Nige On: Minecraft and Emergent Storytelling

June 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

 Returning after a long absence, I saw how my comrade Jon soared through the gigantic mainstream clouds of modern gaming, admiring endless vistas of normal-mapped wall textures and high dynamic range lighting. Crawling soot-blackened from my cave entrance, I brushed the cobwebs from my face and tried to re-attach my dusty journalist hat.

It fits a little strangely, so let’s see if it still works.

While waiting for Dan Tabar to reappear on the radar, I’ve had time to check out some other self-made developers. Ever since I came across Minecraft, I’ve been lurking far below, deep in the forests and caverns of my very own procedurally-generated paradise of adventure. It’s an independently-made gem of a browser game, being developed by a Swedish gent who goes by the name of Notch (Markus Persson by day), whose dedication I have yet to see matched by any other indie developer – nay, any game developer, full stop. Inspired by the good ideas behind the less-ambitious Infiniminer, he set out to make a version that could be played in your browser. That didn’t take him long, so he apparently just kept on going. At the time of writing he is working constantly on new features and ideas, taking just the right amount of input from the community. It has grown into something far more impressive than Infiniminer ever was, and is definitely worth the ten Euros it’ll set you back if you pre-order.

The best way to explain Minecraft is through the form of a travelogue. Therefore, I present: The Crafty Mine Adventures of Nige!

Now, let’s hit the “Generate level” button.

It's beaaaaaaautiful

Oh yeah, everything in Minecraft looks like this. I was surprised how quickly I got used to it, but not nearly as surprised when I found myself wanting to use words like “beautiful” in describing the landscapes created with it. Like a towering 1:1000 GTVA Colossus made entirely from Lego blocks, the whole is far more impressive than the sum of its parts.

Anyway, that tower off in the distance looks like a good spot to build my death fortress. Onwards, to adventure!

Oh yeah, you can build stuff out of the materials you mine.

But first, I’m going to need some tools. Watch, as I punch this tree down to harvest the delicious heartwood core! This is the first task of any canny Minecraft player. Collect wood, craft tools from it. Use wooden tools to gather rock and other materials, use rock to make better tools that can gather iron and so on. It’s kind of like a testosterone-fuelled Harvest Moon in this regard, only you don’t shear sheep to make clothes, you PUNCH THEIR GODDAMN WOOL OFF.

This is actually one of the least impressive vistas I've ever seen in Minecraft.

Scrabbling up the nearest hill, I get a decent view of pastures beyond. No mountain ranges in sight. A shame, since they’re my favourite kind of terrain. No matter, we’ll just keep on walking and the terrain generator will add more land to the map as we go.

Kinda looks like a creeper.

Wielding my newly- crafted rock pickaxe and some torches, I reach the foot of the tower, passing through a large, interestingly formed cavern at its base. From the front it looks like some hulking colossus kicked the bottom out from under it, leaving it looking like a gigantic three-legged beast. This is small-time, though, compared to some of the incredible formations you’ll see in your time playing. I once saw what looked like an eighty-foot high AT-ST Imperial walker made from stone, with a hat of soil and trees.

With no easy route up the tower, I decide to move on. I can see the ocean’s edge just ahead and want to find a nice spot before nightfall.

Not pictured: shitloads of pigs in a field behind me.

Notch hasn’t implemented boats yet, so it looks like a long swim out to that archipelago.

I hate sand. Where's my mountain range?

Some interesting sandy formations appear as I swim onwards. Looks like a vulnerable spot, though, so let’s keep going.

Shit, I should have built my base under this.

Oh my. Just as night falls, I find this rather fascinating waterfall, leading underground. I don’t want to fall in, so let me just take a peek before hunkering down for the nigh-FUCK

For the sake of the narrative, I'm pretending it isn't possible to swim back up.

Okay, well I should try and make the most of my situation. I seem to have discovered a flooded underground cave. Placing torches to light the pitch blackness, I move carefully forward.

Water used to be square.

Notch’s water physics are more convincing than the flat oceans above might have led you to believe. Better keep out of the river, don’t want to get swept away twice in one night.

Not pictured: More pigs. They must be stranded underground.

Spelunking further downwards, I discover a magma spring! Dynamic lighting means if I follow this, I won’t need torches to keep the monsters away (that’s right, frigging monsters haunt these tunnels in the dark).

Shitty cavern has no diamonds.

I smash a hole in the ground for the magma to flow through, and find a huge cavern below. I can hear the sound of rushing water some distance away. Let’s go and check it out!

IT BURNS

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK! Breaking through a wall a little carelessly caused me to fall into a huge lake of fire on the other side. I tried to wade to the pond on the other side, but burned to death mere feet from safety. In my dying moments I hear something ahead of me, over the crackle of my sizzling flesh.

Hiiiiiissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.

I guess death is sometimes a mercy.

lol reused screenshot

Now I respawn, ready for another adventure in the world of Minecraft!

Conclusion

The above documents maybe the first ten to twenty minutes of a Minecraft game. I’ve only shown you a satellite photograph of a crudely-drawn picture of someone pointing in the general direction of the tip of the iceberg. There’s nothing quite like cowering in your tiny log cabin overnight while listening to monsters fighting outside, wishing you hadn’t lost your sword and all your torches in that lava flood earlier; riding a mine-cart at breakneck speed down into the bowels of the earth, flashing through light and dark areas and flying past underground streams filled with hundreds of lost pigs; completing a month-long building project that connects your self-built villages into one gigantic mining complex with massive, valley-spanning bridges; even just turning the corner and seeing what the game creates for you is potentially a powerfully affecting experience. I’ve seen some genuinely unbelievable terrain. Emerging from underground in the middle of a dried-up lake, above the surface of which floats a self-contained island, easily a hundred metres in the air, made more of an impression on me than many professionally designed game environments.

All I can really do is list things that have happened to me, because there are limitless possible stories that can emerge as you play. This isn’t the bullshit of Spore, where everyone experiences the same boring story, just with the main character having a different number of legs or something. It’s the kind of storytelling which games like Dwarf Fortress and Sleep Is Death excel at, because it results in a highly individual, beautifully original tale with just a little imagination from the player.

To close, there are two things I’d like to see in the future of games:

Truly open worlds, where stories tell themselves without being restricted by the imagination of the designer. Games where you’re just plonked down somewhere and told to play, without being forced into someone else’s idea of what is fun.

More goddamn minecarts, they rock shit hardcore.

Nige be finished, yo.

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