There’s more than one way to shear a sheep. Likewise, there are also many ways to tell a story. Games have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves to help get a tale across, but one of the most interesting is that of ’emergent storytelling’ – basically, stories that come about as a result of your interactions with the game world and playing the game, rather than a direct narrative. One of the best recent examples of this is Minecraft.
Click here to get an idea of what Minecraft’s about.
Starting Minecraft is also the one time I’ve ever been less prepared to play a game than Baldur’s Gate. In this case, I’d made a deliberate decision not to look up anything on the game before starting it, because (in what turned out to be quite a risky move) I wanted to discover the game for myself.
Things got off to a nice enough start – I found myself in a pleasant, grassy meadow with a few trees scattered around, a lake just visibile through their rectangular trunks, and a few sheep wandering about. A quick check of my inventory revealed that I had nothing to rely on except my right hand. Hmm.
Anyway, one of the sheep bounced over, looking as happy to see me as a 64×64 square of pixels can look. I punched it in the face, and all its wool fell off.
Notable Discovery #1: Punch sheep -> get wool. That’s progress.
Some experimental clicks later and I’d figured out that I could then place the wool on the ground in a block. This would prove important later on, but for the next ten minutes or so I simply wandered around a bit, contentedly beating up sheep and stealing their wool until I happened to look to the horizon and notice that a) there was a sun, and b) it was rapidly disappearing. That didn’t seem so bad, until…
Notable Discovery #2: Minecraft nights are dark. You know, like, night time dark. Madness.
Being humans, we’re used to having light around us – ever since the first cavedweller knocked his two favourite rocks together and accidently set his wife’s hair on fire, it’s been something of a trademark for our species. As the sun’s brightness drained from my surroundings, I was struck with the awkward realisation that I’d not yet even reached the Minecraft evolutionary equivalent of a neanderthal – I had no idea how to create a source of light.
It was as I assessed my options that someone with green-tinged skin walked out of the trees towards me, arms outstretched. I paused, unsure what to make of this new arrival, then drew upon my wealth of Minecraft knowledge and threw some wool at him. ‘MURRRR,’ the zombie (for that is what he was) explained, and bit a chunk out of my health.
That was everything I needed to know. It was fight or flight, and I didn’t currently fancy my chances against anything above sheep on the food-chain, so I ran, hesitating only when an unfamiliar sound shot out of my speakers.
Interesting. I hadn’t encountered anything that went ‘plinkthunk’ yet… then I saw an arrow embedded in a treetrunk. Another plinkthunk followed, with an ‘Argh!’ from my character as two more hearts abandoned his health meter for safer pastures.
Notable Discovery #3: Arrows go plinkthunk… got it. Run, you idiot.
Leaving whatever had been plinkthunking arrows at me behind in the darkness, I made for a hole in the rocks I’d seen near my starting area. The sheep stared at me as I ran past, a hint of vengeance in their eyes while I desperately searched for the cave entrance.
This time, I could just make out the archer: a skeleton. A skeleton that was more technologically advanced than me.
Not having the time to wonder how a skeleton can pull a bowstring when it has no muscles, I dived into the cave just as the Halloween Crew were almost upon me, and fled straight into the back. Which was about six feet in. Balls.
My mind cast wildly for options – my options were running lower than my health bar. Then the sheep’s judgemental expressions surfaced in my memory; I knew how to punch, didn’t I? I faced the wall of soil and dirt, and went full-on Rocky on it.
It worked, and after a few seconds one block dissapeared with a pop, then another and another, until I was through, blocking up the space with wool just as a skeletal shape filled the cave entrance. What I hadn’t considered was that as the last gap in the wall was filled, the only source of light disappeared, plunging everything into absolute darkness. With the wall behind me blocked, however, at least I was now safe.
Notable Discovery #4: No I bloody wasn’t.
The shuffling of another zombie disrupted the black recesses of the cavern, and I sped into action, slamming down a wall of wool and dirt as fast as my right hand could manage until I collapsed back in my seat, letting the breath I’d been holding rush out in a sigh of relief.
So there I was, trapped between a zombie and a hard place, and another zombie. I weathered the night, surrounded by the groans and hisses of monsters. I waited a while longer after they subsided before digging an experimental hole in the ceiling, basking in the shaft of daylight it created as I climbed out to greet a new day, having (barely) survived my first night in Minecraft.
Sadly I don’t have any screenshots of the tiny cave as it looked on that first night. I can only show you what it looks like now, after the fortification that began in earnest that very morning:
There are still sheep everywhere.
Popular wisdom states that times of strife are when the biggest advances in technology are made, and from playing Minecraft, I’m not surprised. When shit hits the fan, you learn fast and you try things, even with no idea if it’s going to work. Give a human being a purpose, and we’ll even surprise ourselves at what we can come up with.
What Minecraft represents is the possibility for gamers to create their own narratives. It could just be a world-building tool, but the addition of survival elements and the dynamic generation of random content means that each player forges their own narrative as they play, creating a personal connection to the events that unfold as a result of their actions. It encourages you to find a reason to survive. Why are you there? Why are you building? It’s not so much storytelling as storymaking, and it’ll be interesting to see where these first steps take us.