There are two principles that I need to set out before getting into this blog, so I beg a little patience. The first is that playwriting principles are useful when designing a game, which is most often given in the idea that games should have a three-act structure. This is true, and game designers absolutely should consider the act structure of their games. However, I want to extend this principle to another playwriting principle, namely that of Chekov’s gun.
Chekov’s gun is a principle outlined by the playwright Anton Chekov that all elements in a story should be necessary and all irrelevant parts removed. This is outlined by stating that if there is a loaded gun on the stage during act one, it must go off in act two (this leads to the geek joke about wanting to see a film where Walter Koenig walks into a store in the background of a shot, purchases a pack of Juicy Fruit and absolutely nothing ever comes of it). The idea isn’t universally accepted by writers, who often value unrelated detail and has a rather circular relationship with Red Herrings, and it may be a struggle to see how it relates to game design, but I would argue that it absolutely does.
A Red Herring (for those unaware, a possibility or option inserted into a story such as a mystery to intentionally mislead the audience) has an interesting relationship with Chekov’s gun, it is irrelevant to the story, but relevant to the experience of the story, by virtue of its irrelevance to it. This is similar to verisimilitude within writing, and is part of what splits out the play-writing nature of Chekov from the writing of a novel. For example, in a novel it may be utterly irrelevant that there are three men in the room who never speak and are never seen again, but they need to be mentioned to help create the atmosphere of the room being crowded, or overheard, or oddly empty, to create the idea of the room being a real place in a real world rather than an element in a novel, which is what it is. The playwright can treat these human beings like set-dressing, they can be contained within the stage direction ‘takes place in a busy café’. Chekov’s point could here be thought of as, don’t specify the