Category Archives: design musings

Design Musings: Chekhov’s Gun

There’s a literary technique called Chekhov’s Gun, wherein seemingly insignificant elements introduced early in a story are later revealed to be important, or conversely, that a story should not include unnecessary elements. The technique has its roots in storytelling methods that go back centuries. To 1706, and Arabian Nights, according to Wikipedia. Obviously, writers and playwrights have deemed it important.

It makes sense, as no one picks up a book or watches a movie in order to be bored by pointless scenes that don’t contribute to the telling of the story. That a character goes to a particular house can be important, but his travels to that house are not, thus you don’t see a lot of long driving scenes in movies.

So I wonder why it is that we so easily accept the complete opposite in games? We have come to expect them to fill our time with as much content as possible. Yet if we extend the concept of Chekhov’s Gun to encompass games and interactive experiences, we can immediately grasp that doing so belittles the experience.

But in order to see why this is, we should define exactly what Chekhov’s Gun would mean to games. Since games are interactive and player driven, the act of seeing something must needs be replaced with the act of doing. So if we paraphrase the literary technique as:

Showing an element to the audience such that its importance is not immediately revealed, or, each element shown to the audience must be relevant to the story.

We can phrase an initial game version as:

Requesting an action from the player such that its importance is not immediately revealed, or, each action performed by the player must be relevant to the story.

But a game is more than just its story. If we apply Chekhov’s gun solely with respect to the story of a game, then really, we aren’t applying a game version, we’re simply applying the literary technique. So let’s tweak a bit:

Requesting an action from the player such that its importance is not immediately revealed, or, each action performed by the player must be relevant to the player fantasy.

Hrmm… still not quite there. After all, requiring only that it relates to the player fantasy would mean implicitly that any action the player takes as a character would be valid, as any actions the character can take are implicitly part of the fantasy. What if we qualify it?

Requesting an action from the player such that its importance is not immediately revealed, or, each action performed by the player must be relevant to the player fantasy, while contributing to his/her ultimate goals.

That sounds pretty good, actually, and you start to see the impact in games. Everyone is familiar with the busywork quests in a game like World of Warcraft. You can immediately see how killing 20 Raptors in the Barrens violates this principle: killing them might contribute to the ultimate goal as dictated by the game designer, but doing so is only tenuously related to the player fantasy (which is to become a great and famous hero), and has absolutely no importance when viewed in the context of the game as a whole.

So all in all, a good rule to follow.

Next time I’ll delve in to why this has been on my mind lately, as well as offering more examples of what it can mean in practice.

(Special Thanks to Not One Of Us for prodding me about updating the site. I’ll try and be a bit more regular.)