In December Minecraft: Story Mode was announced by Telltale Games. A lot of their adventure games are based on videogame franchises (Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Borderlands). Others are based on SERIOUS takes on genre fiction: Game of Thrones (SERIOUS fantasy), Fables (SERIOUS fairy tales), The Walking Dead (SERIOUS zombies).
Minecraft: Story Mode is the former. But Telltale’s previous work with existing licenses always drew on properties lauded (rightly or wrongly) for their writing. This makes Minecraft, a procedurally-generated world of survival and exploration, seem like a weird fit.
I mean, a weird fit if you haven’t visited any large chain box store and walked anywhere even remotely near the books or toys sections, at which point it looks like an obvious money-grab.
Stores are full of Minecraft merchandise. There are Lego toys and plastic figures and books. So many books. With screenshot-composite cover art and titles like Invasion of the Overworld and Quest for the Diamond Sword.
The former is the first book in the “Gameknight999 series”, written by Mark Cheverton, the latter the first in a series of books by Winter Morgan, a pseudonym for an author whose son really, really loves Minecraft. I’ve read both books, despite being a little outside their recommended age ranges (9+ and 7-12) (though I am older than 9). They’re fairly short and, probably not surprisingly, there’s a lot going on in these books that sprung from the collision of mass-culture videogames and parental interest in their children’s hobbies.
Like A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin, Cheverton’s Gameknight999 is named after the author’s son. But where the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood became popular because of their roles in books, Gameknight999’s toy becomes a book because of its mass popularity.
The Gameknight999 series involves some lessons on sportsmanship, on not griefing and not trolling and not undoing other people’s hard work and not killing videogame characters or animals because they’re actually alive and once you’ve accidentally been warped into the game world by one of your father’s inventions, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids style, you become connected to them in a way where you feel every bit of pain they feel when attacked.
When Gameknight999 is first warped into the world, the book takes a brief spin into Young Adult Survival territory: a boy in an inhospitable environment uses some techniques he’s picked up along the way to build shelter and survive. Of course, since it’s Minecraft and not, you know, the Catskills or the Canadian wilderness, this involves digging holes and hitting pigs.
The screams of the animals unsettle Gameknight999. One villager is angry because Gameknight999, during one of his attacks on the village, killed his wife. The villagers’ aliveness is shown, among other ways, by how they mourn for their dead wives and fear for their children. Always dead wives, though very few refrigerators in Minecraft.
When he was sitting in his basement on his computer he assumed the characters on his screen were just code and bits and bytes and unfeeling victims of the chaos he wrought because of his drive, like so many players, to see his actions have some, have any, effects.
Morgan’s book, from the same publishing house but aimed at a slightly younger audience, ignores the complexities of multiple worlds and the player’s relation to the game and instead focuses on the game world as its own contained reality. But like Cheverton’s book, the game uses player terminology—griefers, mobs, spawns. Everything in the book is written to make sense to a player.
They take the game and all its quirks, bugs and technological limitations and network structure and try to bend it all into a consistent cosmology. The techniques comprise an interesting attempt to describe the basic blocks of the game. Inventory, hit points, hunger, crafting—all the things that, when you’re playing Minecraft, appear as menus and overlays suddenly have to be presented without the acceptable computer interface in-between.
The abstraction of the world that is Minecraft (if it ever really was an abstraction) becomes solidified: blocks of gravel and dirt are not some kind of representation of physical-world gravel or dirt. They are what they are. Like in the Lego games and movie, it becomes a right-angled universe unto itself. In these Minecraft books, the map is the territory.
But that has a really interesting side effect: these stories become a narrative form of the strategy guide, which itself is a kind of novelization of playing a game. The usual imperative sentences and instructions is replaced with a third-person story. There are never tables that pull information out of a context and show you explicitly how the game works.
Things I know about Minecraft now: a potion of weakness and a Golden Apple will cure a zombie. Obsidian is necessary to build an enchantment table so you can strengthen your weapons. Obsidian is made from lava and water. When digging underground you should always be careful and dig slowly (and NEVER straight down), watching out for monsters and lava flows.
It’s not a scientific way of learning the game. I’m not saying that makes it incorrect or untrue or not useful. Something like Minecraft, with its foregrounding of its algorithms in its randomly generated worlds, lends itself to a trial-and-error approach where players are encouraged to figure out what they can build and how they can build it.
Some people, technologically-trained people, might find that information easiest to convey and to remember with things like tables and charts. But tutorials and how-tos for a variety of visual and information-display fields like cartography, scientific mapping or data display all stress the importance of narrative or a story in these kinds of works.
In a way, these books tell the stories of the results of the experimentation that is the mining and crafting and adventuring through the systems of Minecraft.
Scientific experimentation is about finding things that happen irrespective of their context. A simplification: two chemicals react a certain way. When a third chemical is present, they react a different way. That third chemical can be part of the interaction being studied or it can be part of the context of the two-chemical interaction that needs to be removed; it all depends on what level you’re looking at. Laboratory architecture and technology aimed at minimizing and containing contamination is physical context control.
The idea being that if you can get things to happen consistently outside of all context then you have isolated some inherent Truth. Then, when you translate that Truth back into different contexts you can classify what happens in addition to that Truth as a Side Effect, thereby preserving the context-free Truth (itself a product of a specific laboratory context) as the important thing.
That ability of something to have other applications is a sign of its value. So someone’s obsession with playing baseball is more acceptable than someone’s obsession with playing a videogame if the former is seen as having Other Uses (health benefits, social benefits) while the latter is not.
This marker of value motivates every conversation about what we can learn from games or why you should put your guild leadership on a resume. Every accusation of games being a waste of time AND the argument that they are not because, Mom and Dad, they teach valuable skills ok I don’t want to go outside!
Writing these books off as merely a cynical cash-in is tempting, but it’s too easy. They can translate the act of playing a game into a narrative form, maybe acting as a justification for why the games are played in the first place. They’re a kind of knowledge communication different from the tips and tricks and strategy guide formats that predominate (both commercially and on sites like GameFAQs). They stitch together genres of children’s and young adult fiction. An amalgam, bizarre and interesting, and possibly a bit illustrative of different ways of thinking about the game.
Brian Taylor mostly just flies around randomly generated Minecraft worlds, looking at the scenery.