2021 07 18 01.43.32
Image: Kate Gray

It's the fifth anniversary of Minecraft's Switch release today, and we're celebrating the only way we know how: By writing lots of words about it. Hooray!

I was away from home when my house caught on fire. I didn't even hear about it until the next day, when it was far too late: The beautiful Tudor-style cottage was naught but a smouldering shell, the fire long since burned out.

The downstairs living room, entirely furnished in wood, stood no chance; the copper counters of the upstairs kitchen fared better, but the long-gone wood flooring meant that it was impossible to actually use it. The stairs, also wood, were tucked away in a corner that the fire had not managed to reach, so I was able to take a look at the destroyed upper floor. There were gaping holes where the window frames used to be, surrounded by charred stone, and the oak roof — where the fire had been started by an errant lightning bolt — had disappeared entirely.

This was not a house I could live in. I was devastated. It had taken me hours to build.

(In case it's not clear from the title or the photos, this is a house in Minecraft. My real house is very much still alive, at least for now.)

But as the early morning light filtered its way through the rubble, I realised something: What I now possessed, instead of a liveable house, was a beautiful ruin — something much more creatively inspiring. After all, anyone can build a house, but a ruin is something organic, something that can only be made by nature. Or, well, a simulation of nature.

With the help of friends, who felt badly for me having to start from scratch, I filled the cottage's carcass with plants. Moss grew happily over the exposed foundation, and vines snaked their way across the remaining walls, draping down to the carpet of grass like long curtains. The deep browns and greys of the house were replaced with vibrant greens, and the pinks, whites, reds and yellows of various flora; sunflowers and roses bloomed happily where sofas and tables used to be.

The original house had taken me a long time to build, but converting it into a ruined garden took even longer — because it was my project, not a tutorial, and not something that needed symmetry and perfection. Its beauty lay in chaos, in looking like the natural disorder of the outdoors. It was incredibly fun to both build and look back on, and although I could no longer live there (I mean, I could, technically — the beds were still there) I liked it much better as a ruin.

Emergent narrative is a story that wasn't written or put there by the developers, but something that happens organically

That's just one example of something that happens in games called "emergent narrative" — a story that wasn't written or put there by the developers, but something that happens organically. Games are great for this, because so many of them are unscripted and unpredictable, but even the ones that are quite heavily scripted will give the player a sense of ownership over their story.

In The Witcher 3, for example, my Geralt would have a shave and a haircut right before he went on dates — something unnecessary that the game doesn't require, but that adds to my sense of agency in the game. In Fallout 4, I had my romantic interest go missing because of, well, Fallout's legendarily janky scripting, I presume — but I didn't entirely mind, because it made the relatively by-the-books romance into a tragic story of a wasteland widow. That's way cooler, even if he was carrying some of my nicer equipment when he went AWOL.

In games like Minecraft, which are far sandboxier, an emergent narrative is shaped more directly by the players. The story of my tragic house fire and my inspiring recovery was not created by Mojang, and neither was it facilitated by NPCs or story quests like the examples I just gave. Instead, Minecraft provides you with two things: A box of toys, and the freedom to use your imagination to create stories with those toys.

I have a ton of stories from Minecraft as a result. Some are more interesting than others — I don't think you want to hear the tale of dragging a polar bear across miles of tundra to bring him to a special bear cave I made for him in my house — but the thing they all have in common is that they're mine.

They're even part of my life story, too.

The villager trading hall I built with my long-distance partner, where all the villagers were named "Toby" and therefore the hall itself was named the "Tobatorium"; the time we went on a massive Nether-related adventure only to end up at the bottom of the sea; the special secret rooms we would build to cheer each other up — all of these are part of our relationship.

Minecraft has been out for a lot longer than the five years it's been on Switch, of course. It first went public in early access in May 2009, before being released fully in 2011, making it older than a lot of the people who play it today. Some people have over a decade of emergent narratives like mine: Worlds they've built up from shacks to sprawling metropolises, people they've become closer to through stacking blocks, hard times they've made it through with the help of big cubey polar bears.

So, I invite you to tell your emergent narrative story from Minecraft in the comments! Happy birthday Minecraft, and may there be many more to come.