Setup and Payoff
Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
When constructing a narrative to satisfy audiences, writers often seek to implement the concept of ‘Setup and Payoff’. Setup is the introduction of new ideas, themes, or story elements, whereas payoff is the implementation of those elements in a later part of the work. This concept is most famously summarized by the renowned Russian playwright Anton Chekov, who stated: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”¹ This axiom, known colloquially as ‘Chekov’s Gun’, can be seen in all forms of narrative media, from films and plays to novels and television shows. Video games employ setup and payoff with the same regularity, but the unique nature of player participation in games allows this technique to serve a mechanical purpose as well as a narrative one.
Mechanical Setup and Payoff
Games Discussed: Mega Man 2 (Capcom)
Purely mechanical setup and payoff has a constant presence in the world of video games. It’s most commonly seen in games where players acquire new skills or weapons during their play-throughs, then find their new abilities are required a short time later. Capcom’s Mega Man series is famous for setting up a skillset on one enemy, then putting it in the hands of the protagonist for use against a later enemy. For example, a player can face off against Bubble Man in Mega Man 2, earn his Bubble Lead ability, and then use it on the fire-throwing Heat Man for a quick victory. This is mechanical setup and payoff in its purest form, as the abilities Mega Man uses to defeat his enemies have no bearing on the progression of the narrative whatsoever. It is simply a way to teach players how to progress through the game.
Narrative Setup and Payoff
Games Discussed: Final Fantasy VI (Square-Enix)
The inverse of the mechanical setup and payoff is the narrative version, in which a concept is introduced and implemented to strengthen the narrative, but does not grant the player any skill, item, or otherwise help them overcome a gameplay obstacle. This concept is illustrated in Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy VI, using the special coin that Edgar Figaro keeps on his person at all times. Early on in the game, Edgar is shown with his brother, Sabin, after the death of their father. Since their father was the King of Figaro, one of his sons must take the throne in his absence, but neither son wants it. Edgar, aware that only one of them can be free to live the life they want, suggests a coin toss. He loses and Sabin wins, which frees Sabin to pursue his dreams while Edgar runs the kingdom.
Some time later, the party member Celes needs the help of a gambler who is dead-set on marrying her, so she makes him an offer: a coin-flip for his help. If he wins, she’ll marry him, but if she wins, he’ll give them the help they need. If Edgar is in the party, Celes will clearly approach him and retrieve a coin from him, at which point she’ll flip it and win. The gambler then notices a clever trick: the coin has two faces. This not only demonstrates that Celes knew she would never lose, but also that Edgar was always planning to let his brother pursue his dreams. As an added bit of payoff, players who have Sabin in the party for this interaction will be rewarded when Sabin recognizes the coin and realizes the ruse, as well. The coin does not serve a mechanical purpose, however, as it cannot be equipped or otherwise used by the player in any capacity. It exists purely to serve the narrative, both by progressing the plot and providing insight into the characters.
Combined Setup and Payoff
Games Discussed: Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix)
The final variant of setup and payoff is the combined version, which occurs when the setup serves both the story and the gameplay simultaneously. Square-Enix’s Chrono Trigger demonstrates this combination through its usage of the Pendant key item. When the story begins, the protagonist, Crono, literally runs into a girl in the middle of a carnival. When the girl stands up, she realizes she’s lost her pendant, which she claims has a great deal of sentimental value. She’s thrilled when Crono finds and returns it, but her joy is short-lived when that same pendant reacts with a nearby scientific experiment and she’s pulled into a void in space. That single accident sets off a chain of events that takes Crono and his allies through millions of years of history, from the dawn of man to the distant future.
The setup for the pendant pays off when Crono’s group travels to 12,000 B.C., where the magical kingdom of Zeal uses a red rock known as dreamstone to harness untold magical power. When the people of Zeal see Marle’s pendant, they recognize it not only as being made of dreamstone, but also as being eerily similar to the same pendant that their princess wears. Sure enough, Marle’s pendant turns out to be the same pendant from a different point in time, which suggests a connection between Marle’s family and the people of Zeal. In addition to this narrative connection, charging the pendant with Zeal’s magic gives it the ability to unlock doors and chests that were previously inaccessible. The pendant is therefore not only integral to the progression of the story, but also provides the additional benefit of new items and tools.
¹ Valentine T. Bill (1987), Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom, Philosophical Library