Narrative Analysis: Structure
In most Western narrative structures, the plot is centered around the idea of conflict. Whether it’s an event-based structure, such as the Three-Act Structure, or a character-based structure, such as the Story Circle, the foundation of the story is built on a clash of actions or ideals. The Japanese storytelling convention commonly known as kishōtenketsu challenges this paradigm by building stories around a series of events that build on each other, twist, and resolve. While this structure has its roots in Chinese poetry (name: qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé)1, most modern audiences are familiar with the Japanese variation, as it has been popularized through Japanese manga, anime, and game design.
As a narrative structure, kishōtenketsu consists of four parts: introduction (ki), development (sho), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu).2 The first part, Introduction, sets the stage for the events to follow. In a four-line poem, this stage may be as simple as the introduction of a character or setting, but a longer story may use this stage to introduce both. The second part, Development, builds on the components from the Introduction. Unlike the Western structure’s Inciting Incident, the Development phase does not interrupt the pre-established course of events. Instead, it exists to strengthen the relationship between the audience and the characters and/or setting.3 The third part, Twist, introduces a complication to the pre-established world. This section forms the heart of the difference between Western structures and kishōtenketsu, as the complication need not be conflict-driven. It is simply a change introduced to the world, unmotivated by any forces of antagonism. Lastly, the fourth part, Conclusion, shows how the changes introduced in part three may have impacted the elements introduced in part one and two. Unlike the Five-Act structure’s Resolution stage, the final step of kishōtenketsu does not need to connect all of the previous elements; it is enough to simply show the progression from the Twist.4
Like the common Western story structures, the kishōtenketsu has found its way into video game development. In an interview with gaming website Gamasutra, Super Mario Galaxy 2 director Koichi Hayashida spoke about incorporating kishōtenketsu into level design, saying: “First, you have to learn how to use [a] gameplay mechanic, and then the stage will offer you a slightly more complicated scenario in which you have to use it. And then the next step is something crazy happens that makes you think about it in a way you weren’t expecting. And then you get to demonstrate, finally, what sort of mastery you’ve gained over it.”5
Hayashida also reflected on how he learned to incorporate kishōtenketsu into narrative design from Mario and Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto. “[Miyamoto] drew comics as a kid, and so he would always talk about how you have to think about, what is that denouement going to be? What is that third step? That ten [twist] that really surprises people.”6 In Miyamoto’s eyes, the four steps kishōtenketsu formed the core of the game, connecting story to gameplay for a seamless experience.
The kishōtenketsu structure has been in place since Nintendo’s earliest games, and still pervades its modern offerings. Due to its ubiquity, it can also be used as a framework to study stories from other developers. One example of a game narrative that fits in the kishōtenketsu structure is Bandai-Namco’s Katamari Damacy, which originally launched on the Playstation 2 in 2004. Katamari Damacy is a video game centered around the concept of ‘rolling’, in which the player takes control of a tiny prince who must roll up different objects on earth with an enormous ball. In an interview with Game Developer Magazine, game designer Keita Takashi reflected on the lack of conflict in the game, remarking: “There is a lot of aggressiveness and violence in games nowadays… What I tried to do was not only bring peaceful feelings to the game, but also create something totally different, which would be more exiting than just being peaceful.”7 This commitment to peaceful feelings makes the conflict-free kishōtenketsu structure a perfect fit for Katamari, so it comes as no surprise that the narrative fits into the structure perfectly.
1 Vorontzov, Dimitri. Qi Cheng Zhuan Jie (起承轉結): The Chinese Four-Act Screenplay Structure, Part 1. Scriptmag.com, 2020.
2 Diermyer, Cheryl, Susan Simmons, and Chris Blakesley. Kishōtenketsu Stages. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2021.
3 Ödlund, Nils. Kishōtenketsu for Beginners – An Introduction to Four Act Story Structure. Mythic Scribes: The Art of Fantasy Storytelling. 2017.
4 Barrett, Rudy. The Skeletalk Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore. Tofugu, 2014.
5,6 Nutt, Christian. The Structure of Fun: Learning from Super Mario 3D Land’s Director. Gamasutra, 2012.
7 Gray, Lindsay, Ka Kimura, Naataka Higashiyama, and Yoko Nakao (English Translation). The Singular Design of Katamari Damacy. Game Developer Magazine, 2004.
* Reference Run: RabidRetrospectGames. Katamari Damacy Reroll Full Game Walkthrough – No Commentary (#KatamariDamacy Full Game) 2019. YouTube, 2019.
** Additional Reference Footage: ApolloGreen3. ALL CUTSCENES Katamari Damacy REROLL 1080p HD. YouTube, 2019.
*** Reference Script: Katamari Wiki. Katamari Damacy Dialogue. Fandom.com, 2010.