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Trauma and the Three-Act Structure: Garnet's Arc in Final Fantasy IX

How narrative theory can be used to improve game design

Yvens Serpa
Oct 24 · 13 min read

inal Fantasy IX is a JRPG released in July of 2000 by Squaresoft. It marks a return to the first Final Fantasy games' medieval style, which had been changed to a more futurist setting in Final Fantasy VII and VIII and then became dominant from Final Fantasy X onwards.

Final Fantasy IX plot is centered on the consequences of a war between nations. Besides the theme of warfare and its outcomes to society, the game deals with other issues such as trauma, the search for meaning in life, and the struggles to accept mortality.

The game's main cast is composed of 8 (arguably) memorable characters. While Zidane is the protagonist and main hero of the story, most of the plot is driven around the deuteragonist, princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII.

Garnet is a strong character and arguably the best female character in the Final Fantasy franchise. Her arc is central to the game's course and incredibly unique in its interlaced game design and mechanics.

To better understand how Final Fantasy IX achieves this narrative feat, the following sections introduce writing theory concepts such as the definitions of characters' arc, acts, and the Three-Act Structure. Later, Garnet's character arc is discussed through a Three-Act Structure lens and how it synergizes with the game design to explore her feelings and personal growth further.

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Lake near Loosdrecht, by Willem Roelof (1887). Source: USEUM.

Three-Act Stories

A Three-Act Story, or Three-Act Structure, is a story composed of three acts. An act is a series of events that culminate in a major reversal of values or ideas in a story [1]. This happens thrice in a Three-Act story.

There are many different approaches to define the three-act structure [2]. However, the most common one defines the three-acts as being The Setup (Act 1), The Confrontation (Act 2), and The Resolution (Act 3) [1, 3].

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Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash.

The Setup, Set Up, or the First Act

The story's initial act is responsible for establishing the characters, personalities, and traits [3].

The first act is also known as the setup (or set up) because it must establish the main story point. For instance, in a game, the player will be introduced to the main objective or main antagonist. The goal is laid down, and the motivation from which the story must progress is presented.

In a more writing/screenplay perspective, the main story point is usually referred to as its dramatic premise [3], whereas in games, it often means the main objective or goal. For the sake of generality, we will refer to it as the story's conflict. We can define it as an issue that causes tension and needs to be solved. Without conflict, there is no story.

Finally, the first act must contextualize the player, characters, environment, and the conflict. This is generally done by establishing how close or far the initial story state is to solve the conflict and how are all the elements in the story related to it.

For example, in the Super Mario franchise, the setup introduces us to Mario and its abilities (each game introduces a few new mechanics). The game then shows that the princess Peach was captured (or some variation of it). Our conflict is the princess' kidnap. Given where Mario currently is, the player knows how far it is from achieving the goal and solving the conflict.

The Confrontation, The Meat of the Story, or the Second Act

The middle act is responsible for pushing the characters and elements of the story into obstacles. Most of the story happens in the second act, and that is why it is deemed the "meat of the story" or the "chewy part of the book" [2].

The term confrontation is meant to signify the character's process of solving the story's conflict. During this act, the character is literally confronting the conflict and obstacles that originate from it.

The second act is also the moment to evolve and progress the character. Personality traits can be changed, new abilities can be acquired, and lessons can be learned. It is a process of growth through challenge.

Again, in the Super Mario franchise, the confrontation encompasses all the initial stages (tutorials or introductory levels); and the final area (the hardest challenges). Usually, the last stages are locked or can only be accessed by collecting elements or finishing these intermediary levels.

The Resolution, The End, or the Third Act

The final act is responsible for resolving the story's conflict. The characters arrive at the end of the story's journey and (ideally) solve the conflict. [3]

Although "the end" of the story is also part of the third act, the resolution is not entirely made out of it. Events related to the conflict and its outcome are also part of the resolution. The final act usually involves the event of solving the conflict itself and the story’s conclusion [3].

Finally, in the Super Mario franchise, the final act is composed of the final stages (challenges), the final boss fight, the princess's saving, the final events, and even the credits (since they usually continue the story).

The diagram below shows the Three-Act Structure:

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Diagram for the Three-Act Structure. Source: Yvens Serpa.

As stated previously, all acts finish with a major event that reverses or changes the story's values. Those events are usually referred to as the plot points. Plot points are any event that changes the story’s direction and are the principal drivers of progress. Technically, the plot point is still part of the act, but it is easier to understand them for organization purposes as a separate event that happens in between the acts. [3]

In a Three-Act Structure, there are two plot points: Setup to Confrontation and Confrontation to Resolution. Generally, the first plot point (Act 1 to Act 2) is an event that makes the character go out of its initial state and confront the story's conflict. In contrast, the second plot point (Act 2 to Act 3) is an event that sets the character in a position to finally solve the conflict (or at least try it).

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Garnet, Dagger, and the Character's Arc

Princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII or just Garnet is the heir of the kingdom of Alexandrian. She was raised as a royal and was taught by scholars in Alexandria from a young age. She bears love for theater plays and learning, be it through books or by interacting with people.

Even though she is of a pacifist nature, Garnet is forced into taking action against the increasing world war activities. In the process, she joins the game's main party and participates in the combat against evil.

As cliche as it might read, Garnet's character story is fascinating and present different takes on the usually outdated heroic journey. The following sections analyze Garnet's story in light of the Three-Act Structure and her own character's arc.

A character's arc is the character's transformation or inner journey through the story [2]. This process takes a character from their initial position (personality, knowledge, attitudes, etc.) and transforms it via challenges and obstacles into a different version of itself by the story's end.

The following section briefly summarizes the Final Fantasy IX story through the eyes of Garnet. Beware, there are going to be spoilers of major events!

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The rest of this article contains spoilers for Final Fantasy IX.

A Brief Summary of the Princess' Quest

Garnet, as she is called in the early game, is taken aback by the changes in her mother's behavior, Queen Brahne. Shifting from an admired and fair queen towards a militaristic and expansionist tyrant.

During a festival in Alexandria, Garnet is “voluntarily kidnapped” by the Tantalus Theater Group, which Zidane is part of. They were sent to Alexandria by Garnet's uncle, Regent Cid Fabool IX of Lindblum, to keep her away from Queen Brahne. Garnet seizes the opportunity to talk to her uncle and find a way to save (or understand) her mother's goals.

During the trip to Lindblum, Garnet decides to adopt a new name, Dagger, to disguise herself better. Garnet is a wanted/kidnapped princess, chased by all of the Alexandrian armies. Dagger is just a common girl trying to prevent war from escalating and causing more damage. Dagger chooses her name as an allusion to Zidane's main weapon, as it is common and mundane.

Under the new name, Dagger discovers the main villains behind the world conflict and tries to stop them. During this process, Dagger is revealed to have immense power over the Eidolon, powerful beings controlled by the summoners.

While trying to stop her mother, Dagger has her summoning powers taken from her and used against her will as weapons of mass destruction.

After escaping from her mother’s captivity, Dagger finds out about her past and the extent of her abilities as a summoner. The eidolons were taken from her, and now she needs to recruit them back to gain their powers. She starts with Ramuh, the wise eidolon of thunder, in Pinnacle Rocks.

Unfortunately, Dagger's attempts to stop the war fail. As the conflict rages on, Quen Brahne dies in battle. Shortly thereafter, during Garnet’s coronation, Alexandria is attacked and destroyed by the antagonists.

These events have a devastating impact on Dagger, who blames herself for the failures and enters into a period of silence. While muted, Dagger avoids any form of interaction and remains in a deep state of sadness, akin to a trauma.

As the story moves on, the protagonists learn that two villains are manipulating the world war. Their efforts are focused on controlling the world's vital energy to recolonize it with souls from another planet.

With a clear plan on how to stop the antagonists, Daggers overcome her trauma. To symbolize her change, Dagger takes Zidane's weapon and to cut her hair. With this, Dagger transforms into a new version of herself. She is more mature, centered, and capable of achieving her goals.

Finally, as the main villains are defeated, peace settles in the world. Dagger returns to Alexandria to rebuild it and assumes the throne as Queen.

This summary should be enough to cover Garnet's story arc, but many details were removed for the sake of brevity. For a more detailed version of Garnet's story, refer to this web site.

The next section analyzes this story under the lens of a Three-Act Structure.

Three-Act Structure and the Character's Arc

The diagram below shows the main story events in Garnet's story, divided by the Three-Act Structure. Final Fantasy IX was first released for the PlayStation, and it was divided into 4 game discs. Each disc's end is noted in the diagram.

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Dagger's storyline as a Three-Act Structure. Source: Yvens Serpa.

Marked in a blue tone are the Plot Points: moments in which the character changes its direction. In Garnet's case, these are the Rename, from Garnet to Dagger, in which she takes a new personality and leaves behind her life as a princess, and the Rebirth, from which Dagger overcomes her trauma and establishes herself as a powerful summoner to fight the antagonists.

Briefly summarizing Garnet’s arc in the Three-Acts and Plot Points we have:

  • Act 1: Garnet is introduced as a princess looking for means to stop the war.
  • Plot Point 1: Garnet renames herself as Dagger, going out of her usual life to pursue means to solve the story's conflict.
  • Act 2: Garnet confronts the horrors of war and grows as a character.
  • Plot Point 2: Garnet cuts her hair, becoming a better version of herself and ready to solve the story's conflict finally.
  • Act 3: Garnet defeats the antagonists and assumes the reign of Alexandria.

The diagram also marks, in reddish tones, the Traumatic Events: moments in which the character is faced with the hellish consequences of war. Some of them are analogies to real-world events, such as the Siege of Cleyra and the Destruction of Lindblum, that resemble atomic bombs.

The traumatic events culminate in a later stage of trauma in which Dagger continues until the end of the second act. She does not talk to the other characters during this time, although her thoughts are displayed to the player.

From a game design perspective, her trauma is used as a game mechanic. During this stage, Dagger can be used in the main party to fight enemies, but she will randomly not take action, stating that she cannot concentrate. This is the game's way of stating how disturbed she is, that she can longer function as the other characters, and simply continue to fight as if nothing has happened.

In a sense, it is a moment to acknowledge that she is not a tool and that other characters should be used instead, giving her time to rest and recover.

The interesting aspect of this mechanic is that it is mostly untold. The game never stops to explain it, nor tell the player how to solve it. It forces the player into rethinking the story's event to acknowledge why Dagger cannot focus.

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The diagram also divides Dagger's storyline into two parts: Garnet as a White Mage and Garnet as a Summoner.

In the early game, Dagger has the main role of a healer. Her skills are related to health recovery and status ailments cure. She already has access to the Eidolons, as they are displayed in her list of skills, but Dagger does not have enough attribute points to summon them. She is still too weak for it.

As Dagger learns about her summoner's origin, she starts to roam towards a more damage-dealing position. She unlocks her potential to summon the Eidolons, even though she must recruit them again.

From a game design perspective, this change is also numerical. All Eidolons in the early game have a way higher magic cost than their mid-end game versions. More specifically, the summons cost 4 times less in the later stages of the game. For instance, the eidolon Shiva changes its cost from 96 to 24. In a sense, this is the game acknowledging her growth.

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Garnet (or Dagger) character's arc is a journey of self-discovery and growth. She starts the story as a romantic princess who always dreamt of knowing the world, but she finishes the story as a powerful summoner and queen of an empire. However, her growth is mostly driven by hardship and trauma.

Her travels and combats are an important part of her development as she grows stronger and more experienced, but the most important battle happens within her. Surmounting the trauma is not only overcoming the horrors and tragedy that befell her family, herself, and the world. It is a process of forgiveness.

As the story begins, Garnet assumes she is responsible for stopping her mother. She feels guilt for the war as if she is either causing it or allowing it to happen irresponsibly. She blames herself for all that is wrong.

However, as the story progresses, she understands how silly this thought is. She is not to blame for events beyond her control. She is not responsible for other's actions, especially her mother's attitude. She did not cause the war nor waged it. However, she is the one to stop it actively.

As vain as it might sound, cutting the hair symbolizes that change and her forgiveness towards herself. And the game silently acknowledges it by removing the mechanics that prevented her from fully acting on combat.

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In this article, the Three-Act Structure was used to understand Garnet's character arc better. With it, we can easily separate the events in the story that drives the character development.

However, the Three-Act Structure is not the only writing technique for this. According to some authors, it is even taken as an outdated and formulaic structure [2]. But it is a simple one to understand and apply. Other, such as the Four-Act Structure, could be used as well.

Final Fantasy IX itself could be understood as a Four-Act Structure narrative, given its four-disc composition (which is also marked in Dagger's storyline diagram). In fact, all discs finish in the form of a pace-changing event that de-escalates tension.

The important takeaway from these techniques focuses on the story's conflict, from which all obstacles, events, and progression are driven.

Ultimately, the choice of which form or technique to use should be based on each writer or game designer's efficiency and familiarity with it. Experiment and try them out to find which one helps and improve your creative process.

As brilliantly presented by Hanna Nicklin in her talk "Kill the Hero, Save the (Narrative) World," in the 2020 edition of the GDC, it is essential to look up for other story structures for games since most of the techniques used (including the Three-Act Structure) come from cinema. Different stories and media might require new techniques to thrive and engage the audience.

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Thanks for reading :)

References

[1] McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Sivu 79–88.”4. Structure and Genre.

[2] Gerke, J. (2010). Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction. Penguin.

[3] Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Revised Ed. New York: Bantam Dell.

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

Thanks to James Burns

Yvens Serpa

Written by

I'm a Brazilian teacher currently working at Saxion University (Enschede, NL) for CMGT. I write every day for education, programming, and as a hobby. [@yvensre]

SUPERJUMP

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

Yvens Serpa

Written by

I'm a Brazilian teacher currently working at Saxion University (Enschede, NL) for CMGT. I write every day for education, programming, and as a hobby. [@yvensre]

SUPERJUMP

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

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