Every detail given is important.We have 42 minutes. If we give a detail, it better be important.
Oh, sure, we can set up a Red Herring or two, but we had better expect the viewer to attach importance to any detail we let loose in the plot. Shame on us, if we later expect the viewer to be surprised by the importance of the detail we let slip.
Although conservation of detail tends to be particularly pronounced in a "compressed" medium like a weekly television show (with episodes contained in 30 or 60 minute timeslots), it is a proper and useful tool for creating fiction in all media, filtering out irrelevant detail to highlight the actual plot. There is a fine line between good World Building, and rambling on about pointless crap. How come people on TV always find a parking spot right outside their destination? Why aren't people shown actually travelling between destinations? Why do highschool classes never seem to last more than three on-air minutes? This is why.
The law can be applied to video games as well, as any detail in the game requires an investment of time to develop, so details of lesser importance get economized: One-off NPCs rarely ever get anything more than a generic sprite/character model, have only the most generic walking animations, and have no name. You can tell that a character will play some role in the plot if they have an unusually complex character model or a headshot next to their dialog (unless plenty of other characters have that same headshot). Plotwise, this serves to separate Round and Flat Characters.
Since artists create video game worlds from scratch, scenery also obeys the law. Say they set a level in a supermarket; a real supermarket stocks thousands of individual products in hundreds of different brands, each and every one with different label designs, and the time it would take to design (or license) all that packaging and trademarks could easily add up to several games' worth of development cycles. So they use a handful of designs over and over. And it works to their favor: We accept less detail because it is not central to the game.
This trope has probably caused more Epileptic Trees than every other trope combined — Dying Dream notwithstanding, as people expect things to have a reason.
Sometimes we see the payoff for a detail later, but we are still not done with it: it will prove to be important in a different way later still: the writers have used Chekhov's Boomerang. The predominant use of Chekhov's Boomerang is to let the writers surprise you.
See also Chekhov's Gun, Chekhov's Gunman. Contrast Nameless Narrative. Responsible for One Degree of Separation and Everyone Is Related. When writers deliberately take advantage of this trope to overwhelm and confuse audiences, see The Walrus Was Paul. Combine this with Rule of Symbolism, and you get Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory.
For the drawing equivalent of this trope, see Rule of Animation Conservation. For the nonhuman equivalent, see Rule of Personification Conservation. When an adaptation removes explanatory details to save time or attention, see Adaptation Explanation Extrication.
When a work flouts this trope and contains lots of little asides that are not necessary, that is Narrative Filigree.
Warning: May contained unmarked spoilers.
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Anime and Manga
Bakuman。 has Mashiro and Takagi using a trick to create an illusion of this in their manga: they reread what they've written so far and spin story arcs and ideas out of off-hand comments and the like.
Subverted in episode 2 of Death Note. Light spends a good chunk of the episode setting up and explaining an elaborate safety mechanism to hide his notebook, and it never comes up again. Instead, the pay-off is more immediate: it gives the audience a quick introduction to Light's personality.
In the manga, when he notices that someone (the people who installed the cameras) entered his room from the state of his no less elaborate door safety mechanism, he infers that they didn't find the notebook because the fire trap didn't go off. His solution to the problem of the cameras is considerably less elaborate. "Hey Ryuk. Go find the cameras and I'll give you some apples."
Football manga Eyeshield 21 does this with every team the main characters go up against. Except for the protagonist's team, every team consists of a few dozen generic nameless players whose faces are usually hidden behind their helmets and two or three important named characters. The latter are inevitably the stars who make all the big plays. You can tell how important a team will be to the story by how many players get names; the first team they play, for example, gets one named player, and after that game they never impact the plot again. Meanwhile, important recurring rival teams get five or six named players, plus coaching staff.
The shaking of hands of Theo and Ricardo. There are four important people in the picture. The two foremost people are the Princess of Hellas and a Megalomesembrian Senator and the other two are the Captain of the Ardiane Knights and Wild Card politician Kurt Godel.
Chizuru's membership in the astronomy club.
Makie's lack of worries about life turn out to have plot relevance later on.
Ala Alba symbol appears repeatedly dozens of chapters before the group is officially formed.
When the series is still pretending to be a standard harem series — every once in a while we see some of the more supernatural girls (mostly Kaede, Eva, Chachamaru, Chao, and Setsuna) just sitting off to on the sidelines, since they don't have any interest in such silly activities.
There is a short arc about a giant whale who had been waiting for fifty years for its pirate friends. It ended and was never mentioned again, and everything could have just been another sad but heartwarming episode. Then, more or less three hundred chapters later, a guy pops out, and surprise!, he was part (actually the last survivor) of that pirate crew. And he ended up joining the main hero's crew.
Lots of old characters, mainly villains, from Buggy to Mr. 3 and Crocodile, were freed from Impel Down and became decisive to plot development. To the amazement of the readers: Silvers Rayleigh, the right hand of the Pirate King Gold Roger, appeared. If you check carefully, his face had already been shown in a single panel of a side flashback almost five hundred chapters before.
Steins;Gate utilizes this trope to the full extent. Every single character actions that were shown will have some kind of significant effect. One best example would be Mayuri's Metal Oopa from episode 1. 22 episodes later it was revealed that the Oopa set off the metal detector at the airport, preventing Dr. Nakabachi from boarding the plane that was fated to crash.
Inverted in Yu Yu Hakusho when Kurama and Hiei are introduced. They, along with another youkai, get into trouble with Spirit World, who only seems to have data on the one with the least relevance to the series as a whole.
In 20thCenturyBoys, perhaps the only thing that doesn't gain major significance later in the plot is the seven year old son of one of the protagonists.
Used to good effect in Jeff Smith's Bone. A map that Smiley Bone finds by random chance in the first issue ends up triggering a chain of memories in Thorn that leads to the eventual climax of the series.
Parodied in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (IDW). Pinkie claims that since she lugged those "bulky" costumes all the way from Ponyville, they have to be useful at some point in the quest. While Rainbow's costume never serves a meaningful purpose, Pinkie's costume is animated to keep an eye on the Changelings after their defeat.
Could double as Chekhov's Gag, considering the fact that both times before the climax it's brought up, it's for humor purposes.
Dropped all over the place in The Sandman. Seemingly minor details end up being plot-centric on a second read.
The seemingly innocuous phrase "I have my responsibilities..." that Morpheus is fond of invoking early and often in the series ends up being such an integral statement of his personality that he would rather die than abandon his realm.
Early in the series, Desire says in a seeming throwaway line that s/he'll "Bring the Kindly Ones down" on Morpheus. That's precisely what happens, though not in the way Desire planned.
Citizen Kane - Playing with this trope is arguably the main conceit: it's a movie about the impossibility of finding the right details. "Rosebud" is an example, as is the famous "girl in the white dress" speech.
In The Dark Knight Rises, when Bruce Wayne and Miranda Tate share a moment in the Wayne Manor, you'll see her bare back and for a brief moment, the camera pauses on a scar that she's got there... a not-so-subtle hint that she's got something harsh in her past..
The Incredibles: the moment Edna Mode starts making a big deal about capes being caught in things, you know that someone else is going to experience a very fatal wardrobe malfunction by movie's end... unless you've read Watchmen, in which case you might write it off as a Shout Out. The costume for the baby, can survive a wide range of extremes, all of which the baby exhibits near the end.
Used to create tension in the final battle of Iron Man. When Tony creates his original power generator, he observes that it could run "something big for 15 minutes." When he is forced to use his original generator after Stane steals his improved model, there is a literal deadline for Iron Man — if he does not beat Ironmonger in less than 15 minutes, he will run out of power and his heart will stop.
Also, the "icing problem."
Parodied in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, when the narrator sarcastically points out the importance of a conversation in his story.
Harry:"I'm so sorry. That was a terrible scene. It's like, why was that in the movie? You think it'll come back later? Hmmm..."
In the German movie, The Lives of Others, when the main character hides his typewriter (he was writing anti-government pieces in Eastern Germany), he notices that his fingertips were covered with the red ink he used. At the end of the movie, he finds the reports of the man who was spying on him, and notices two red fingertips next to his codename, showing him who saved his ass earlier in the movie by hiding his typewriter.
In Megamind there are several single frames where the hero isn't in the trap, which all become revealed to be important later.
Used masterfully in Rango, the climax of the film has the title character use a Chekhov's Armoury to defeat the mayor and save the town.
All the Saw franchise, especially the first one (remember when Jigsaw mentioned having a disease?). The last thirty seconds of each installment usually review such details and make the audience feel proud or ashamed depending on whether they'd realised it previously or not.
In the historical-perspective prologues of the very first book, Pawn of Prophecy, mention the High Places of Korim, which are no more in passing as the location Torak did some stuff... only for it to be the solution to one of the last mysteries of the sequel series The Malloreon10 books later.
At the beginning of Pawn of Prophecy, the first book, the old storyteller brings out a story only to be told in the presence of royalty, even though he's in an ordinary (though pretty wonderful) farm, and glances at Garion. Lo and behold, halfway through the fourth book Garion is crowned the Rivan King. The old storyteller, being Belgarath himself, knew the entire time.
Also in Pawn of Prophecy, Garion mentions to Belgarath in a throwaway line that a fortuneteller once came to Faldor's farm and told Durnik the blacksmith that he would die twice. Funnily enough, in book 5, Durnik dies and is resurrected a chapter or two later. One down, one to go..
Ignored in Joe Haldeman's The Coming. The story follows a lot of characters, most of which ultimately do nothing for the plot. (Seriously, there was even a porn actress thrown in.)
One of Gors criticisms is that John Norman averts this with densely worded depictions of structures, ships, weapons, down to counting the beams and explaining their practical and cultural significance. He also subverts this, as one detail buried in several dry paragraphs can come back as a plot point or a Brick Joke that will go over the heads of readers who skip those portions.
Harry Potter. Enough said. One can wonder whether Rowling loves to re-read her book before writing the ending to insert plotline clues into seemingly trivial details.
Subverted repeatedly in Hawthorne's The House Of The Seven Gables.
Geoph Essex's Lovely Assistant throws a dozen or so random throwaway lines at the reader on almost every page, but paying close attention to the dialogue (especially in conversations with Vincent and Carrie Raymond) will pay off in spades. Also, the final chapter wraps up a surprising number of minor details and even minor moments from the rest of the book, in particular the things Jenny sees in the theatre lobby from Wonderland after she and Calvin do their last magic show together.
Subverted in the book series Personal Effects. The main gimmick of the series is that it encourages the reader to follow up on details mentioned in the books - calling the phone numbers gives you voicemails, and all the websites actually exist. The first printed book even comes packaged with a bunch of handwritten notes and pictures.
At the end of Redshirts, Andrew Dahl figures out that one of his friends, to that point, had been a completely pointless character who had done little, if anything, to further the plot, and had just been along for the ride while all the other characters did all the work. Dahl therefore figured out that his friend must solely exist in the story in order to tell Dahl that he was the main character of the book. He was right.
If someone is invited to a banquet in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then chances are that it's part of a plan to kill them. Most of the banquets without murderous intent go unmentioned, leaving modern readers to wonder why anyone would be stupid enough to go to a banquet in the first place.
Thursday Next - In Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, Thursday is showing Hamlet around the "real world" when she is almost injured/killed by a random accident. She explains to him that, while in the Book World (fiction), this would certainly turn out to be an important clue to something later on, in the real world, such events are meaningless. Because Something Rotten is fictional, it does turn out to be an important clue to something later on.
Douglas Adams is famous for mentioning things in throwaway lines which later turn out to be what the entire plot hinges on. However, he does a fantastic subversion in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (which is itself a book of this trope) - there's a scene where the protagonist is looking into a bathroom, and Adams spends several paragraphs describing the contents of the room, the panelling on the walls, the scuffs on the floor, and so forth, in intricate detail, only to end with "There was also a large horse in the room, taking up most of it."
This trope may also have been parodied with a fictional novel that Arthur Dent reads on the planet Bartledan: Due to a plumbing problem that is only briefly mentioned in the second chapter of the novel, the main character abruptly dies in the penultimate chapter (the rest of its precisely 100,000 words are about road-mending).
Adams also explains the use of this trope in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, stating that "It makes for big fat books such as the American economy thrives on, but it's boring."
PD James' detective novels featuring Adam Dalgleish feature an insane amount of back-story on almost every character. Everything you need to know is in there, but so are an awful lot of things you don't need to know.
Tom Clancy tends to fight this tooth and nail. Paragraphs will be spent describing things other authors would just gloss over. He does love his Technology Porn.
Lots of "masterful" literary works are called so due to complete aversion of this trope. The lady passing on the street is described in extreme detail and is never seen again.
Live Action TV
Austin & Ally: In one episode the characters keep getting packages delivered to their businesses, with a joke being about no-one tipping the delivery guy. This takes place almost at random during the main plot about their businesses constantly getting robbed. Take a guess who the thief is.
In an episode of Charmed Prue finishes talking with someone in her office, that person leaves and then the coffee girl (who we've never seen before) arrives, gives her coffee which had apparently been ordered, receives a compliment, and the scene ends. Yeah. The feeling "why did they just show us a scene of someone receiving coffee" was pretty strong, but it did help remember the coffee/sandwich girl character for when it turned out that, without her knowledge, she was actually the mother of the person who will eventually find a vaccine for demons.
Played with in the video game episode of Community. Upon entering a house, Britta immediately tries to straighten a crooked picture on the wall. Jeff tells her to "stop playing like a girl". Then Britta succeeds, opening a secret passage.
Same for CSI about everything being a clue.
Doctor Who exudes this trope. Vote Saxon was one particularly devious detail given, foreshadowing the final arc. The same thing happened with Arc Words "Bad Wolf".
In the Season Four episode, "Partners in Crime", the taxi that was meant to pick up Stacy, who died from Adipose conversion had an ATMOS sticker on the front, foreshadowing The Sontaran Stratagem.
It may just be nothing, but in Season One, Mickey Smith finishes one of Captain Jack's anecdotes for him:
In EUReKA, any and all interesting new technologies presented or talked about early in the episode is inevitably going to turn out to be either A) part of the cause of that week's crisis, or B) part of the solution to said crisis.
In one episode of Goosebumps we see the parents of a kid protagonist working on something. It turns out it was a device to expose invisible people and the plot had an invisible friend.
How I Met Your Mother - A fan theory regarding the identity of the mother relies on this trope. In season 3, Ted bumps into a girl at a party that he reveals the mother was at. The scene is at most 3 seconds. Ergo, due to conservation of detail, she is the mother.
Lampshadedconstantly on Jonathan Creek in which the titular detective notes apparently pointless bits of general knowledge which become crucial in solving the mystery. At one stage, after ascertaining that an elderly client buys fish-food at a market and getting a baffled look in reply, The Watson wryly comments: "Don't worry, it'll have some deep significance that is invisible to us mere mortals."
But also quite often averted, as well; especially in the longer episodes where we learn a lot of details about the crime that ultimately turn out to be meaningless. At least once, Jonathan has noted an observation aloud, and when asked what it means, he says he doesn't know. Some of those things simply never get mentioned again.
The Leverage team needs to create elaborate schemes in order to manipulate their mark. This means that side comments to the mark often end up being important later, and their importance becomes apparent during the "how it was done" flashback scenes. This is a trait shared with it's spiritual predecessor Hustle.
On an episode of Merlin, the bad guys kidnap Gaius and take him to an Abandoned Mine, where there is an extended shot of their feet walking through the distinctive reddish-brown mud. This becomes an important clue that Merlin uses to deduce where Gaius has been taken, after noticing it on their boots.
Used judiciously on Monk. Every single random detail comes into use. Character pronounces a word differently? Clue. Has only an aunt for family? Clue. Orange juice jug empty? Clue. Bike comes with a lock? Clue. Meanwhile, the protagonist's skill is noticing and remembering everything, even though he sees more of his world than the viewer and it thus doesn't follow this trope for him. A viewer aware of the trope can still use it to guess the answers before him.
Parodied on the DVD commentary for the final episode of The Office (UK). Gervais and Merchant lampshade the "Secret Santa" game, commenting on its apparent insignificance to the plot, and how it definitely won't become relevant later.
On an episode of Once Upon a Time, Kathryn bumps into a character we've never seen before at the school, and the camera dwells for a moment on his confused face. Back in fairytale land, he ends up being her true love: a knight turned into a gold statue, whose face was hidden beneath a visor up until the end of the episode.
Psych takes it to a whole new level though, by zooming in and highlighting the clue (or flashing back 10 seconds to some relevant thing someone said) while Shaun makes his squinty-I-just-saw-a-clue-face (as Lamp Shaded by Gus when he eventually points out that he sees many of the same clues Shaun does, but doesn't need to make a face about it).
Seinfeld did the opposite and focused on silly things(like the parking spots mentioned above), yet it was still funny. Curb Your Enthusiasm after it, however, was completely made up of small details and barely had anything else, which is why it is awesome.
On a time-travelling episode of Smallville Clark and Chloe walk through the busy work-space of the Daily Planet in which their collegues are partaking in some rather noticeable activites: someone gets a huge bouquet of flowers, someone else trips over, and so on. The camera lingers on them the first time around so that Clark can accurately describe their activities to Chloe when the time-travel kicks in and he needs to convince her of their situation (that the day is repeating).
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Played straight during a series regarding the Dominion, which was mentioned in passing in the first episode it showed up in and was on the verge of taking over the Federation a few seasons later.
The extra material on the DVDs even makes note that they were first mentioned in a Ferengi episode, where fans expect nothing to have a lasting effect.
In the episode Time's Orphan it's done a bit heavy handed when Keiko gives little Molly a shiny silver bracelet and the music swells for a moment before going back to normal. Guess what feral Molly is wearing when they pull her back from the past?
On one episode of 24, Jack is captured and forced to give bad tactical information to CTU. He ends the information by declaring he is in a "flank-two position". Given that the series is all about time constraints, it's reasonable for viewers to assume that any apparently-innocuous dialogue that's not technobabble is important. In-character, the terrorists holding Jack just assume its standard tactical talk. Naturally, it turns out to be the duress phrase. Except that CTU changed the duress phrase since Jack was last part of it, and they barely pick up on it before it's too late.
In the mini-series Whitechapel, the police investigative team occasionally visit the local hospital for information where the camera always takes the time to linger on a red-headed nurse. This being a History Repeats premise concerning a Jack the Ripoff, many viewers probably guessed in advance the significance of a red-headed woman...
Dungeons & Dragons occasionally uses this trope to explain why all the magic and gear seems designed for folks crawling into caverns, killing ugly people, and taking their stuff. The local magicians probably do make magical plows to help farmers, magical compasses for navigators, and so on. However, since players don't care about most of this stuff most of the time, let's cut back to the stuff that will affect the world as players experience it.
Eberron outright states this in its campaign setting.
One article of Dragon Magazine was dedicated to listing such mundane magic items.
Paranoia recommends that Game Masters occasionally roll the dice for no reason other than making the players nervous.
Risus too in order to help with improvising off what the players speculate the roll was for.
One RPG group went by the tenet that 'Any woman or plant the GM bothers to describe is a trap.' The GM caught on and ran them through an adventure that could roughly be described as 'The Magic Greenhouse Land of Amazons'.
Similarly, whenever the DM makes a hidden roll or asks for a spot or listen check (that they fail), the players will assume something is going on and, if they're bad metagamers, try to act on it. Incidentally, few things unnerve a player as much as rolling really well on a spot check and being told, "No, you don't see anything of importance..."
Similarly: profiles in Justice for All and Trials & Tribulations. The lawyer's badge gets used once or twice outside of the courtroom. You even had to present the screwdriver, which had importance exactly because it has no importance at all, which throws suspicion on the suspect's reasoning for having Edgeworth personally pick it up in the first place.
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies mission "Deep Strike" is set in an area with a ravine leading from the target area back to the RTB line. After splashing the targets, you get notice that Stonehenge is firing your way and have to take your plane below 2000 feet in order to make it out of the area. The only way to do that? Why, the ravine. It also shows up in the "Megalith" mission. Those other missiles within reach aren't just for show.
X: Skies of Deception is also in love with this. It's particularly obvious after you play both halves - or, in one case, all three thirdths - of a Remixed Level. Most of them.
In Amnesia The Dark Descent there are many many books and shelves full of books but there are only about five book models in the engine. However they are often cunningly arranged on the shelves to give the illusion, albeit paper-thin, of variety. In fact it's not something you really notice, what with trying to keep from being eaten by monsters, until you have to solve a bookshelf puzzle fairly early in the game. The books you have to pull to open the secret passage are all tall, thick, protrude farther out on the shelf than the other books, and are white (whereas every other book in the game is either red, blue, green, or brown) making them incredibly easy to spot even without any light. It's a bit disappointing because the in-game dialogue sets it up as something really challenging.. After that, it's hard not to notice it.
Subverted in Chrono Cross. Of the portraits that characters have, forty of them are playable characters, five of them are alternate versions of the playable characters, and twenty six of them are NPCs. Of the NPCs, one is unimportant: a shopkeeper you meet early on. Throughout the game you become convinced she'll be important, but she never does, being the only one of the Loads and Loads of Characters who isn't.
The shopkeeper, however, is related to Funguy. Every single NPC with a character portrait seems to be related to one of the PCs.
Averted in the Deus Ex series, there's dozens of characters you can talk to that have no impact on the plot and serve no purpose, and there's lots of virtual books that are interesting to read but don't really serve any actual purpose.
RPG Classic Divine Divinity takes this trope and uses a sledgehammer to destroy it. It contains innummerable amounts of plot-unrelated or useless things like kitchen ware, pictures, junk and all sorts of other things that can be bought or sold for no reason or moved around yet not used for anything useful. It also contains a lot of books, most of which are highly entertaining short stories and at least two longer series, one about an Ork pirate and his adventures. Others show spells and demon summoning or are about the ingame world, describing plants, animals and monsters.
In Dragon Age: Origins, if a party member didn't have an approval bar he wouldn't be a permanent party member.
Subverted in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening where they introduced Mhairi, a potential Grey Warden. Before the game got released she got treated the same as any other character, receiving her own trailer and character page. When you play the game, she has an approval bar and can gain XP. All this trouble only for her to die during the Joining after the opening segment.
This is similar to the character of Ling in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars who was prominently featured in promotional material, has a spot on the box cover, and has her own character bio at the official website, so it's a bit surprising that she's killed off as soon as you meet her.
Subverted in Dragon Quest IX. The world map is a fairly large place, but not all of it is covered with interesting things. A lot of the dead-ends are covered in item gathering points, and eventually you find maps to grottoes, randomly-generated dungeons that are invisible on the world map until you "search" them with the A button. However, most of these grottoes rarely stray far from the beaten path, and a noticeable amount of areas on the world map end up never becoming the slightest bit notable. The Eastern Stornway area is particularly empty; the enemy encounters there are nearly identical to the Western Stornway area, there's very few grottoes in the area, and a single item-gathering point (seashells, on the southern stretch of beach). The bulk of the Eastern Stornway area, including the entire northern beach, remains unused.
Played straight with characters, though. Plot-important NPCs generally get 3D sprites. Generic ones are all 2D sprites, recycled throughout the game.
Averted in DreamWeb - there's plenty of items you can take, but the most of them are useless, and would just clutter your inventory. (things like plates, cups, lighters, and so on).
Averted somewhat in EarthBound due to useless items like the Protractor and Ruler. Some NPCs don't say anything useful, but are there to add witty lines. Finally, there are plenty of food items that are usable, but impractical by the time you reach them. Sure, eating a hamburger in combat (effectively instantly, and with no chance of indigestion!) is funny, but PSI powers are generally far more practical.
Averted in The Elder Scrolls series, most notably the more recent offerings. The sheer amount of useless items dropped into the environment (paintbrushes, mugs, flatware, etc.) threatens to boggle the mind.
Being on the same engine, Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas do the same. However, a shrewd player will be able to tell important items from the rest of the Vendor Trash and Cow Tools that litter the level. The older ones had TV dinners, popcorns, nuka-colas, pocket lint, and others that do nothing but take up space in your inventory. You can also examine rocks. Do it enough times and your character will cry out in frustration.
Used in a different way in the first two Fallout games. The point-and-click aspect leads to a prevalence of "examining" objects similar to Wasteland. Therefore, even if the character sprites are the same, a player can tell the difference this way. Upon examining two men in leather jackets, you might see this:
You see a bar patron.
You see a short, stocky man. He has the confident, relaxed stance of an experienced fighter.
Also used hilariously for innocuous items that aren't really meant to be examined. Upon examining a pile of rocks:
—You see a large pile of rocks.
—You keep a close eye on these rocks, in case they move to attack you.
Square's been subverting this trope since the first Final Fantasy. Coneria Town, the first city you can visit, has a well that you can inspect:
This is a well. You might think that there is something to it... But in fact it is just an ordinary well.
The infamous '1/35 Soldier' items in Final Fantasy VII ("Collect all 12!") were hard to find more than a handful of and had no function (also the 'Custom Sweeper'). In a game famous for its confusing translations, these may have been supposed to be actual toys in-universe.
In Fire Emblem, almost all enemy or NPC with unique sprites and more then a few lines of dialogue is either a boss or recruitable. Which is understandable, considering how many enemies you end up facing.
The Godfather: The Game subverts this. There are various places that appear different on the map, many a locked door... While some of them are indeed significant, quite a few of those are Red Herrings that aren't of any consequence whatsoever, even in sidequests.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, the dirt bike seemed to be an incredibly useless bike: not as fast as the speed bikes, not as cool-looking as the choppers, not as cool-sounding as any of the bikes. But, provided you choose the right storyline, Niko uses a dirt bike to chase Pegorino in a helicopter. (Needless to say, the dirt bike also enables a Crowning Moment of Awesome).
Subverted in Knights In The Nightmare. The added artbook gives details on all of the units and all of the knights, including age, personality, relationships with the other knights, and character portraits. This is actually important to using the transoul feature.
Near the beginning of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask we find a masked character that manually opens doors unlike every other NPC in the entire game. This tiny fact foreshadows just how long his particular sidequest will go on for and how important he really is. He even temporarily becomes a PC.
You also get a notebook that is useful for sidequests — of which the game has many. Any NPC who appears in this notebook after talking to you has a mask to give you. Characters that do not appear in the notebook are not important for sidequests, though they may still be important to the plot.
Subverted in Mega Man ZX Advent due to its attempts to avert You All Look Familiar, where everyone you meet has different designs and personalities, except for the guys in uniform, who still act different. In other words, trying to rely on this trope to see who is important is completely pointless for this game. Though, as in all Mega Man games, the only ultimately really important ones are the robot animals/things actively shooting you.
The Mega Man Battle Network series is a strong example. Since there seem to be Only Six Faces used for all the generic NPCs ever, anyone with a unique sprite is bound to have a NetNavi that you will eventually fight and/or befriend. It is particularly noticeable in Battle Network 5, since you are in the process of building an anti-terrorism task force; if you're told to be on the lookout for a new member, expect the very next place you enter to have an NPC with a unique sprite, and expect that exact same member to be the operator of the next Navi to join your team.
In Persona 3 Portable, the PSP rerelease of Persona 3, a random faceless character was added in the game's bar/night club. He makes some pretty ominous statements throughout the game, but the last thing he says near the end of the game is followed by a portrait. This leads fans to believe that due to the Law of Conservation of Detail, he is important. Turns out he's a character named Vincent, protagonist of an Atlus psychological horror game titled Catherine.
Persona 4 exemplifies this trope. Every little nagging detail has meaning — every detail. The guy who gets rejected by Yukiko at the beginning of the game? Serial killer suspect. Turns out to be a copycat. The council secretary who is having an affair? Serial killer suspect. Turns out he was being duped. The TV announcer he was having the affair with? Murder victim. The bumbling detective who can't keep his mouth shut? The serial killer. The gas station attendant you shake hands with in one of the very first scenes? The one behind everything that happens in the entire game. The list goes on.
Subverted with the first generation of the Pokémon games. There's a one-of-a-kind truck in the game (vehicles aren't seen anywhere else in the game since the preferred methods of travel are walking and flying or surfing on Pokémon) that can only be seen under very specific conditions at a certain point in the game before being Lost Forever (although there are ways to return to it later in the game); a very high percentage of players would not see it while playing through the game. Endless rumors were spouted about the truck, such as finding a Mew there, etc.; however, the truck actually had no real significance at all. The rest of the series just follow this trope in every possible way.
In the first Resident Evil game, there's a single empty room in Jill's storyline. No puzzles, no items, no enemies. Turns out it's only important in Chris' scenario.
Averted in Shenmue. The town is full of buildings you can enter and characters you can talk to, but only a handful of them are important in any way.
Subverted in Suikoden II, however. There's a character with a portrait and a name (Ellie) that is neither a Star nor important to the story at all. She exists for one reason: In the quest that's unlocked if you load Suikoden I data at the start of the game, Tir McDohl joins your party while Gremio occupies a Convoy space. However, if you failed to resurrect Gremio in the S1 file you loaded, he'll be dead in this game, and Eilie will take his place in the plot, occupying the convoy and speaking his lines instead.
This trope is guaranteed to drive Team Fortress 2 Soldiers and Demomen to madness, especially on new maps, because the maps are all highly detailed, with lots of items to interact with, but also to give a map more flavor. The main reason for the frustration is that these are the two classes who get the most out of the Rocket Jump (or Bomb Jump for Demomen), and a map with a lot of detailed protrusions will not necessarily indicate which ones are solid platforms which can be jumped to and either traversed or used for a height advantage, and which ones are intangible set dressing. For instance, Thunder Mountain which takes place on a cliffside logging mill. There are models of logs suspended over a Bottomless Pit that look like dangerous but rewarding paths to target areas...where some parts of the crane holding up the log are solid, useful platforms and others are not, with no indication as to which is which. Some players will jump onto the log, find it solid, then try to jump onto the crane, thinking it's also a platform, and finding out it isn't after plummeting to their doom.
Also the whole point of the 'Prop Hunt' mode, which is Hide and Go Seek with fire. One team of Scouts is disguised as a collection of world items and must remain Hidden in Plain Sight against a team of Pyros who must hunt them down with flamethrowers. The challenge is that Pyros lose health when using their weapons, and must avoid dying while discerning which of the numerous highly detailed, cartoony objects on the map are decoys to be ignored and which are Scouts to be ignited. Certain Prophunt maps even intentionally clip two pieces of scenery together just to make it look like a bad attempt at hiding.
Lampshaded in .hack//. Several characters wonder why the graphics in the Hulle Granz Cathedral are so gorgeous when there's absolutely nothing there. The Cathedral is in fact one of the most important areas in the entire franchise (every single story has something important happen there), but within the context of the Game Within a Game, there really isn't anything there.
Avoided in Metal Gear, Snatcher, Policenauts and anything Hideo Kojima does, because of his obsessive-compulsive insanity. He cannot stand to not worldbuild. The only people who care about the incredibly elaborate tragic backstories, sex lives and namedropping pertaining to characters who show up once and then die - and the endless infodumps about guns and items and nuclear weapons and the future and useless metagame trivia - are going to be fanfiction writers. For the most part, backstory events will be mentioned inconsequentially to add a little flavour to a character.
For example, Hideo Kojima designed every desk in the first Metal Gear Solid separately. Every single desk! You have to respect a man who puts in that much work. And at least in Metal Gear Solid Kojima-san was nice enough to let players skip all that and go right to the neck-snapping if they want.
Many an Urban Legend of Zelda was started thanks to this trope. Back in the day, when more rudimentary technology meant a much stricter enforcement of this, people took it for granted that only the important stuff would get detailed. So as technology got better and developers started averting this trope for the sake of providing a richer gaming world, gamers payed attention to neat but nonessential details (e.g. the Mario character portraits seen through a window in Ocarina of Time) and thought that they had some greater significance.
Modern Interactive Fiction loves this. One-room games where the player must use everything in the room are common—if there's a wad of gum in the trash can, sooner or later that will be an important wad of gum. From playing these games, audiences come to expect this, too, making it a self-fulfilling cycle: If your game mentions the walls, players will get mad if the walls aren't fully implemented.
One Sega CD role playing game would say things like "Who would talk to a cow" if you talked to the cow, as all role players will do. Also mentioned "Wow the guards and castle are laid out exactly the same in this castle as they were in the last one. Maybe that is to show how the two kingdoms are very closely tied, or maybe the programmers were just lazy."
Since every object in a game has to be created from scratch, unlike, say, movies, where the world conveniently exists already, this is inevitable in video games of all types with regard to the environment. There simply aren't the resources in terms of textures or manpower to create, say, five hundred unique cars, or thousands of different books to fill a library that only makes up part of a single level. Some games have started creating procedural plant life and mooks, but man-made products are likely to always be subject to this trope.
Any newspapers you see will always be either the cover or a single page with a story relevant to the game, even if they're supposed to be random pages blowing in the wind.
Books will usually be relevant to the plot or at least relevant to its message; an evil doctor might have fifty copies of Frankenstein lining his various shelves, for example.
Industrial equipment will usually look brand-new and catalog-fresh, with no signs of wear and tear and everyone mysteriously using just one brand of any given piece of equipment. (If an object does look worn, every other one of those objects will be worn in exactly the same way.)
Buildings that aren't falling down for plot reasons will look like they've just been finished and certainly never lived in.
In any game without an inventory system (and many with), no matter what is displayed on a vending machine, using or destroying it will cause it to dispense exactly one type of product, usually cans with no discernable logo.
If you're going through an office, any desk, office or cubicle which contains significantly more objects than normal will belong to a character important to the plot in some way. This also tends to apply to houses in Adventure Towns. If not, the clutter will be part of a puzzle of some kind.
All guns use the same types of ammo. If you do get ammo for a gun you don't have, you'll have a chance to acquire it later. Even uncommon types tend to be just lying around in plain sight. Any given type of ammo will be in the same type of box, and any gun cabinets will be unlocked. If it is locked, you'll need a puzzle to find the key, instead of just finding the owner, or their body. Strangely, gun cabinets tend to the same types of problems encountered with barricaded doors above.
In El Goonish Shive the author had intended for a one off character(the principal of a school specificaly) to have a massive scar and eyepatch. Due to this law he chose not to since he had no explanation planned for them.
Goblins - A strip introduces a prominent glass window on an inn. Prominent and shiny. MinMax is forbidden to smash it. There is exactly zero chance the window will remain intact.
Lampshaded in The Order of the Stick when Elan meets Julio Scoundrél. Elan, who wants to get on an airship to get to Azure City from Cliffport, starts a conversation with a random man in the tavern. It turns out that this man is actually an airship captain. See quotes page for the conversation.
Also doubly subverted in chapter 454, where Haley fires four arrows to hit the goblin leaders so they take notice of them and fight them instead of entering the castle. After four panels, all of the arrow miss:
Haley: I mean, why spend four panels watching the arrow if it wasn't going to do anything???
Hinjo: It got someone's attention, all right... Just not the right someones.
Cue the entire goblin legion aiming their bows at them.
Recently lampshaded on page 889, when they awaken from a wish-fulfillment illusion:
Elan: Plus, it woulda been weird for everyone to mention that Girard was into illusions and then not see, like, *any*. Who wastes perfectly good foreshadowing like that?
The Phase novels of the Whateley Universe seem to run on this trope. There's so much detail you can't tell what's going to be important in this chapter, and what's going to matter at the end of the book, and what will be crucial three novels later. In book 4, Phase becomes insistent that fellow student could be an avatar of Hera. (He's right, but no one believes him then.) Then he works out from that who the other Greek gods are. In book 7, this knowledge is critical to getting the team out of a holographic simulation that has been rigged to kill them.
A Gargoyles episode started with Brooklyn making a remark about mosquitoes. While that alone was unusual, by the time a second one was mentioned, it became obvious they will be vital to the plot. Turns out they were drones used by Demona to collect blood samples from the Gargoyles, so Sevarius could clone them.
Averted by Pixar with the Pixarpedia - even sub-minor characters, such as nameless, faceless, do-nothing bystanders get an entry in the encyclopedia.
One episode of Stoked featured the Ridgemounts (minus Lo) planning a trip to Thailand and one of Lo's friends recorded on Smartphone what she thought of them for that. Later, they record evidence that Lo's big brother's girlfriend was a Gold Digger. Guess what Lo showed her family.
In Winx Club season 3, viewers expected that Chimera being a fairy studying at Beta Academy would become important, and complained about plot waste when it proved otherwise. During the same season, Aisha briefly mentions that some places still have Arranged Marriages, and later she discovers that she's been placed into one.
There are many random mutants released from Genosha in the Slave Island episode of X-Men. Except they aren't so random at all, seeing how Mystique is one of them. The Blob is also there, and several others who will become important in later episodes.