Kishōtenketsu in Video Game Design


Hey there, fellow game devs! It’s time for a storytelling journey like no other. You see, I recently stumbled upon an ancient narrative gem called Kishōtenketsu, and let me tell you – it has changed the way I approach crafting stories and designing games. Gone are the days of run-of-the-mill three-act structures; Kishōtenketsu brings new dimensions to how we captivate our audiences.

From its Eastern origins, this four-phase treasure includes Ki (Introduction), Shō (Development), Ten (Twist), and Ketsu (Resolution). The beauty lies in how each phase seamlessly connects, creating unforgettable experiences that keep readers and players hooked from beginning to end.

Let’s delve into the world of Kishōtenketsu together as I guide you through each phase, sharing invaluable tips to help elevate your own creative endeavors. Trust me – once you’ve embraced the power of Kishōtenketsu, there’s no turning back! So, buckle up and prepare for a wild ride in storytelling mastery.

What is Kishōtenketsu?

The enchanting narrative structure of Kishōtenketsu traces its roots back to classical Chinese, Korean, and Japanese literature, where it flourished as a unique way to create captivating stories without relying on conflict as a central driving force. This four-phase framework – Ki, Shō, Ten, and Ketsu – has since transcended its origins and ventured into the realm of video game design. A prime example is how this engaging structure has been implemented in creating levels for the iconic Mario games by Shigeru Miyamoto and Koichi Hayashida. By introducing new elements or challenges in each stage, while subtly foreshadowing what lies ahead, the developers weave together an experience that mirrors Kishōtenketsu’s artful progression. As players embark on their journey with Mario, they encounter increasingly complex platform designs and inventive gameplay twists, culminating in memorable boss battles and rewarding resolutions — all guided by the timeless principles of Kishōtenketsu storytelling.

What sets Kishōtenketsu apart is its freedom from transformational narratives. Our protagonist doesn’t need to endure hardships and emerge changed for better or worse. Yes, there’s a twist, but it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or even negative. Twists can simply offer humor or delight the reader with an unexpected surprise.

Let’s look at a short example of how a story works with Kishōtenketsu.

In an age-old mountain realm (Ki), a group of dwarves stumbled upon a sealed cavern while mining for precious gems (Shō). To their astonishment, breaking the seal unleashed a gentle, luminous creature with healing powers (Ten). The dwarves and the mystical being formed an unbreakable bond, revitalizing their community through newfound wisdom and prosperity (Ketsu).

Kishōtenketsu in 4 steps [ By KimYunmi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Super Mario 3D

In Super Mario 3D World, Koichi Hayashida brilliantly applies Kishōtenketsu principles to create captivating levels. First comes the Introduction, where players safely learn a new mechanic, like color-switching panels in “Cakewalk Flip”. Note that players do not fall to their death, but can quickly start over and learn the mechanic. Next up is Development, where challenges grow and the concept deepens – think climbing cliffs with flip panels. The Twist arrives near the end, adding an unexpected twist that tests players’ mastery – like dodging bumper enemies on flipping platforms. Finally, the Conclusion lets players flaunt their skills by reaching flagpoles or tackling boss fights, while optional collectibles and challenges offer extra excitement for those craving more.

This video shows people playing the Cakewalk Flip level.

Diving Deeper

Now that we’ve dipped our toes into the fascinating world of Kishōtenketsu, it’s time to take a plunge and dive deeper. In this section, we’ll dissect each component of this unique narrative structure, revealing the secrets behind their power and effectiveness. By understanding the nuances of Ki, Shō, Ten, and Ketsu in greater detail, you’ll be well-equipped to harness their potential in your own storytelling and game design endeavors.


In the world of storytelling, “Ki” plays a significant role. Hailing from the ancient Kishōtenketsu narrative structure, Ki refers to the Introduction phase of a story. You might be wondering why it’s so important, especially for game design or any form of storytelling. Well, let me tell you!

When starting a new adventure, whether in a novel or video game, Ki lays the foundation for everything that follows. It’s like an opening scene that sets the stage, introduces characters and environments, and teases conflicts. This first act gets us hooked and eager to explore deeper into whatever world we find ourselves in.

But how do we make this Introduction work its magic? Here are a few key ingredients for making your “Ki” flavorful:

  1. Characters: Introduce your main cast early on; they’ll drive your story forward and become friends (or foes) for your audience.

  2. Setting: Paint a vivid picture of your world – whether it’s fantastical or based in reality – to immerse readers or players fully.

  3. Atmosphere: Use sounds, visuals or words to craft an enticing atmosphere that heightens interest and curiosity.

  4. Conflict: Give hints about obstacles or challenges up ahead; foreshadowing adds depth while building anticipation.

  5. Tone: Convey a consistent tone throughout your intro, as it will set expectations for the overall experience.

  6. Breadcrumbs: Plant some story seeds early on – little nuggets that will grow into exciting twists later down the line.

When executed effectively, “Ki” leaves us hungry for more and sets our gears in motion as we embark on whatever journey lies ahead. Remember, first impressions are crucial – so kick off your narrative with an unforgettable Ki!


Let’s dive into the realm of “Shō”! As the second phase in the Kishōtenketsu narrative structure, Shō is all about Development. Now that we’ve laid the foundation with Ki (Introduction), it’s time to build upon it and take our audience deeper into the story, whether we’re crafting a game or spinning a tale.

So, what makes a good Shō? Here are some essential components to keep in mind:

  1. Expansion: Take your characters, setting, and conflicts introduced during Ki and flesh them out further. The more detail and depth you provide, the better!

  2. Exploration: Encourage your audience to explore your world by giving them intriguing areas or plot points to uncover.

  3. Growth: As your story unfolds, allow both characters and plotlines to evolve. Add new challenges or unexpected turns that test character abilities and relationships.

  4. Layering: Introduce subplots or secondary arcs that intertwine with the main narrative; they enrich the overall experience by making your world feel alive and intricate.

  5. Pacing: Keep a balanced tempo throughout this phase; mix action-packed scenes with quieter moments for reflection and discovery.

  6. Foreshadowing: Subtly hint at future twists without explicitly revealing them; this adds intrigue while setting up anticipation for Ten later on.

When done right, Shō pulls your audience deeper into your creation – whether it’s an immersive game world or captivating novel — keeping them engaged as they continue their journey toward discovering how things unfold during Ten and ultimately Ketsu. So don’t forget to put ample effort into developing an engaging Shō — it’s essential for successful storytelling!


Hold onto your hats, because “Ten” is where the magic happens! Ten, the third phase in the Kishōtenketsu narrative structure, is all about the Twist. This curveball takes your audience by surprise and adds an exciting new dimension to your story or game.

But what makes a good Twist? Here are some key ingredients for whipping up a Ten that keeps your audience on their toes:

  1. Unexpectedness: Keep them guessing! The best Twists catch us off guard and challenge our assumptions about what’s happening in the story.

  2. Connection: While surprising, ensure that Ten still makes sense within the context of your world and events. It should click with earlier developments.

  3. Consequence: Make sure this Twist has real stakes - it should shake up character relationships, goals, or even the entire plot direction!

  4. Innovation: Go beyond cliches and tropes; strive for a fresh approach to keep audiences engaged and invested in discovering what lies ahead.

  5. Timing: Present Ten at just the right moment - not too early (or it’ll feel rushed), but not too late (so it doesn’t lose its impact).

  6. Adaptation: After unveiling Ten, modify game-play mechanics or plot progression accordingly so that players or readers must adapt their approach to accommodate this revelation.

A well-executed Ten can elevate an already engaging experience into something truly memorable, leaving audiences talking long after they’ve reached Ketsu (Resolution). So take risks and be bold when crafting your Twist — your audience will thank you for shaking things up!


Lights, camera, Ketsu! As the grand finale of the Kishōtenketsu narrative structure, Ketsu represents Resolution. We’ve journeyed through Ki, Shō, and Ten, and now it’s time to tie everything together with a satisfying conclusion.

But how do we create that perfect Ketsu? Here are some tips to guide you toward an unforgettable ending:

  1. Closure: Bring all story arcs and subplots to a resolution, giving your audience a sense of completion while answering key questions posed during the journey.

  2. Consequence: show the impact of characters’ choices made throughout the story or game – whether they end in triumph, loss, or somewhere in between.

  3. Emotional payoff: Deliver emotional catharsis by resolving conflicts and interpersonal relationships in a way that leaves audiences feeling moved and satisfied.

  4. Reflection: Provide moments for characters to look back on their growth and development, reinforcing lessons learned throughout their adventure.

  5. Relevance: Ensure that Ketsu directly ties into earlier narrative phases – it should feel like a natural culmination of events from Ki through Ten.

  6. Encouragement for replayability (if applicable): Offer different endings based on player choices or actions taken during gameplay – this invites players to explore alternative outcomes and deepen their connection with your creation.

A well-crafted Ketsu leaves audiences feeling fulfilled but also nostalgic about the experiences shared throughout your story or game world. By providing closure while echoing elements from earlier phases, you can send them off with a satisfying resolution that lingers long after the final page has turned or screen has faded to black.


And so, our journey through the mesmerizing world of Kishōtenketsu comes to an end. But fear not, fellow creators! As you venture forth into your own storytelling endeavors or game designs, remember that the magic of Kishōtenketsu lies in its flexibility and universal appeal. Embrace its principles — Ki, Shō, Ten, and Ketsu — as guiding forces to elevate your creative work to new heights. Personally, I can’t wait to see how this ancient wisdom breathes life into modern stories and virtual worlds alike. So go ahead, unleash the power of Kishōtenketsu on your next project – I’ll be right here cheering you on from the sidelines, eagerly anticipating the remarkable experiences you’re bound to create. Let me know how it went! Good luck and happy creating!