At Playful 2010 on Friday, Margaret Robertson asked how many people in the room had played Minecraft (perhaps 5%). She asked how many people kept hearing about it on the internets and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about (perhaps 60%). She then went on to do a bravura presentation/demo, entirely in-engine, real-time in Minecraft.
Summary: Minecraft provides an infinite, procedurally generated landscape rendered in a deliberately low-res style. The landscapes are surprisingly varied and beautiful, and more to the point, instantly manipulable. You can dig wood and stone out of the ground and use them to build towers, temples, waterfall sculptures. There’s a day-night cycle (with a drolly rendered square sun and moon): during the day you build walls and moats to survive the monsters that come out at night. There’s a fair-sized crafting system. There’s a sly sense of humour very much in evidence.
Anyway, you can read all that in the reviews budding across the Web. I want to talk about Minecraft’s narratives.
I get impatient when people say narrative isn’t important in games. Games don’t always have an extrinsic narrative, but gameplay always entails an intrinsic narrative. So, Space Invaders has an extrinsic narrative: you’re the last spaceship defending earth against waves of aliens. You also create an intrinsic narrative with each playthrough: you killed some bad dudes, then you killed some more bad dudes, then a bad dude killed you. It’s not a complicated story, but it is the same core story as (for instance) Beowulf, and it’s more compelling because it stars you.
Some games are better at intrinsic narratives than others – because they enable more emergent behaviour, because they provide tools to record or share your own narrative. The Sims and Dwarf Fortress are widely discussed examples. In Fallen London, we’re all about the extrinsic narrative, but we do try to make a space for intrinsic narrative (Fires in the Desert again). We’re getting there.
Minecraft is exceptionally good at intrinsic narrative. It recognises, preserves and rewards everything you do. It presses you to play frontiersman. A Minecraft world ends up dotted with torchlit paths, menhirs, landmarks, emergency caches. Here’s the hole where you dug stone for your first house. Here’s the causeway you built from your spawn point to a handy woodland. Here’s the crater in the landscape where the exploding monster took out you and your wheatfield at once. And, of course, here’s your enormous castle above a waterfall. There’s no utility in building anything bigger than a hut, but the temptations of architecture are irresistible. Minecraft isn’t so much a world generator as a screenshot-generator and a war-story generator.
This is what will get the game the bulk of its critical attention, and deservedly so. That’s why I want to call attention to the extrinsic narrative. It’s minimal, implicit, accidental and very powerful. It’s this: you wake alone beside an endless sea in a pristine, infinite wilderness. The world is yours. You can literally sculpt mountains, with time and effort. You’ll die and be reborn on the beach where you woke first. You’ll walk across the world forever and never see another face. You can build a whole empire of roads and palaces and beacon towers, and the population of that empire will only ever be you. When you leave, your towers will stand empty forever. I haven’t seen that surfaced in a game before. It’s strong wine.