader that Vivi’s motives stem from his need to understand and establish his own identity, while Quina’s actions stem from their own simple desires.
But what purpose does putting the movie and character portraits serve?  Much like the text and quotes on a dust jacket, they are there to sell the product.  If you went into a game store in 2000, you might have seen a monitor on the counter with the opening to Final Fantasy IX playing in a loop.  Prospective players could watch and get an idea of what the story of the game was like, without being spoiled by it.
This little opening section is an excellent example for writers coming up with description copy for their books.  Whether you go epic, or personal with your characters, your goal is to present your story as evocatively as possible in the fewest words.  And notice that none of them have to necessarily be your characters’ names!
This could also be an excellent character building exercise.  Think about the protagonist  of your work in progress.  What is one word to describe them?  Can you summarize their motivations in a single line?
Next week, we’ll press start and explore Alexandria from the point of view of a little Black Mage in a big city!
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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing: An Introduction


IMG courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

IMG courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

Like many genre writers, I enjoy playing video games, and I often complain that my gaming addiction is taking time away from my writing, and vice-versa.  But I’ve found that in some ways, my love of gaming has had a great impact on my writing.  Even in a genre that is generally panned for its presentation of script and plot, an observant writer can still pick up pointers about what to do, and what to avoid.  This blog is a look at some of the lessons I’ve picked up in my many years behind a game pad.
A game I’d like to look at first is “Final Fantasy IX.”  Launched in the U.S. in November of 2000, it is often overlooked because of the timing of its release.  It came out at the tail end of the Sony Playstation’s lifecycle, a full month after the blockbusting premier of the Playstation 2.  Even though the game pushed the console to its limits, it was competing against more dazzling technology.  It also has an awkward place in the franchise, between the panned “Final Fantasy VIII” the next year’s revolutionary “Final Fantasy X” for the PS2.
None the less, FFIX is an excellent source for writers looking at plot, structure, character, and theme.  Over the next series of posts, I’ll be drilling deep into the plot of the game, examining the presentation and hunting for literary gold, as Dave Robision would say.  Think of this like a very different sort of walkthrough.  Instead of looking for secrets to success in the game, I’ll be looking for hints to improve writing craft.  Spoilers obviously will be a part of this project.  So if you have an old set of discs gathering dust, or a few bucks of Playstation Network credit lying around, come join me as we examine how a classic game tells a great story.
Next week, we’ll look at compact character introductions, and what we can learn from the title screen!
Final Fantasy IX was originally released for the Sony Playstation and is also available as a digital download on Playstation Network.