Narrative in Minecraft

I’ve been playing a fair amount of Minecraft recently, and I figured that I would write a series of blog posts about: narrative in the game, the community, and my experiences hosting a server.

For those who don’t know about Minecraft, here’s an introductory video:

On the face of it, Minecraft is a simple game. There are no explicit objectives or story – just a blocky world in which players can mine resources and build structures. It appears to be just a playground – void of narrative and themes.

That being said, it’s the strong implicit objectives and stories that create the player experience. Rather than rigidly defining a story like a book or film, the game acts as a subtle narrative mirror. Within its environment and events, it creates emotive situations in which players write their own personal stories.

Each player’s story is unique, but likely familiar to any other player. I suppose it’s like a “reading” of a novel. Part of the story is written by the author, but a large part is constructed by the reader (based on their personal experiences and views).

Here’s a common reading of the first hour or so of Minecraft:

I find myself alone in an idyllic world full of greener-than-green grass and bluer-than-blue sky. There are trees, and mountains, and streams. I wander around seeking a higher vantage point. The world seems to go on forever. It’s quiet and peaceful.

I dig holes and collect dirt. I cut wood from trees, but for some reason they don’t fall over. The disconnected sections just float there in some old Warner Bros. cartoon. This world is unlike my own.

Gentle music plays and the world begins to turn dark. A square moon slowly rises into the night sky. I hear something: “Braaahhhh”. I’m being attacked by monsters! I try to run, but I can’t escape. I die.

Shortly after death, I’m resurrected nearby. I barely make out the silhouette of the monster that killed me. It’s standing in a pile of dirt and wood. The dirt and wood that I so painstakingly procured!

Throughout the night I die and reappear numerous times. I’m frustrated and a little embarrassed by my powerlessness. I read about what to do and formulate a plan to survive the next night.

As the the sun appears, I breath a sigh of relief. Many of the monsters burn to ash as the sunlight touches them. Phew! Others remain, but they are easily avoided in the light of day.

I recover the wood I collected earlier and make wooden planks. I construct a workbench and build an axe, and a pick so that I can collect coal. I build a rudimentary house and light it up with torches.

When night falls again, I hide in my house and block the entrance with a pile of dirt. I can hear monsters groaning outside. I feel trapped, but safe. I’ll gather more resources in the morning.

After the initial experience, Minecraft poses many questions to the player:

  1. What is out there? Beyond that sea? Underneath your feet?
  2. If you could build anything, what would you build?
  3. How should one live within the environment?
  4. Why is this room here? Who built this?

And players will often reach similar conclusions:

  1. There are many exciting things to discover, many just beneath you.
  2. I’ll end up building something that reflects my personality.
  3. It’s best to utilise and complement what is already there.
  4. It’s a mystery… what does the author have in mind?

I can appreciate that many of these themes may not have been placed there (consciously) by the creators of the game, but they are there. Maybe an indicator of good writing (and game design) is that universal stories are ingrained in the work.

Those experiences, those questions, and the audience’s participation in interpreting them – form the basis of truly great art, and a fantastic game.

3 thoughts on “Narrative in Minecraft”

  1. Yep, that was certainly my experience when I first played the game, except I was swept deep underground by a raging torrent and then murdered in the darkness by terrible things… Delightful!

    Thanks for the post, nicely written.

  2. BGT, Minh, and I just had our most engrossing Minecraft session yet!

    There were so many monsters coming out of this room that we sealed it up and then dug underneath it, slowly replacing the floor above us with glass. Then we made a water trap and removed some of the glass so that monster would fall into it.

    Eventually, we braved going into the room. We all died many, many times before we were finally able to seal the monster spawner and light up the massive caverns! And now it’s almost 2am…

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