There’s no storytelling like Minecraft’s luscious pop-up narrative

There’s no storytelling like Minecraft’s luscious pop-up narrative
2021 07 18 01.43.32
Image: Kate Gray

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Switch release of Minecraft, and we’re celebrating in the only way we know how: by writing a lot of words about it. Hurrah!


I was away from home when my house caught fire. I didn’t even find out until the next day, when it was too late: the beautiful Tudor cottage was nothing more than a smoking shell, the fire long gone.

The downstairs living room, fully furnished in wood, didn’t stand a chance; the upstairs kitchen copper countertops fared better but the long gone hardwood floor meant it was impossible really wear that. The stairs, also made of wood, were hidden in a corner where the fire hadn’t reached, so I was able to catch a glimpse of the destroyed upper floor. There were gaping holes where window frames used to be, surrounded by charred stone, and the oak ceiling, where an errant lightning strike had started the fire, had completely disappeared.

This was not a house he could live in. He was devastated. had taken me hours to build.

(In case it’s not clear from the title or photos, this is a house in Minecraft. My real house is still alive, at least for now.)

But as the morning light filtered through the rubble, I realized something: what I now owned, instead of a habitable house, was a beautiful ruin, something much most creatively inspiring. After all, anyone can build a house, but a ruin is something organic, something that only nature can do. Or, well, a simulation of nature.

With the help of friends, who felt bad about having to start from scratch, I filled the carcass of the cabin with plants. Moss grew merrily on the exposed foundations, and vines snaked across the remaining walls, falling onto the carpet of grass like long curtains. The deep browns and grays of the house were replaced by vibrant greens and the pinks, whites, reds, and yellows of various floras; Sunflowers and roses bloomed happily where sofas and tables used to be.

It took me a long time to build the original house, but turning it into a ruined garden took even longer, because it was me project, not a tutorial, and not something that needs symmetry and perfection. Its beauty lay in its chaos, in seeming like the natural disorder of the outdoors. It was incredibly fun to build and look back on, and even though I couldn’t live there anymore (I mean technically I could, the beds were still there) I liked it much better as a wreck.

The emergent narrative is a story that was not written or put there by the developers, but something that happens organically.

That’s just one example of something that happens in games called “emerging narrative” – ​​a story that wasn’t written or put there by the developers, but something that happens organically. Games are great for this, because a lot of them are unscripted and unpredictable, but even the ones that are a fairly heavy script will give the player a sense of ownership over their story.

In The Witcher 3, for example, my Geralt would shave and cut his hair right before going on dates, something unnecessary that the game doesn’t require, but it adds to my sense of agency in the game. In fallout 4I lost my romantic interest lost because of, well, Fallout’s legendarily dumb script, I suppose, but I didn’t care at all, because it made the relatively by-the-book romance turn into a tragic story of a widow from the moor. That’s so much cooler, even if he it was carrying some of my best gear when he went AWOL.

In games like Minecraft, which are much more of a sandbox, players more directly shape an emerging narrative. The story of my tragic home fire and inspiring recovery was not created by Mojang, nor was it facilitated by NPCs or story quests like the examples I just gave. Instead, Minecraft gives you two things: a box of toys and the freedom to use your imagination to create stories with those toys.

As a result, I have a ton of Minecraft stories. Some are more interesting than others, I don’t think you want to hear the story of dragging a polar bear across miles of tundra to take him to a special bear cave I made for him in my house, but what they all have in common is that are mine.

They are even part of my life story, too.

The villager trading room I built with my long-distance partner, where all the villagers were called “Toby” and thus the room itself was called “Tobatorium”; the time we embarked on a massive Nether related adventure only to end up at the bottom of the sea; the special secret rooms we build to encourage each other, this is all part of our relationship.

Minecraft has been around much longer than the five years it’s been on Switch, of course. It first went public in early access in May 2009, before being fully released in 2011, making it older than many of the people who play it today. Some people have over a decade of emergent narratives like mine: worlds they’ve built from shacks to sprawling metropolises, people they’ve gotten close to through stacked blocks, tough times they’ve survived with the help of big cubey polar Bears.

So, I invite you to tell your emerging Minecraft narrative story in the comments! Happy birthday Minecraft, and many more to come.

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