Legend of the Three Act Structure: Plot Construction in The Legend of Zelda



By M.J. Kuhn


When we think about what makes a great video game, some of the things we probably think of right off the bat are the mechanics, the art style, or the music. Perhaps one of the more underrated (and incredibly important!) elements of any quality video game is the plot.


As I mentioned in my last post for AZP, the stories in video games have gotten incredibly sophisticated in the past few decades. A lot of my favorite games honestly resemble films in a lot of ways. That is what gave me the idea to take one of my favorite games in The Legend of Zelda franchise, The Wind Waker, and break it down using a classic screenwriting concept, the Three Act Structure.


The Three Act Structure is exactly what it sounds like: it breaks a story up into three chunks, which I like to call the Introduction (the beginning of the story), the Middle Fifty (the middle portion - usually about 50% of the overall story), and the Climax/Resolution (the end, obviously). Each “chunk” is characterized by a key turning point called a plot point.


The first plot point always occurs at the end of the introductory section of the story: we meet the characters, see the world, maybe get a little backstory and some hint of future conflict, then BAM! Plot Point One happens, and our story really gets cooking. Plot Point One is the event that sets our main character on his course--the moment in the story when he can’t turn back, usually because Plot Point One has made this fight personal.


In The Wind Waker, it’s the moment when the Helmaroc King comes to Outset Island and kidnaps Aryll. Before this point, Link didn’t have skin in the game at all--no motivation to leave Outset Island and get involved in the darker dealings of the world. But once Aryll was taken, he had no choice but to get involved: not to save the world (yet) but to save his sister.


Plot Point Two is called the Midpoint. It happens… you guessed it, right around the middle of the story. The Midpoint is characterized by the way it gives the main character some new perspective, correcting their overall course and steering them toward the final conflict. It’s a little trickier to find this in a game than it is in a film because the repetitive nature of the plot development process in all video games (multiple temples, in Zelda games, specifically) tends to front-load the timeline in terms of play hours put into the game, and then the last few plot points are kind of jammed closer together nearer to the end, gameplay-wise.


In The Wind Waker, I would argue that the Midpoint is the moment when Link raises the Tower of the Gods, adventures beneath the sea, and obtains the Master Sword. With the hero’s ancient weapon in hand, Link can’t really pretend this is all about saving Aryll at this point. Sure, that’s still at the top of his to-do list, but it’s pretty darn clear from this point on that Link’s battle is bigger than that.


The last plot point is Plot Point Three. I like to call this point the Point of Despair: it’s the part of the plot where everything goes wrong. The Bad Guy gets a major victory here, and our heroes are sent scrambling. The quintessential example of Plot Point Three is Obi-Wan’s death in A New Hope (Spoiler? I guess, but, I mean, you had like 40 years to see the film, so if I spoiled that, I feel like that’s kind of on you at this point).


The Wind Waker’s Plot Point Three moment comes when Tetra/Zelda is captured by Ganon after Link finishes the Dreaded Triforce Shard Wild Goose Chase (ugh). Ganon now has two parts of the Triforce (and Zelda, obviously), and Link has no choice but to rush in blindly to save her and stop him. The action really ramps up here, and the stakes are HIGH. Ganon is inches from the Triforce, Hyrule is flooding, everyone’s lives are at stake, AHH!


Plot Point Three is always followed by the climax and then the resolution, which, in like 98% of Zelda games, is the final Ganon battle and the subsequent cutscenes of merriment and victory. The Wind Waker is no different. We fight Ganon in his multiple forms, ending with what I believe to be the most brutal Ganon death in all of Zelda canon: when Link jams his sword into our favorite Gerudo King’s skull (for the most cartoon-y game--bold choice, Nintendo).

And there you have it! Plot structure is a fascinating thing to study in all forms of storytelling, video games included! Next time you’re playing through your favorite installment in the Zelda franchise, see if you can pick out these plot points!


If you’re interested in more of my ramblings on storytelling, publishing, and writing, feel free to check out my personal blog, mjkuhn.com/blog, or chat with me on Twitter @mj_kuhn.


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