True to its promise of being an open world game, Minecraft’s in-game goals are quite open. While the game’s standard survival mode requires players collect resources to build shelter and find sources of food, the creative mode of the game eliminates these requirements and allows a player to freely use infinite resources without worry about being attacked by hostile mobs or needing to eat. While it would seem that the creative mode of Minecraft has no explicit goal, it does carry at least an implied goal of building as what the player should be trying to achieve. We completely ignored the explicit and implicit goals of Minecraft, instead using it as a tool to accomplish the goal of making a machinima narrative, and in doing so, found a completely new and compelling way to enjoy “playing”.
In making our machinima Brickland, the goal of Minecraft became to create the scenes for our narrative, rather than any of the typical goals of the game. Using the creative mode on our own server, we explored the world, finding appropriate biomes and locations that would suit our purposes, much in the same way a movie director must scout out locations to film at. We maintained a certain level of control over the area in the sense that the server is not publicly accessible, but many elements, such as monster spawns, remained for the most part uncontrolled, which in some cases added a level of spontaneity into the shots and sometimes added to or changed the course of the narrative. This interplay between space and narrative construction was interesting, as we had originally expected the narrative to be completed and then simply replicated in-game, but the game’s uncontrolled elements made themselves felt and became incorporated into the narrative. For example, the witch’s hut scene originally was written to only have the witch nearby. When we went to shoot this segment, we discovered that the game had spawned some pigs near her hut. Although we had not originally thought to have pigs there, having them randomly placed there by the game engine turned out to give us the idea that the witch should have pigs nearby, and gave us the idea to have our starving protagonist take one of her pigs while raiding her hut for tools. We had thought our narrative completed in a vacuum, yet when it was inserted into the game world, we felt it right that the narrative adapt organically to its environment.
We found ourselves thinking about the project more in terms of film creation than playing a video-game. It took time to learn to adapt movements and techniques in-game to lend themselves to the production of cinema rather than a typical play session of Minecraft. As camera operators, smooth and fluid motion was paramount, requiring mouse sensitivity adjustments that would make playing the game normally very difficult. Likewise, UI elements like the inventory hotbar normally displayed on screen that are to assist regular play were removed in order to make a more natural visual display. Often scenes were shot with two cameras in order to have alternate views of a scene to jump between, which required editing in post production to ensure that the cameraperson was kept out of the shot. This highlights how we indeed were replacing “one game structure with another” and altering our goals from “playing to win to playing to make a movie” (Lowood). Indeed, instead “of simply playing the game to win” we were pushing the boundaries of what the game could do, “using the game as a playground, laboratory, or stage” (Chien 28).
We soon found ourselves discussing things in more cinematographic language such locations, scenes, and dialogue, rather than the game-centric concepts of biomes, spawns, and mobs, again following what Richard Schechner implies is typical of the steps taken in the creation of performance art: “‘proto-performance’ (training, rehearsal, etc.), ‘performance’ (warmup through public performance and related events) and ‘aftermath’ (criticism, archives, memories)” (Schechner 191-92). Henry Lowood’s connection between filmmaking’s process of pre-production, production, and post-production and Schechner’s process of live performance well describe the steps that we went through. Our pre-production included writing the basic narrative script and location scouting, followed by the production of on-the-fly altering of our script to better adapt to the game environment and shooting the scripted scenes, and finishing off with post-production sequencing, editing, and adding additional enhancements such as effect filters, music, and on-screen graphics. Again as typical for game-based performance according to Lowood, we proudly list the software and elements used in our creation rather than try to hide these techniques.
Although significantly different in subject matter, style, and scope, Rooster Teeth Productions’ Red vs Blue was a major inspiration for this production, and the way that the members of this team were introduced to machinima as an artform. Irene Chien points to how part of the absurdist humour that Red vs Blue employs depends on how it “undermines the enemy demonization and zero-hour urgency of the original game narrative” and instead of a heroic fight of humanity against alien invaders, has each team “spend most of their time malingering in the same bleak desert canyon, trading sophomoric insults, and complaining” (Chien 27). While Brickland is not primarily a comedy and has only one major character, it likewise reflects “the shared social experience of multiplayer gaming” (Chien 27) in the sense that much of Brick’s time is spent considering how to survive without other people.
Brick’s initial excitement at finding food in the mushroom biome is quickly replaced by the realization that it cannot be enough and he must seek out another place in order to survive. Although he states the reason is that he will run out of food, his unstated reason is that he requires a social structure to give his continued existence any meaning. He readily prepares to help the village he finally encounters by building fences to help protect the village from zombies, in spite of the fact that he is unable to understand their language. His continued existence only has meaning if it is recognized by someone other than himself, and as he grows less hopeful of rescue he gravitates more toward a need to find a surrogate support network to replace the one he has lost. Brick also examines the world of Minecraft through the eyes of a non-player. As when Simmons observes the absurdity of guarding a base in the “middle of a box-canyon with no way in or out” in the first episode of Red vs Blue, Brick is constantly wondering why he can suddenly chop wood and dig dirt with his bare hands, why trees do not fall when they are chopped down, and why everything is made out of cubes. This view of the world of Minecraft from the eyes of a non-player is a vital part of Brick’s examination into the predicament he has fallen into, and provides the viewer a way to examine the absurdities of videogame worlds that players take for granted while being connected to Brick’s curiosity, fear, and loneliness.
After having spent many hours in Minecraft working on this project, we still cannot fully decide whether we were playing a videogame while doing so. The experience was extremely different from simply playing a game with the goal of simply playing a game. This article’s authors are regular gamers, and play together as often as we play apart, and yet this project brought about a completely different shared language than typical team play. Gone were the cries for assistance against newly spawned mobs, replaced by discussions of camera placement, light levels, and the direction of action according to a script. While we admit we have likely been playing Minecraft technically, the shifting of goals from “playing” to “machinima creation” made Minecraft feel much more like a tool to accomplish the goal of a cinematic presentation than a game, and just one tool of many at that. Strangely, this project has been no less fun than a videogame, and in some ways even more fulfilling. We discussed plans and techniques even when not actively working on the project, we looked into other machinima projects and have become much more attentive to musical cues and camera techniques used in television and movies to emulate these techniques where possible. The added goal of a cinematic product gave a very clear focus to this version of “playing” Minecraft that in some ways increased the enjoyment of the game for us, and in fact the process has proved so enjoyable that we are considering future projects outside of school for no other reason that it was such an enjoyable and compelling experience.
Does the nature of machinima made in a videogame change the nature of the narrative? (Can a dramatic narrative be just as dramatic when told through a cinematic made from a game?)
Who ultimately owns the video? While our team has created the narrative elements and spent the time shooting and editing, we also use the graphics and game engine that belong to Mojang. So, is the video ours, Mojang’s, some combination of the two, or none of the above?
Are we still “playing a videogame” when we are creating machinima? We did not aim for the explicit or implicit goals of Minecraft. We liberally used creative mode to provide what we needed, but did not really use the ability to build very much. We used survival mode when it suited our needs, but did not try to collect resources or progress toward “the End”. In using Minecraft as a tool, were we simultaneously “playing” it?
What should Brick do next? Although we had to stop creating episodes due to time, we are not opposed to making more in the future. What would you like to see happen? Should Brick discover that his dreams of fire and pigmen were of a real place? Should he discover his presence in the village poses some problem to them? Should he find his way back home?
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Chico, Carey. “Machinima Unplugged.” Computer Graphics World 37.4 (2014): 24-28. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Chien, Irene. “Deviation/Red Vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles.” Film Quarterly 60.4 (2007): 24-29. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
“EULA.” Mojang AB. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
Minecraft. Mojang AB. 2009. PC
Red vs Blue. Rooster Teeth. 2003. Web.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
“V2N1: Real-Time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies.” International Digital Media and Arts Association. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.