Sandbox Games and Mechanic-based Storytelling in Minecraft

By: Daniel Stein

Minecraft is a lot of things. Its best description is an open-world sandbox survival game first published by Mojang in alpha version 1.0 in 2010. Although the type of game can be narrowed down in this way, approaching the particular genre of story Minecraft provides is a bit more difficult. In the original (and most well-known) game mode, “Survival Mode,” The player spawns into a randomly generated world of colorful blocks representing the materials that the world is constructed out of. The player can immediately begin exploring and collecting resources to craft tools and to build structures within this natural world. Throughout a single playthrough in Alpha 1.1 the player can traverse plains, hills, mountains, rivers, oceans, and caves. The only things the player will never find in this world is a hint of an existing story.

Although each world of Minecraft is essentially infinite as they generate new biomes as the player explores farther from spawn, the Alpha version was completely devoid of generated structures. The player can travel as far as they desire, but they will never encounter any objects, terrains, or structures hinting at a sign of “civilization” nor will they find any type of story or objective to follow. The world is open for exploration and change driven solely by the player. In this way, the world exists for the player to do with it whatever they wish to do. The state of Minecraft remained relatively static for over a year, except for the addition of The Nether, an alternate realm only accessible by constructing a portal. The Nether also lacked structures, goals, and story elements, but it provided several new materials to be acquired, opening the door for new possibilities for the player to build.

The “story” of these versions of the game becomes the individual experience of each new world. Rather than being told a story through the experience of playing a game, Minecraft acts as a canvas on which the players can write their own narrative. As they shape the world by chopping logs from trees, mining for stone and ore, and building whatever they like, the player is simultaneously creating the story of that world. Although Survival Mode includes monsters that will attack the player (including creepers that can explode and destroy blocks), once the player has accrued strong enough armor, tools, and weapons to overcome these obstacles they can then spend as much time as they like building whatever they want to. It is possible to build immense castles or even entire villages complete with irrigated wheat farms. If the player chooses to mine enough, they could find and mine enough gold ore to build a golden throne or even a much rarer diamond throne. The possibilities are (nearly) endless. The only limitations of the end state of a Minecraft world is the player’s imagination, their determination to harvest natural resources, and the finite types of blocks and items obtainable and craftable in any given version of the game.

Here we get into the ways in which the game’s design drives and potentially limits the player’s control over the narrative. Every sandbox comes with rules. The basic mechanics and the engine of Minecraft are not very limiting factors; there is only a single type of block that is absolutely unbreakable, called bedrock, and it only exists as a lower barrier to prevent players from falling out of the bounds of the world. At the upper limit there is an invisible building barrier beyond which no blocks can be placed. In later release versions, the horizontal border of the world is incredibly large, and players are unlikely to reach it in a survival world. These are relatively minor constraints on the freedom to mine, build, and explore as they are necessary to enforce the bounds of the world generation.

The other limits manifest in the inherent world generation and design. There are a finite number of types of blocks and obtainable items. Despite the addition of hundreds of different types of items in subsequent versions, there is an inherent limit on creativity based on the functionality of each block and item, especially in the Alpha release in which blocks are exclusively decorative when placed. Functional blocks and items in later versions, such as redstone and noteblocks, allow players to get more creative with their worlds and have more freedom in building structures that can act as storytelling devices.

Full release versions of Minecraft began in 2011 with the “Adventure Update” which included the major area of the game called The End. The End, as its name suggests, is the “final area” of each Minecraft world, accessible through a special generated portal that must be found and unlocked by the player using crafted items called eyes of ender. The End was originally a limited, small floating island made of a unique block, dotted with large obsidian pillars each of which holding a single End Crystal. The End functioned as a boss fight, spawning in the Ender Dragon, a monster that only spawns once in each world with a health bar UI. When a player depletes the dragon’s health bar the bedrock “fountain” at the center of The End spawns a portal that loads the “ending” and credits of Minecraft before respawning the player in the overworld.

The addition of The End was a major change for Minecraft. Now the game had a clear goal as well as intermediate steps to accomplish that goal. In order to find and open the End portal, players first have to craft eyes of ender, whose components require a certain amount of exploration and resource collection. The “Adventure Update” also added many structures that generate with the world. These included the End portal and the stronghold that contains it, Nether fortresses where a component of an eye of ender is exclusively found, mineshafts that can be found underground, and villages populated with humanoid creatures. This update ushered in the first full release version of Minecraft and transformed the game from an objective-less sandbox into a goal-oriented exploration and survival game.

Although there was a shift in Minecraft’s overarching checklist, most of the game’s implied “narrative” remained the same. When the player first spawns into a new world, the only information provided to them is the interface at the bottom of the screen and their view of the world. In Alpha, the interface only contains a line of hearts and a bar of empty squares representing the item hot bar. This is very little information for beginning a new game. The player is expected to experiment with the world on their own in order to discover the basic mechanics. In the current version (1.16) there is a prompt to open the inventory and an achievement for doing so, but the older versions have no hints towards the existence of an inventory outside of the control menu. Alpha Minecraft relies so heavily on the player to explore and experiment with all aspects of the game due to its lack of information and no expectation of a knowledgeable new player base.

The “story” experienced in a Minecraft playthrough reflects the mechanics included in the game. As explained earlier, each playthrough’s “narrative” is entirely driven by the player’s choices and experiences in the sandbox world. The minimalist world of Alpha restricts this narrative to a simplistic survival tale: the player appears in a strange new world with no information about its resources or terrain and must find a way to survive each night as monsters spawn and attack them. In the first full release of the game, this narrative can have more complexity. Instead of being completely alone in this world (ignoring the existence of multiplayer in both versions) the player can stumble upon a village while exploring and can interact with the villagers there. Even later updates allow the player to trade with the villagers who gained specialized professions. These updates also introduced illagers, an evil counterpart to villagers who inhabit the world either in specific generated structures or randomly spawned near the player in the overworld. The inclusion of villagers and illagers create an implied story for the world that would seemingly occur without the presence of the player.

New structures such as desert temples and mineshafts also contribute to the idea of a generated world with its own implied story. The player is confirmed as an outsider arriving to a world that is (or once was) inhabited by entire societies that could harvest and create just as the player can. The player loses a little bit of their status as the only being who can manipulate the world as they do. Of course, none of the structures come close to the destructive and constructive capabilities of the player. Nonetheless, Minecraft has shifted over time from a focus on pure resource extraction and environmental destruction towards more exploration and discovery as more biomes, structures, and creatures have been introduced to be discovered.

However, the game remains static in respect towards the player’s relationship towards all of these new discoverable elements. Although the villagers can be viewed narratively as a self-sufficient society, in practice they become tools for the player to manipulate. By understanding the core mechanics behind villager trading and breeding, players can create faux villages and grow their own manipulatable populations to produce optimal trades for the resources they desire. The same manipulation of game mechanics can occur with other structures. Monster spawners that are randomly generated in dungeons or Nether fortresses can be manipulated into monster loot and experience farms to simplify the survival and resource gathering aspects of the game. In the end, the player remains the dominant force of the world who destroys and creates as it benefits themselves at any expense to the natural environment or the world’s natural “inhabitants.” At its core, Minecraft is about ones own survival and gain in a world that exists solely for them to manipulate into their own personal narrative.

References:

“Java Edition version history,” Minecraft Wiki, last modified February 19, 2021, https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Java_Edition_version_history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s