18 March 2014

help your writing with video games part 3: minecraft in survival mode

If you don't already know the basics of how Minecraft works, you might want to at least scan Part 1 of this series. If you're just interested in using video games to easily create 3D sketches of settings, you may want to read Part 2.

Survival mode is where setting influences character behaviour, and character behaviour influences plot. Every survival mode game story starts with "how I survived the first night." In the case of the game I've been playing, I was materialised on a beach with some more-solid dirt hills nearby. It was around noon. Recall that Minecraft days are only ten minutes long.

It used to be right under that cactus

I started making a dugout with my bare hands. By nightfall, I'd made one just barely big enough to hide me from the monsters. I had no light, no way to make tools — nothing to do but listen to the monsters groan and bark outside. I had to sit through ten minutes of game time doing nothing.

At one point I got bored and made my dugout a little bigger. I heard something outside and saw two grey-glowing eyes peeking into the air hole I'd left open.

I closed the air hole with a spare block of sand and learned to keep quiet at night. Understand: even though I was just staring at my little Android phone screen, it was genuinely scary! Okay, I am a wimp, but beyond that the sound design and the darkness really do make for a scary experience.

So you learn what it feels like to be hunted.

After a few nights, I'd punched enough trees down (no tools yet) to make a log cabin. I built it at the top of a mountain, thinking this would be safer:

Without that torch, it would be pitch dark, even in daytime.
This was probably the stupidest dwelling I had. At night I had to close up the air hole, because not only did the monsters find me, but they circled the thing all night. I had to wait almost all morning before they wandered off and I could tear down log cabin.

The next place was another log cabin:
At least it had a pretty view.
This was where I finally able to build a crafting table, make a proper door for the dwelling (no more air holes!), make some torches (no more cowering in the dark all night!). I even threw some sand in a furnace (I made a furnace!) and made a small window facing the lake.

For the first time, I could watch the sun come up, signalling that the world was safe enough to venture outside of my little cabin. And that's when I learned to worship the sun.

I stayed several days in this cabin, but decided to give it up when spiders perched themselves on the roof and attacked me as I came out (the spiders are as big as you are in this game). So I dug into a nearby cliff with my new tools and made a three-story cliff house:
A home that needs stairs!
So, great, right? Nope. Monsters could (and did) walk right up to the front door and do things like detonate the walls. Or else they'd shoot arrows at me if I stood on the balcony at night, unable to sleep because monsters were near.

So I moved to the end of the cliff and made a higher house with more defences:
Now known as The Death Trap.
I made this place to be safer, and wound up making it more dangerous. It was build under a rocky overhang, and it got very, very dark at night in and around the house, no matter how many times I tried to eliminate the dark corners with torches.

A skeleton manifested on my balcony (which was lit with torches) and let itself into the living area. Skeletons and other monsters aren't supposed to be able to open doors, but this one did — I heard it. Then there was the time I was trying to expand the space a little and left one corner with insufficient light — and a zombie materialised. Plus, the doorway in was facing the wrong way: it faced east, so it was always dark first at sunset.

I had learned to value sunsets.

My current dwelling has a door that faces west, so the sun shines on it until the very last moment. It's built inside of a naturally-formed rocky tower, and its floor starts 15m above ground level. The stairway up to the living space is surrounded by a courtyard with a high wall. If I make it to the courtyard, I'm almost as safe as I am in my living space.
Virtually monster-proof.
This is the dwelling where "civilisation" has really kicked in. There are large, floor-to-ceiling windows facing each of the points on the compass:
I even used resources to make a painting!
It's bright and airy, even at night, and I built a rooftop garden so I can grow plants — even trees — and not have to worry about encountering monsters:
Most gardening happens at night — 25m up with cliff-drops all around.
The monsters have become way less terrifying and more of a nuisance. Recently I've been adding to the fortifications so they can't interrupt my sleep anymore (you can't sleep if monsters are nearby). In the "back yard" I've build a covered mine that goes down to the bedrock. I've found gold and other precious minerals. I now have a clock so I can, say, dig a tunnel underground without worrying about sun position all the time when I need to go home.

Even though I've found and smelted a decent amount of iron, I still mostly work with stone tools, because I've learned to appreciate scarcity. The cultural choice on this world is to stay low-tech unless absolutely necessary — the opposite of the real-life society I live in.

The playing field worlds are randomly generated. If I'd wound up with a different sort of geography, I'd probably value different things. One of my creative mode worlds has lots of water and little land, for example, so I chose to build all the buildings on the water, rather than on the land (think of Lake Town in The Hobbit). I don't think it's possible to play Minecraft without becoming at least a bit of a sun worshipper, though.

So: geography and other environmental factors build character values, which in turn determine character choices. Character choices drive the human-shaped parts of the environment, and alter the environment to suit the character. The character's relationship with their environment changes as the environment becomes more or less safe.

There's got to be at least a few stories in there.

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