Minecraft, Struggle, and Story

I’m always looking for console games I can play with my daughters. I had resisted downloading Minecraft because I had heard how addictive it was, and the rumors were true. (I dream about the damn game now.) I started on the Survival mode, working the controls while my five-year-old dictated where we went and what we did. We explored, played with the animals, and built houses and barns. She didn’t like digging—being underground scared her, and she frequently had me “look up at the sky!” so we could see when the sun was about to set and we’d rush back to the nearest house and go to bed. She’s wary of the monsters after we got swarmed one time.

I was intrigued by the complexity and the building. After mining the right components and combining the right elements, we’d craft better tools and build more interesting things. We built a barn for our animals, and she wanted to paint the barn red. According to the wiki, I had to find stained clay and dye it red. The problem was we were in the wrong biome. So we continued to explore and stray off on creative tangents, learning and talking as we played.

I could tell she was having a hard time with the Survival mode, however (where monsters are hostile and resources are difficult to obtain). We died several times, and that bothered her. I am a cautious experimenter, so I didn’t mind, but I wanted it to remain fun, so I suggested we try the Creative mode (where monsters exist, but they don’t attack and we can summon any resource, in any quantity).

She loved it. We made a house out of gold, we experimented with lights and TNT, we covered a lake in ice “just because”, and we could run around at night without fear (although she didn’t want to wander too far from the gold house anyway). She enjoyed changing the pallet to a rainbow string of materials, but cried when the ice block melted inside the house and flooded two floors (I fixed it). I asked her whether she wanted to go back to the old game where we had built several houses and struggled to find even basic building materials. She didn’t. She liked the Creative mode.

I, on the other hand, was bored with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the time we spend together wandering, creating, and talking. But with every possible item at our disposal, the original challenge—the struggle—was gone. I was a little disappointed.

But then I thought more generally about story, and how the scope of the struggle, the protagonist’s abilities, their needs, and their challenges all have to be appropriately scaled, or the reader will be bored (or incredulous). So I started to think about the game the same way.

With the initial threats no longer a worry, what were the new challenges? I started imagining rollercoasters, explosive mining, a literal rainbow bridge and other clever wonders we could create now that resources weren’t limited and monsters weren’t a threat. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy, we had satisfied our second tier of safety and ascended to the next levels. All we had to do was redefine the scope of the challenge. And I enjoyed the game once again.

I also put a pin in that connection, to remember when I thought about Dante’s story. The scope of his challenges, the limits of his abilities, what he can know and do, all of that must be balanced, or the story won’t work. He must be challenged, and pushed, maybe metaphorically (or literally) tortured, and never “have everything”, or at least, not for long. Against all those things, he can then be clever/connected/lucky enough to meet the challenge in the most interesting way I can imagine.

Maybe he’ll use a rainbow bridge. Or explosive mining.

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