Zork I: Kishōtenketsu   1 comment

The 1981 packaging for Zork I, that followed the infamous TRS-80 packaging. Via MIT Technology Review, from the collection of Mike Dornbrook. There are other nice pictures there, including Lebling’s hand-drawn map of original Zork. Notice Infocom hasn’t settled on “interactive fiction” yet but instead calls this “An INTERLOGIC(tm) prose adventure”.

Usually, when I see people apply traditional plot structures to games, they’re thinking of the traditional rising action-climax-falling action “mountain”. Generally, the overarching story is said to have such as structure, as well as the incidents along the way; sort of a fractal mountain, so to speak.

However, I’ve been wondering if this is always the most appropriate game structure, because it relies on conflict; in some Western theory texts, you can find the claim that story always relies on conflict.

Kishōtenketsu is a structure that shows up in in Chinese, Korean and Japanese stories which can be, to a real extent, conflict-free. Instead of a Three-Act Structure, it has four:

Ki: Introduces characters and other necessary information.

Shō: Follows any lead characters, but without major changes.

Ten: Provides an unexpected development. This is the essential substitute for the climax, because it may not be a “confrontation”, but can be just an unusual change in the environment, or enigmatic development.

Ketsu: The conclusion, which unifies the original elements with the “twist”.

The key here is the the unexpected development or “twist” might not even be something resolved by the main characters, or even “resolved” in a traditional sense. Example:

1. Karen and Mira pack for a roadtrip.

2. Karen and Mira alternate turns driving, and talk about their lives.

3. Around midnight, they see what appears to be a flying saucer. They park, step out of their car, and take photos. The saucer never gets closer and eventually disappears.

4. They finally arrive at a hotel, talking about what they just saw.

And, sure: with this example you could say the conflict is “in their minds” or some such, and do the same with any other kishōtenketsu plot, but after a certain point Traditional Three-Act starts to look like person with a hammer desperately searching for nails (or maybe one of those people who tries to apply The Hero’s Journey to everything).

The rule of thumb seems to be: ten is about contrast, not conflict (conflict can arise from the contrast, but that’s a subset of the bigger idea). The ten phase can also resembles a traditional adventure game puzzle.

> e
Round Room
This is a circular stone room with passages in all directions. Several of them have unfortunately been blocked by cave-ins.

> e
Loud Room
This is a large room with a ceiling which cannot be detected from the ground. There is a narrow passage from east to west and a stone stairway leading upward. The room is deafeningly loud with an undetermined rushing sound. The sound seems to reverberate from all of the walls, making it difficult even to think.
On the ground is a large platinum bar.

> look
look look …

> take bar
bar bar …

Maybe? The first act here is the preceding actions, the description of the loud room is the development, and the parser’s reaction to any action other than movement is the twist. There’s two possible resolutions: one entirely logical involving finding the source of the noise and shutting it off (spoiled in rot13: gur arneol qnz), the other being almost hilariously abstruse (Vs lbh fnl rpub lbh trg gur zrffntr “Gur npbhfgvpf bs gur ebbz punatr fhogyl.” naq gur rssrpg fgbcf.) The first resolution is particularly satisfying and unifying — it resolves and explains the contrast.

Perhaps I’m reaching a little, but I have read people who exclude incidents such as the puzzle above from being part of a plot; yet, in terms of actual effort, and my mental memory of the trials and struggles of a game, these enigmatic elements form a story in my head. For me, the change in parser message comes across more as contrast rather than conflict. Maybe that’s why it goes unrecognized.

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Posted June 25, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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One response to “Zork I: Kishōtenketsu

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  1. Yes I think you are over reaching but anyway that has been a very cool reading. So please, keep following this line of thinking to see where you can reach.

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