help your writing with video games part 2: minecraft in creative 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.

I really think Minecraft could be of use for a writer who is trying to figure out a complex physical space like a maze, a town, or the layout of a large dwelling like a mansion or a castle. This post walks through an example maze I built: a copy of the hedge maze at Hever Castle.

Hever Castle's maze is very uniform, with the paths between the hedges being about the same width as the hedges themselves. Judging from the photo, the maze is about 34x34 hedge-widths big. I translated that to 34x34 blocks, and built a 37x37 platform of sandstone to put my maze on, along with some wooden block markers to help with measuring things out:
The easiest thing to do seemed to be to start at the centre and work my way out. I grabbed one of the leaf block tools and started doing just that:
Once the maze was laid out, I went over it again and made all the hedgerows 3 blocks (3m) high. The Minecraft player avatar is 2m tall, so a 3m maze is high enough that you can't see over the tops of the maze when you're navigating through it:
The final result wasn't as beautiful as the real maze, but the maze path is the same. The next thing I did get back on the ground level and try it out:

The Hever maze isn't difficult, but it makes very efficient use of the area it covers. You basically wind up walking the entire space before making it to the centre:
The centre seemed a bit boring. For a story, I'd expect something interesting to be in the centre of a maze (more on that further down), but since this is just a demonstration I added a water fountain, some tables and chairs, and cake:
Well, so what? How does this help with writing anything?

I've now got an actual 3D model of a working, walkable maze. That means I can talk about blind alleys, wrong turns, and false exits from a working reference. Otherwise I'm stuck doing a lot of hand-waving and skipping transitional areas without knowing myself what's there. The reader will probably get lost in the narrative, but not in a good way.

I just made a rough copy of the Hever maze, but one could use it as a starting-point for a much richer world with more plot possibilities. Consider these options:
  • The maze is made of stone and has a roof over it like the labyrinth in the Minotaur myth. Or the maze is made of unbreakable glass, so you can always see outside and the centre, but you can barely make out where the walls themselves are.
  • The maze follows the same path as shown, but the centre is much larger and contains an entire castle. The castle's floor plan matches that of the surrounding maze.
  • At the centre of the maze is nothing but a trap door, and the door leads to... something cool, like a hidden city. Or another, different maze.
  • The maze's passages are streets, not paths. Replace the hedgerows with buildings. At the centre is the magistrate's building, or the market square, or...
Now, you may argue that any one of these things may be written about without creating a model or map first, and you'd be right. My counter-argument is simply that you'll do a better job of being consistent if you have a reference.

Furthermore, you might discover possibilities for conflict, plot points, and world-building that would have been harder to discover without the visual model.

To be fair, I'd guess that most writers would prefer a rough-and-ready version of their models, rather than some of the elaborately detailed (and beautiful) creations diehard Minecraft builders make. It's the difference between a film set and a real location. But even this very rough Hever maze copy only took about an hour and a half to create. If you're going to write a longer work with a complex landscape in it — a building with secret passages important to the story, say — isn't it worth it to figure out a physical structure that actually works?

Bonus: you can include a map or rendering of your model with the story so that readers can look at it. If the story has physical navigation as an important factor, readers enjoy that. Consider what The Lord of the Rings would be like without the map of Middle Earth in the end-papers.

Next week: notes on how Minecraft's survival mode can be used for ideas.