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Video Game Storytelling: Why Minecraft Matters

A lot of people don’t seem to realize it, but Minecraft’s survival mode is one of the most effective emergent storytelling games ever made. No linear storyline, quests, dialog, or cutscenes. Just you, your friends, and your story, and once you’ve been playing for a few hours you certainly have one. You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do in the game. Some people will tell you to build a metropolis while others may expect you to map out the continent. I myself play the game in a manner that matches up with the personality of a Lord of the Rings dwarf. After only a few hours everyone ends up with something in the game that they place value in. Playing with others online just enhances the experience because you all try to work together while each pursuing your own personal goals. As a result your randomly generated world that no one has seen before feels all the more alive as others are shaping it around you.

The following is not a fan fiction or a fabrication on any level.  This is an example of what it’s like to play Minecraft (excluding creative mode) and a testament to how important the game is to storytelling in video games.

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I was just playing last night. Ana, Andrew and I realized that our house on the lake was cumbersome and dangerous to reach, but we had already found an abandoned mineshaft nearby. As Ana was learning to play and Andrew was out gathering food and wood I hollowed out a large cube in one of the outlying tunnels and set up doorways so that we would have a secure base of operations in all of the madness.

I set out through one of my new underground doors to explore the caverns, placing torches as I went along. I encountered a handful of zombies, but it was nothing that my pathetic iron sword couldn’t handle. Moving downward, I soon encountered the peculiar sight of a lava flow that was being intercepted by water leaking through the ceiling. The result was an obsidian bridge that allowed me to continue on, but I had to be careful not to let the water push me to my death.

Andrew was fighting for his life up on the surface as he tried to gather wood in a world where dangerous monsters wander randomly through the darkness.  Ana, afraid to move, stood still within our shelter as zombies clawed at two of the three doors.

I encountered riches at a frequency that I had never seen before. Within the hour I already had hundreds of coal and redstone, about half as much iron, and even a dozen gold! I knew that I should turn back, but I was having so much fun exploring and I just had to see where this path was taking me. After all, the cavern had to end sooner or later? Right?

“SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS”

A CREEPER! Terrified, I scrambled to look in every direction at once. I was carrying an absurd amount of loot and had no reliable way to find it all if I died here. Being close to that green, phallic monstrosity for even a moment could mean an explosive death. I spotted some green after a moment, but it was just a leg? I let out a relieved chuckle when I realized that the creature was trapped behind a block with a small, window-like opening between us that neither of us could traverse. Amused, I prodded it a few times with my sword, careful to jump back each time in case it set off like a bomb.

The third cowardly strike sent it back a few feet and it detonated, but not before plummeting down into the darkness. Intrigued, I use my pickaxe to widen the opening. Peering out in to the darkness, I couldn’t see any walls. I carefully crept out to the very edge so that I could look up and secure a torch to the wall above my opening. Fresh light pushed the darkness back, but it still wasn’t enough. There was clearly a wall in front of me and a floor roughly ten blocks below, but there was nothing but darkness to both my left and right.  Undeterred, I poured sand over the ledge in order to create a staircase of sorts that would safely bring me to the bottom of this buried ravine.

Back at our underground house Andrew had gotten back with his supply of wood, wool, and meat.  He and Ana were both safe, well fed, and had beds to sleep in.  Quickly learning how this world works, Ana had already begun to mine on her own under Andrew’s watchful eye.

I could hear a spider, but I had no idea where it was.  Those bastards have a nasty habit of climbing walls and hiding near the ceiling of tall spaces like this one, taunting the player with the sounds that cannot be joined with sight.  I methodically spread torches throughout the area until I was convinced that I was in no immediate danger, and the glint of a light blue speck caught my eye on the opposite wall above.  Diamonds!  Diamonds are among the most useful and rare materials in Minecraft, so I dropped everything and started making a cobblestone ramp that would help me reach the precious rarity.  I gathered them as quickly as I could, but I had forgotten about the spider.  My screen filled with black and brown as it landed on me and sent me plummeting to the ground.  Frantic, I just started swinging wildly with my pick to fend it off, forgetting about my sword altogether.

The spider died eventually, but I was dismayed to find that I had lost more than half of my vitality and knew that my starving character would not be regenerating on my own.  Worse yet, I realized that I had no idea where I was.  I thought back to the path I had taken, but could not follow it with my mind.  It wove around aimlessly, crossing itself underground countless times.  Abandoned mines that were fully lit and present before I had even arrived would only add to the confusion.  I glanced at my mound of sand and noticed that it no longer formed a consistent slope.  While I was mining or fighting and Enderman must have wandered in and taken a block before departing.  Endermen are tall, spindly creatures that seem to absorb all light aside from their glowing purple eyes.  I cautiously looked around the area with my peripheral vision, being careful not to look directly at the creature because that would send it into a rampage.  I found nothing and continued on to explore more of the cave after using my fresh diamonds to craft a study helmet.  This was likely my biggest mistake of the night.

Ana’s first pickaxe broke.  She seemed genuinely saddened by this and apologized.  Andrew assured her that it wasn’t a big deal and pushed her to continue her work.

After an hour had passed I had grown only more lost and my supplies were dwindling.  Out of options, I resolved to dig upward at a 45 degree angle so that I could reach the surface and find food.  My final pickaxe broke just before I reached the surface, so I was forced to find an outcrop that was made of dirt rather than stone and dig my way out by hand.  Calming music began to play and I realized that I must be near the surface and that the sun was just coming up.  Encouraged, I continued to dig, but when the next block was removed water began to pour into my tiny passage.  I blocked the hole again quickly, but not before a stream slipped past me and down the shaft.  As it extinguished many of the torches I knew that I had to work fast to reach the surface.  The spiders and creepers would be making their way through their new-found darkness.

I dug horizontally until my path collided with more stone.  Hoping that I had evaded the body of water I encountered earlier I moved upward once again.  Water streamed into my space once more, but I made no movement to stop it.  It was raining.  I dug out a small staircase to the surface and marked it with torches before stepping outside.  What I saw was entirely alien to me.  The grass was a darker color, nearly half of the horizon was water, and the trees were covered in long vines.

I couldn’t tell what time it was due to the rain and clouds, so I threw together a hasty shelter.  After a few minutes I had a 6x6x5 block house, a chest to keep my findings in, and a bed.  Alone in unexplored territory and unsure of what would happen, I logged out for the night.

I don’t know for sure what readers will take from this story.  Minecraft players might find something to relate to, but what I really hope is that people who have been on the fence or quick to dismiss this game will gain a new perspective on it.  We all know that millions of players find Minecraft addictive, but we haven’t necessarily agreed on why.  Some feel that it is because of the building mechanics, which are among the first things that uninitiated players dismiss.

I propose that story is what makes Minecraft so special.  Games like Uncharted get unreal praise for their story, writing, and characters, but when critics do so they are essentially praising Naughty Dog for doing their best film studio impression.  Far too often games try to be the best movie or book that they can be rather than explore what strengths are unique to gaming.  Minecraft throws you into a randomly generated world, but not just any one.  It’s a world that was created based on a word or sequence of letters that you chose yourself.  You gave birth to their entire realm and it is yours to explore.

No one plays Minecraft the same way.  The game may seem simple, but somehow every single player ends up creating a unique set of goals and values to apply to their experience.  This makes multiplayer especially engaging because everyone’s unique take on the game will work to the supplement or even detriment of others in incredibly interesting ways.  Whether you all realize it or not, you’re working together to progress your own story and that’s what keeps you engaged.  Minecraft doesn’t manipulate you by showering you meaningless rewards and encouragement in the way that more MMORPGs and multiplayer shooters do.  Instead it rewards you by simply allowing you to do.

Your actions actually have distinct implications and if you take the time to think about them you can learn a surprising things about yourself.  In the story you just read I let my curiosity and sense of adventure overcome my need for security.  I had spend a great deal of time gathering the resources I was carrying, but I was willing to risk them all just to see where that buried ravine was going to take me.  The fact that I built a bed in my pathetic little shack had real meaning.  If you die in Minecraft you respawn at the location where you first appeared in the world.  This meant that I could have simply died at any point and been reunited with Andrew and Ana to continue adventuring together, but I would have lost all of my items because I had no idea where my tiny house was.  Once you sleep in a bed that becomes your respawn point.  By doing so I made the active decision to remain isolated from my friends in order to keep what I had built and found.  I’m not going to advocate or denounce that decision, but I know for a fact that not everyone would have done the same thing.

That’s what keeps things interesting.  You can’t know how you will react to a situation until you’re in it, and no one will act in quite the same way.  The world is constantly being reshaped by the actions of yourself and others, and it is all completely unique to you.  I’ve been playing Minecraft for nearly nine months and I can safely say that my greatest triumphs and defeats in gaming have been in this game.  It shows us just how effective games can be at engaging players in a completely personal story, and deserves much more than to be dismissed by ignorant gamers who can’t accept that a game can be fun without a brown palette, grunting homoerotic men, and explosions.

I don’t have a clue about what will happen next in my story, but I want nothing more than to find out.

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Learn more the author of this post:

Keith Ballard
I run a gaming channel on Youtube called TheSaDGames and occasionally write about games. I can be contacted on Twitter as @SebastianSB.
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