Jo-Ha-Kyu and the Art of Game Design
This article deals with designing pacing into games. I’m certainly not the first to think about this topic, nor the first to compare games to stories with a beginning, middle, and end. As a writing and lit major with a theater background, the idea of pacing and storytelling has always been a focus of mine, and something I strive to do well in games I design. You’re probably already familiar with the action diagram of a typical Western story or play, but here it is anyway for reference’s sake.
As you can see, it begins with exposition, the action builds to a climactic moment, then there’s a cool down where loose ends are settled and the action simmers down, until everything is finally resolved. This is a tried and true method of storytelling, and can certainly be likened to gameplay. The opening moves are the exposition. As players stake out their positions and develop their strategies, the game begins to feel like rising action. Then, at some point, the game is decided. This is the point in the game where one player or side makes a move that solidifies them as the winner. If you watch sports or play a lot of board games, you’ve probably seen this moment countless times. “Oh, there’s the game.” From that point on, there’s falling action. The game is concluded (the last point cards are purchased, the final train cars are placed, or the time clock runs down), then all that’s left is resolution: counting up scores.
This story structure is so ingrained in the Western psyche that it seems natural to apply it to all of life’s little processes. But it’s not exactly the right fit for gameplay, is it? Note that everything after the climax lacks the interest and meaning of what came before, since the game has already been decided. If I could design the perfect game, it would follow a very different diagram. The game would live as long as it could in the space to the left of the climax: rising action. This is where strategies are created and executed. It’s the true test of a player’s mettle, and determines the outcome of the end-game, or climax. This is what we think of as the early-to-mid game. The end-game becomes the terminus of play, and not just for all practical purposes, but literally the end, holding off the climax to the last possible moment. The falling action, if there is any, lasts seconds. Resolution becomes almost unnecessary, since the climax was so decisive.
In other parts of the world, this story structure is actually the norm. The Japanese call it Jo-Ha-Kyu — literally “beginning, break, rapid.”
The philosophy of Jo-Ha-Kyu is central to many Japanese arts, from kendo to the iconic tea ceremony. But it’s probably best known as the dramatic structure of traditional Japanese theater forms such as kabuki and noh. I first learned of the concept from Yoshi Oida in his book The Invisible Actor. In Japanese theater, the play begins slowly. The plot moves slowly, events happen gradually, and sometimes the actors themselves even move slowly, drawing out every action and every movement into a glacial pantomime.
As tension builds, actions become quicker, more deliberate. The pace begins to gradually quicken with each plot development, chaining together into a final climactic moment. At this point, the story is over, but for a brief denouement that only even comes if necessary.
I think about this concept a great deal when I’m designing and playtesting my games. Is the game exciting all throughout? When, if ever, is the winner apparent? Do we ever feel like players are just “going through the motions” to complete the game, even though the results are a forgone conclusion? How many players have a stake in the climax? And do players feel like they have enough time to actually develop their strategies and execute them?
The best games engage players from start to finish, filling each moment with tense decisions. Here’s Yoshi Oida on the topic of Jo-Ha-Kyu. Feel free to substitute the word “players” for “audience,” and “designer” for “director.”
Jo, Ha, Kyu isn’t just an esoteric theatrical concept, but a rhythm that the audience senses in their flesh and bones. If the actor or director is not aware of this fact, you could end up with a production where there is a contradiction between the inner rhythms of the audience and the production. In this case, the audience cannot relax and allow themselves to be carried into the performance.
When a game ends, but it doesn’t feel satisfying, I often say to myself “this game had no Jo-Ha-Kyu.” This isn’t the gravest sin a game can commit, but when a game does have Jo-Ha-Kyu, it’s magical. Video game designers have been hip to this structure since the 80s. Think about your favorite video games. Chances are they feature elements such as boss battles, skill-building, and a slow ratcheting up of difficulty if not stakes. The first five minutes of the game feel nothing like the last five minutes of the game, and once you beat the final boss, you’re not forced to mop up a bunch of goombas on your way out.
Here are some signs that your game lacks Jo-Ha-Kyu:
- The game feels like it ends abruptly
- The last turn or last few turns are boring
- The last turn feels no different than the first turn
- Players complain that they didn’t have enough time to build
- Everyone knows who will win the game halfway through play
If your games are suffering from any of the above symptoms, you might want to tweak the pacing. Here are some things I’ve done in the past to enhance the element of Jo-Ha-Kyu:
- Introduce items or actions that are selected early, but take effect on later turns.
- Use mechanics with rising action and climax (but no falling action) built in, such as a best-of-three showdown.
- Make confrontations decisive, but include catch-up mechanics.
- Play with the end-game condition itself; should this game end sooner? Or later?
- Give players plenty to do in the early and mid games, but make sure choices made on turn one or two don’t make or break each game.
- Resolve the game after a set time instead of giving players the power to end (and therefore extend) the game.
- If the end-game must be player-triggered, make sure each action a player takes inexorably pushes the game toward completion.
Hope you found this useful. In the spirit of Jo-Ha-Ku, this article is now over. Go design games!