Narrative Economy Makes Walking Dead Work

In drama there is a principle known as “Chekhov’s gun”. It goes like this: If, in act one of a play, you place a loaded gun prominently in the middle of the stage so that it becomes notable to the audience, it behooves you to fire the thing before the curtain falls. If you don’t, it means you’ve wasted the audience’s time and attention on a meaningless detail when these precious resources could instead have been spent on something that contributes more earnestly to the quality of the story. The concept is most frequently applied to storytelling, but in fact it’s applicable to all forms of design and can be restated in a way familiar to all creators: Strive to make every feature of your product as purposeful as it can possibly be. Good design is economical; it maximizes utility while minimizing waste.

Previous videogames aiming to provide the player with interesting narrative choices suffer from a lack of economy, and this is partly why we find game stories to be so inferior to those of film or novels. Consider, for example, the time-honoured trope of wheeling two characters the player has never seen before out onto the stage, explaining some conflict in which they’ve mired themselves, then asking the player to decide everyone’s fate. Often the choice allows the player to make some clearly defined moral stance (the proverbial ‘baby save/puppy kick’); occasionally it involves thought-provoking ethical judgments (‘gray area’). Ideally the player asks herself: What is the best way to handle this situation? Pragmatically, however, I can think of a few more pressing concerns: Who the hell are these people, why should I care about them, why should I care what happens to them, and how does any of this affect me?

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