Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Minecraft, The Function Of Minimal Narratives in Gaming

As many others have, I fell before the Minecraft craze back when it was just beginning to generate massive buzz, while the game was in it's late alpha stage. Now as players would know,  Minecraft  has been a "barebones" game since it's origins. However, as time has passed slowly but surely the game has been improved upon time and time again, not only by the developer Mojang, and the infamous Notch, but also by the fans, in the form of custom maps, mods, and character and block skins/textures. And yet, while the game has become somewhat of a juggernaut of creative content, one element remains quite miniscule, in fact, near nonexistent.
        I am of course, referring to the game's narrative. For the few who may not be aware, Minecraft is an open world game, in which players are free to roam randomly generated terrains, build vast kingdoms, and slay fierce enemies. However, the game has close to no narrative, in other words, no story. Now, I think it's first important to acknowledge the fact that an open world game, as well as a game where the focus is player creativity, is not dependent upon the a lack of narrative. There are plenty of open world games with heavily present narratives, such as entries in The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto series, as well as player content generation games with narratives, such as Little Big Planet. So why exactly does Minecraft lack a clearly present narrative? And more importantly, is it effective, and what ways does it alter the players experience, and games re-playability? I shall address, both questions using my own experiences with the game, in an effort to examine the impact such a small to completely absent narrative has, and wether it is an effective choice for the gaming medium.

The Narrative of Minecraft

As I've stated, Minecraft has close to no tangible narrative. Even upon initial launch of the game no premise is given, no tutorial, prologue, or backstory of sorts is provided. In fact, the player is not even provided with so much as a mission or explanation of sorts to what their goal is in the game, such information must be gathered through pre-gathered information on the game, which isn't much of an issue, as very few people blindly download or purchase a product. Nevertheless, the game does have a very basic and obscure form of narrative in it's current version( Full Game 1.2.5). This Narrative of sorts is one of guidance for the player, and is conveyed solely through the achievement interface. As is standard, it provides the player with goals, as well as brings an added incentive through concealing achievements that require prerequisite achievements that the player has not yet acquired. This "narrative" serves a more practical purpose, as a loose guide for an optimal playing experience rather than traditional storytelling.
       The only other traces of a narrative of sorts that I find within the game, lies within the end credits. After completing "The End", the designated final area of the game, the credits for the game roll, displaying a conversation between two unknown parties to the player. The dialogue between the two characters is esoteric, and largely deals with unfamiliar, until this very moment, themes of the nature of existence, as it has no prior established narrative arc, nor theme to refer to. Most players reacted negatively to this small dialogue sequence, I have a few theories as to why, which I shall delve into later.
        These two facets of the game are what essentially comprises the narrative of Minecraft. As you can see, it is rather minimal.

The Effects of a Minimal Narrative, Is it Lack of Narrative Optimal For the Medium?

As established, the narrative found in Minecraft is clearly not a focus of the game. The player is given little more than simple goals of progression, which are arguably hardly even a  narrative without a constructed story and characters conveying them. This said, how does the lack of a narrative effect the gameplay experience? Personally, I think it is a very good structure in Minecraft's case. It most certainly facilitates the usage of the player's imagination during playtime.
       I recall my first outing into the world. I was alone, playing singleplayer, I gauged my surroundings a bit and noted that I was on a small beach, a forest with an abundance of trees stood nearby. I climbed up toward the forest and began clicking the mouse like a madman, as it was the only command I knew, and more or less needed(Aside from basic movement). I happened to hit a tree as I swung and noticed the small cracking animation be triggered. I continued to pound at the tree, and managed to chop it down with my fist, collecting the wood. I then took to the Minecraft Wiki to gather some information on how to access my inventories, as well as basic crafting information. To my dismay, when I returned to the game window I noticed the sun had just begun to set, and I had heard monsters struck at night. I quickly built a tiny hut and waited inside, in complete darkness. I heard them, I heard lots of them outside. Being the warm blooded adventurer I am, I yearned for the excitement of combating monsters, and exploring my surroundings even further, and so I braved  the night. I then met a swift death, in my first introduction to the creeper, which also managed to level half of my dwelling in the process...
       I could continue my tale, but you get the gist of it. It is unique to me. When i first played, and landed in my unique and random world, my mind yearned to explore the vast terrain, to conquer my foes and make my heroic stand as an adventurer.  Of course, such imaginatively driven sentiments, also allowed for great conversation about the game with others. I had convinced a friend to purchase around the same time, and while we could not figure out how to establish a proper server in order to play multiplayer yet, we could not stop conversing about the game, telling tales of our explorations and dangerous forays into uncharted lands and caves, our vain attempts at trying to defend our lands from the destructive power of creepers, great tragedies befallen us in which our hard earned materials were all lost. And it was all great fun. It also caused us to talk about the gameplay itself, as we theorized on how to craft certain items, how to create elaborate creeper traps for easy tnt materials, and what block height levels to find diamonds on. Such stories work similarly in multiplayer, only they may be even more elaborate thanks to player to player interactions and planned journeys into the unknown.
        This self story crafting aspect of the game shall, I think, be bolstered even further with the games next update, which plans to introduce the ability to compose in in-game books, allowing for the retention and cherishing of players extraordinary forays in the mysterious world around them. However, there also currently exists Non player characters, who dwell in villages currently serving no purpose. IT has been speculated that such Npcs may give quests in the future, the extent at which narrative backing is given to these quests, and if there is a "main quest" shall certainly effect this imaginative dynamic, though I cannot be sure to what extent.
      Overall, I certainly think the lack of narrative has been beneficial for Minecraft. It urges me to return to the game, though often in binges, in order to get my fill of self catered adventures. It is, in essence, a game that's limits are the players imaginative powers. What one must wonder, however, is wether such narrative absence can work in encouraging re-playability in across genres. Perhaps such success in a lacking narrative is contingent upon many other factors? Does such a model only work for intensely player creativity focused games such as Minecraft? Do you agree that Minecraft's lack of narrative benefits the gameplay and product as a whole?
        Things to mull over, in the meantime, back to crafting!

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