Kishotenketsu vs. Western storytelling in videogames. What is the difference?
by André Henriques Last update: February 21, 2024
One goal, many paths.
The question had been biting at the back of my neck for some time, so I decided to ask several online boards of proclaimed experts:
“What the differences were between Eastern and Western computer games? Why are the stories so different?”
After numerous posts making jokes about tentacles I decided then that their minds were like soup at a dodgy restaurant: better left unstirred for everyone’s health. I decided to solve the problem myself.
Is it only aesthetics?
Western RPGs like Fallout tend to be drab and dull, almost monochromatic when Japanese RPGs such as Earthbound are lavishly colorful, even surreal.
Maybe it was Character design? Western game developers try for gritty hyper-realism, drawing on their backgrounds of movies and TV and over-engineered to the smallest pore on their gravel-encrusted noses. Meanwhile, the Japanese creators brought up on the ornate, bright, swirling colors of anime and manga, have been known to have a minimalist design in using simple lines to convey the maximum effect for the minimum effort.
The surface aesthetics are fairly easy to expound away, all artists have their preferences.
But what about the story?
The truth of the matter is that many of the story arcs in Asian culture vary significantly from their western counterparts.
In the west, the plot is thought to revolve around confrontations between two or more elements, where one side is dominating the other, like with the critically acclaimed game Bioshock. What you see there is a typical three to five-act structure with a single conflict. A chosen setback appears near the end of the first act (Jack’s plane crash, his arriving in rapture unsure of what’s going on), and then the character gets drawn into it (getting contacted by Atlas who asks to ‘save’ everyone).
On the other hand, in the Asian storytelling tradition, the plot structure does not have a central conflict. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest.
The word for this is kishōtenketsu
It is organized into four parts:
Ki: A scene is set.
Shou: Elaboration on the scene, flushing out the characters and their relationships
Ten: Climax, an unforeseen event that doesn’t have to do with ki and shou directly, things become more complex.
Ketsu: Resolution, focuses on how the third act interacts with the previous ones.
A more literal example from every level of Mario 3-D
Ki: Mario has to learn how to use a gameplay mechanic.
Shou: the stage will offer you a slightly more complicated scenario in which you have to use it.
Ten: something crazy happens that makes you think about it in a way you weren’t expecting and how to use the game mechanic to deal with this situation.
Ketsu: you get to demonstrate; finally, what sort of mastery you’ve gained over it.
This doesn’t mean that the conflict is not present within the plot, just that isn’t the main focus for the drama. Look at the world of Dark Souls; major events and their significance are often implicit and left for the player to interpret rather than fully exposed or explained. Namco, the publisher, even had a $10,000 offer to anybody who could explain the Dark Souls story. The same people who put countless hours into making the game did not think that a storyline was an important feature.
The best way to see the difference is in looking at RPGs. Sure, some of the basics are the same, flat characters exist to be the guides for the plot. But there are slight differences with the round characters; while they change and develop as the story unfolds there is a noticeable scale of personalization.
Japanese RPGs follow a classic formula that was started by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Both are linear role playing games that set you on a specific course to tell a powerful story of epic proportions. You would get a specific character whose role you are assigned to and act out. You get the opportunity to play as the soldier Solid-Snake. Sure, the player can control the individual actions of Snake, but the narrative is still in the control of the designer. This is a reason behind a lot of the original games having a third-person perspective paired with a slew of cinematic sequences.
On the contrary, RPGs in the West usually focus on roaming freely through the vast world and developing your character to take on unknown challenges like in Skyrim. The character’s personality is determined by the freedom of choice a player has over it. Thanks to this all the decisions made during the game become an avatar for the player’s actions. First person perspective is American invention for a reason, you do not play as a hero you are the hero.
Or the villain.
Or the guy who tries to put all the NPCs in comical bucket hats named Chumley.
Ok, we’ve clearly figured out there are some differences, but what made them?
One word: history
Given that I’m describing thousands of years of culture, bear that this observation is a bit roughshod. Besides, if people were so simple we could understand them easily, we’d be so simple we couldn’t.
The west can trace its storytelling back to ancient Greek dramatists whose stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. Therefore some who would be called folk musicians, starting with Homer and his Iliad and going all the way to the medieval Troubadours, you would tell your story from memory over a few hours and move along. The romantic figure of the blind traveling minstrel accompanying his tales of past heroes can be seen throughout Europe, there are even accounts of highly-respected blind Guslar (Serbian story-singers) as recent as 1918.
Meanwhile many Asian cultures did traveling storytellers, but Confucian ethics made sure they were the lowest form of humanity imaginable, even below merchants. They were portrayed as disloyal mercenaries who contaminated everything they laid their eyes upon. The respected storytellers of this civilization were kept in-house, forming guilds to give members an official status, regulate other performers in their territory and exert control over fees and conditions in regional story houses. The Chinese guilds would even have annual multi-day gatherings, called hui-shu or shu-hui, at which a number of storytellers told their best episodes.
Time is the father of contrast
Time is the father of contrast. The nomadic lifestyle of the western storytellers means they have an economy of time to tell their stories. They have to distil the style down to its most bare and high-impact form. In computer game terms: the first Halo game, in a single story arc of saving the universe and the villain, Guilty-spark, escapes for the next game. Bam! Story done. Audience-impressed –hopefully enough to get paid-, there’s a plot so you can come back for a sequel, time to move on to the next village.
Meanwhile, their Asian storytellers were mostly townsmen, they need to take the same beloved characters and use them across multiple stories and scenarios, the entertainment comes from the context and their interaction; the backgrounds are always being changed so the storyteller will spend less time crafting something that they’re going to change in the next few weeks. The gaming example: Final-Fantasy, you follow the war-ravaged cast of heroes who are in a struggle against all odds to defeat some ancient evil. The worlds are usually large and packed with interesting but constantly changing backgrounds.
These differences go on to influence the perspectives used by the game developers. Games with a complex narrative often involve many characters becoming a group. Such multiple embodiments separate a player into multiple bodies. The player is an outside force influencing the interaction between people rather than the experience by any one character. In contrast, the first-person narrative often has a powerful elegance in its simplicity; the player is immersed into the role of the protagonist.
So, what can we say in the end?
Ultimately there are many paths to making a good storyline. Be they the kishōtenketsu writing style builds on itself and lets the game focus on the mechanics, meanwhile the western epic-conflict takes away from them by focusing on the grand epic storyline.