A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot element that exists for the purpose of attracting the player's attention, or motivating characters in the story, but beyond that has little genuine importance besides advancing the story. The MacGuffin is usually a highly sought after object of some kind which players must either seek out, or characters express a desire to find, often at great personal risk or disproportionate cost. Upon finding or discovering it, the MacGuffin may be promptly forgotten or no longer mentioned, since it has outlived its usefulness to the story and is no longer relevant. Furthermore, it may be supplanted by a new, apparently even more important MacGuffin. In itself, any single MacGuffin has no value: It only has value because it is sought after by characters or organizations within a story, and therefore the search for it helps to advance that story.
The term was first coined by film director Alfred Hitchcock, who used it often with his films. He explained it at a lecture at Columbia University in 1939 as "the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." Famous MacGuffins in film include the titular Maltese Falcon from the 1941 film, and the contents of the suitcase in 1994's Pulp Fiction. The MacGuffin is also an extremely common device in video games, although its presence is often overlooked as the MacGuffin is usually thought of in reference to film and cinema, given its connection to Hitchcock. Nonetheless, it continues to feature in many video games.
Usage in Video Games
In most instances, a MacGuffin should be either immensely valuable, or have enough importance in the storyline to encourage both villains or protagonists to actively seek it. For example, standard fetch quests are numerous instances of players being tasked to find various numbers of MacGuffins and return them to NPCs in order to progress with the story. Here, MacGuffins can be anything from ordinary feathers to coins or bales of hay, depending on what the NPC specifies as desiring. Classic examples include the mysterious treasure of Big Whoop from the Monkey Island series, the diamonds within Grand Theft Auto IV (drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Pulp Fiction), or the Conduit within Mass Effect. The Empty Lot in Yakuza 0 is another typical example, in that the Empty Lot drives the entire plot of the game, but is otherwise unimportant outside of the desires and motives of the key characters.
The USG Ishimura from Dead Space or the Von Braun from System Shock 2 can also be interpreted as another kind of MacGuffin, that of a "Big Dumb Object," which is common within science fiction. The ships both exist as the location for the main drama within their storylines, but also gives a great sense of wonder and mysterious intrigue by simply existing in their desolate state. It is the unusual condition of the starships that prompts further investigation. The name "Big Dumb Object" is meant to be understood in an amusing fashion, since the objects themselves are usually made out to be the exact opposite. The Crucible in Mass Effect 3 is another example of a "Big Dumb Object", since its true purpose and origin remains a mystery until the finale.