The second act in any story is always the hardest to get right and is usually also the least memorable act for audiences. Be it in movies, books, plays, or video games, the second act – it seems – is the most often looked over and forgotten by audiences. Usually overshadowed by final act – assuming all stories can be split into three acts – the second act is actually what keeps stories together. It ties the first and third act together and if not done well it makes for a weak story. The second act is always the unsung hero of any story. In fact, after the completion of a game or movie, which section is more likely to stick out in somebody’s memory? The grand opening in which all the characters are introduced, the epic fight scene in which the hero and villain fight to the death, or when our hero was on his journey and bonded with his mates?
Most big wig executives seem to think that the second act is useless, forcing writers to go straight from grand openings to epic battles scenes without giving the proper time for characters and themes to develop. Think about if Final Fantasy VI went from the opening sequence at Narshe straight into the last fight before the World of Ruin segment and then right after that came the final boss fight. The player would learn little to nothing about Terra, Locke, Sabin, or any of the other Returners; he would only experience big grand epic moments. I mean nobody cares about the characters and character development, do they? Who cares about plot and themes, right? Everybody just wants to see some epic shit, right!? That is the thought process of these executives. They think audiences of all kinds just want to see things blow up and see epic moments happen before their eyes. But for those epic moments to have any meaning to a player, there NEEDS to be a strong second act. Without that there is no connection from the player to the characters, he has not gone through their journey or experienced their change from the first act.
The recent Final Fantasy VI feature has got me thinking about how much a strong second act adds to a story. But, with FFVI this does not seem to be the case seeing as the second half of the game is largely considered to be the weaker half. Now the World of Ruin segments of FFVI lend themselves more to being a third act than a second act but it is somewhat strange for a video game that had an amazing first and second act to completely drop off with the story in the third act. I know that many people think that players are supposed to go on their own journey with Celes and find everyone on their own, but I think that was a HUGE cop out by Square. The third act of FFVI could have been a great climax for an already fantastic RPG, even the bits that are a bit more linear, such as finding the “required” characters for Kefka’s tower, were fantastic. One of the most memorable segments for me in the World of Ruin is finding the last surviving airship and Setzer’s flashbacks. I believe that if the majority of the world of ruin was linear, like the rest of the game, FFVI could have a definitive place over FFVII as “The Best Final Fantasy“.
In terms of games with weak or nonexistent second acts we must look at the Call of Duty franchise. With the early titles in the franchise Activision was able to pull from historical events, mainly World War II, to give players some connection to the story. That is fine and all but they still did not have any real character development nor do players feel connected to their nameless comrades and the journey they are on as well. If any one CoD fan could tell me any of the characters names, besides historical figures and ones that reappear in other games, I would be surprised. Most gamers only remember the respective CoD game because of the epic moments they cause or witness during the story mode. But at the end of the day the player only remembers these couple of bit moments, half the time they do not even know why these things are happening. However, I have heard with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Activision is trying to change that, if they are I guess good on them… although I do not think they are going to do a good job of it.
In conclusion, however it is sliced, the second act is important to a story.. Yes, it may be slow and sometimes mundane to get through but it will almost always lead to a better and more memorable ending. With a strong second act, players will feel more connected with the characters they have watched grow over the course of the game and they will see the characters make choices and do things that affect the story in small or large ways. With a strong second act, gamers will be able to draw out a story’s theme and message. What do you think readers? Do you think that the second act should just be looked over and we should just get on with the “epic shit”? Let me know in the comments.