The Weight Paradox

This is a follow-up to the ongoing discussion in yesterday's Chekhov's Gun post -- the related issue of focus and significance. If you handle this badly, your audience is going to be dissatisfied with those guns you're leaving sprinkled about. As commenter e.lee so eloquently put it:


Chekov's Gun may not be applicable to every story/plot situation but I'd be disappointed if it's a large Mcguffin that is introduced and then forgotten. (Chekov's Rocket Launcher!)


This is a valid point. If something is brought into the story and made to seem important, then yes, your audience will be disappointed. The solution would seem to be "then drop your guns around, but take care to make sure they don't look important." Easier said than done, friends.


Each medium has accepted conventions for how to indicate that something is going to be important: size, volume, focus. In a film, if the camera lingers on a shot of an apple for a moment, that's an indicator that the apple is not just scenery; it's important somehow. In a newspaper, the most important stories are toward the front and at the top, with the biggest headlines. In dance or theater, the lead gets a spotlight.


In text-only fiction, if you mention something once, it might just be color. If you go on about it for a paragraph, you're imbuing it with more weight. If you mention it separately later and then never go anywhere with it, you'll be leaving a loose end hanging. Cue audience frustration.


And in transmedia? All of those, of course, but also, but also... let's talk about ARGs for a moment.This is a genre that delights in hiding information in the subtlest, tiniest ways. Mysterious film credits and morse code in the background of an audio file. Hidden links in source code. Significant clues left out of focus in the background of a photograph, which is only one of many photographs in a Flickr stream.


This presents us with a problem, as creators. In a genre where absolutely anything might be important, how can you tell the audience when something is not important, and that not only are they barking up the wrong tree, they've got the wrong forest entirely?


And believe me, it does happen. I've seen it more times than I care to count -- audiences latching onto something that was just a design element (the splatter border of a photograph), or an offhand piece of color (a horoscope urging the eating of eel and cucumber rolls) to try to come up with some deeper meaning. Anagramming strings of numerals to come up with a phone number. 


In Perplex City, we were constantly removing elements and references that we thought our audience would make too much of, since we didn't want to lead them down too many dead-ends. But there's no predicting. It happened anyway, and it was always something else, something we'd thought completely innocuous. 


What's a creator to do? I actually don't have a solution for this, beyond what I've been doing in my own work: I try not to make the kind of game where the border on a photograph might be important. When something is important, I try to find ways to make that clear, with weight and design and color and, above all, by saying it with the tongues of my characters.


So this is the caveat to my Chekhov's Gun post. Leave your guns sprinkled around, absolutely. But don't shine a spotlight on any of them until you know which ones you're planning on using.


But I'm curious what you think, too. Is this a fundamental flaw with the ARG as a narrative vehicle? Is it the result of growing pains that will fade once we have accepted conventions and boundaries for how to play, and how to signal weight? Am I a crazy girl for ever thinking this is a problem, because it's your most favorite part? Give us your two cents.

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