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One Hundred Miles of Solitude

By Alexis Kennedy, September 27, 2010 · Tagged with

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.

18 Comments

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Fightbrain Oct 10, 11:32am

What an excellently witty article! One minor quibble: when you leave Minecraft, your towers will stand empty forever...except for the [i]zombies[/i].

Julie Oct 9, 6:16am

Love this discussion of extrinsic narrative, since I've never heard it described in those terms before, but I'm always doing it: I crafted narratives around my colony's escapades in Sim Ant, for goodness' sake. Humans can make significance out of anything.

Alexis Oct 7, 7:19pm

@Simon: Yeah. 'She certainly had great taste!...'

Simon Bostock Oct 7, 7:17pm

You're right about the potential for narrative in Minecraft. It's basically an Omega Man simulator. (I'm really tempted to add in something like 'on acid' or 'on angel dust' here). The one thing I can imagine adding to it that would make it even more storylike is a doglike companion so it would be 'A Boy and his Dog' simulator'. (This is Don Johnson's one and only good film, based on a Harlan Ellison story - just in case).

slight Oct 4, 2:41pm

I've got a multiplayer server up that just has a friend and I playing on it. It's a shame you can't die yet as it would give our creations a lot more urgency, though it still makes me jump when I bump into a zombie in some unlit cave. The melancholy people are talking about isn't there but for me it's replaced with a feeling something like being stranded on a desert island with a friend. There's a feeling of "right well we'd better get building!" and now we're often inviting each other over to see new creations or interesting things we've found while tunnelling. Can't wait for monsters to become dangerous in MP, we'll probably start a new world, crank up the difficulty and work together to survive the onslaught of creepers. My only concern is that I think we know how to make monster proof fortresses now. Bring on the dragons.

Chris A Oct 3, 10:00am

Alexis, great writeup! The player generated narrative is what really makes Minecraft special, imho. @Brent, I'm really looking forward to a fully operational multiplayer survivor mode – we had a server running at the studio, and while it's really enjoyable to build and discover the world with a handful of friends, the lack of tension due to the loss of damage (in multiplayer sessions, neither you or monsters can really be harmed) removes the extra oomph you feel when venturing out at night, or tunneling into a newly discovered cavern. We've all gone back to solo, but will fire the server back up once feature parity is there.

Jeff Oct 2, 10:17pm

I have to say, playing multiplayer minecraft with friends is wonderful, even more so than single player. Getting to see the amazing things they make when you visit the island they are focusing on is great.

Brent Gulanowski Oct 2, 7:04pm

Solo play is not the only option. There are multiplayer servers. Survival mode in alpha is not fully operational in multiplayer, but it seems to be high on notch's to-do list. Which is great, because the things you can accomplish co-operatively are much more impressive than what you can do alone. Plus it's more fun. Moreover, even single-player worlds can be shared around quite easily, even on the web via minecraft.net.

Alexis Kennedy Oct 2, 6:40pm

@ElderKain: Sure. 'Drolly rendered' is me approving.

ElderKain Oct 2, 6:14pm

Don't knock the sun and moon. It's a square/cube environment so having a square sun/moon is logical. Only illogical part would be dropped items, animals, and other visible people on multiplayer have circular shadows, lol.

UberMouse Oct 2, 3:46pm

Darn you! It's late and I was just about to go to bed but decided to read notchs tweet on this. Now I want to play Minecraft and will probably be here into the early hours of the morning =/ Also you're spot on and even made me shiver a bit when reading it haha.

WelshPixie Oct 2, 3:01pm

Excellent review. I've been trying to get friends of mine to give it a go - it's unfortunate that the free version of the game is nothing like the subscription version; you just can't get a feel for it without playing it. I have many friends who aren't typically gamers but who I'm sure would love playing this - it's so different to everything else out there. I play on a currently very small server hosted by a friend. There are four of us on there - me, my boyfriend, and our two mutual friends. We're very non-griefy people; we're quiet, gentle, and highly respectful. None of us like the idea of playing on a public server because of the potential for griefing. If anyone would like to join our server, feel free to email me (delyth.angharad@gmail.com) and I'll provide the IP details.

Alexis Sep 28, 2:06am

@Ruber: Shadow is a very close cousin, you're right - but in Shadow you keep coming across things that are the work of hands that you didn't build. It's not quite the sunny bleakness of solo Minecraft. @Tymme: I think the deliberately naive gfx actively contribute to the effect. It reminds me of some of the things we talk about when we talk about intentionally texty games. @Ordinal: As far as I can tell from Markus' blog and earlier reviews of Minecraft, the narrative emerged naturally along the way, it wasn't particularly intentional. It sounds like early Minecraft was a pure building toy, and Survival mode was a way to inject some actual gameplay. It would still have been an infinite world in the original mode, but I imagine that the arbitrariness of it would have been dislocating. (And dolls would be fascinating.) @Grant: RTed, thanks. :-)

Ruber Eaglenest Sep 27, 5:57pm

Minecraft, in that sense, could be seen as the prelude of Shadow of the Colossus. This is, indeed, notable because you will explore hundred miles of solitude wonder completely alone. Well, alone, alone, there are lizards, birds and... colossus.

Tymme Sep 27, 8:28am

I was introduced to Miecraft through a friend who sent me a link to the X's Adventures in Minecraft series on Youtube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bh4EexJO4I ). It's amazing how well the engine can do its job so simply. I've never been more scared to venture into a dark underground cave, breaking through to see the vast darkness before me and knowing monsters lie beyond... but not sure what, or where. Sure, I can come right back and get all I lost.. but still. I'm worried about multiplayer too- the possibilities for griefing seem pretty high. Then again, I've always been surrounded by MMO players that want to destroy, one-up each other, and 'win'. A cooperative community could build something (several somethings) incredible.

Ordinal Malaprop Sep 27, 4:56am

I'm not sure how much the writer of Minecraft consciously tries to create a narrative, but one thing that would convince me that he did would be the introduction of crafted dolls. Which move around and explore and maybe even talk, if stupidly, and are the only other sentient creatures in the world that can appreciate what you have done. Only, they die. They must die. Perhaps they need to be fed coal or redstone but sometimes they wander off and can't be found, perhaps the material they are made of affects their durability, but they must die and leave you alone again, in your world where you can make everything but company. (The above does not count for multiplayer, which generally seems full of people building enormous walls with swearwords in them from all I can see.)

Grant Gould Sep 27, 4:50am

Oddly, I had just posted this to twitter: http://bit.ly/ac3Pjr I wonder if MineCraft is going to entirely lose its weird melancholy feel when it adds multiplayer...

D Sep 27, 4:48am

Minecraft sounds intriguing... I want to play it now. And build.