The Sandbox Storytelling Success of Minecraft, Dungeons & Dragons, and Me...

2016’s Stranger Things kicked off a resurgence in the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, and I am a part of that resurgence. My D&D group began in 2017, a collection of longtime friends and theatre peeps.

art by my friend Casey

 Man, there were phenomenal actors in that group. I was the “backstage” guy, so it was a bit intimidating trying to roleplay with that crowd. I think I found my niche with a studious little gnome wizard named Jor R.R. Molkien. He was a bit self-centered with tunnel vision, but he did the right thing when it came down to it. We played together for four years.


My friend who ran the campaign (the dungeon master) allowed us to create our own mini-quests and have character goals outside of the story he had been planning. He had created a vibrant collective sandbox world for the players to play in.


In videogames, I think sometimes the concepts of “sandbox” and “open” world get mixed up, usually, I think, because many sandbox games are open worlds and vice versa. But, I’d like to give a quick definition: “Open worlds” are games where there are minimal limits to a player’s decisions about where to go on the map. Players are encouraged to roam, search, explore, and select the tasks they wish to complete. “Sandboxes” are games which give the player the tools to be creative and then sets them free to employ their imaginations. There’s a bigger emphasis on players being able to change and control the gameplay.


By my definitions, it’s pretty hard to think of a game that is a sandbox without being an open world. The one I’ve come up with is The Sims. Back when I was a teen, this game gave you a plot of land. You built a house, created a family, and then you got to watch your Sims play out their lives. You got the tools to enjoy messing with (or sometimes torturing) your Sims in a million creative ways, but it was contained to the house you built. There wasn’t a huge open world to explore.


On the flip side, a game that rests in an open world but is not really a sandbox might be Marvel's Spider-Man for the PS4. You can go anywhere you want in the world, but you can’t really creatively manipulate and control the world within all that much. For example, when you web a citizen, nothing really happens and they run away. There’s not much experimentation.


A more sandbox-level game like GTA would allow you to do what you want to the citizens (however, there are consequences, such as the police chasing you down). Actions get reactions, sometimes unexpected. Often generative of the moment. And, of course, there are varying degrees to which a game can employ the elements of open world and/or sandbox gameplay.


My DM would often say, “Tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you what to roll to see if you can do it.”


I think that’s what made my longtime D&D campaign so great. My DM understood how to properly balance open world and sandbox elements, which allowed the players to collectively be a part of the shape and direction of the story.

“The path is never a straight line.”


Minecraft came at me during a whirlwind time of my life. I got swept up and carried away by major life decisions and transitions, and I think this is where my virtual life became a bigger sandbox than my real life.


I joined during the Alpha. The first time I played Minecraft, it was just block madness. I remember my first time logging into a game. I played in-browser. You could place blocks or destroy them in an instant, and it was all creative mode. This was after summer, 2010. I had just graduated college with my English Education degree. I had no job prospects. I had no idea what to do next.


But I did have a girlfriend of two years. She set her heart on moving as far away from Belleville as possible, and to that, and my choice became either get married and go with her or end it and enter the unknown of adulthood by myself.  


I scrolled back through my social media during that time... interestingly, my reading choices then were Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Stephen King’s It. Both of those books are mind-bending cornerstones of my reading life. The end of It struck me from the inside out. <Spoilers> the town caves in on itself. Derry was the monster, or one aspect of it. With the death of Pennywise, the city could not maintain itself. I remember reading that, but I was there.

I was in Belleville, Illinois, but walking down the same streets as the Loser’s Club. Would I always be here? Or would I ever leave? My friends had moved on already, to live and work across the map of the USA. The prospects of becoming a “townie” were growing. I was Mike Hanlon, the only one to stay. My rock-and-roll bandmates left. My theatre company was nearing the end. Everyone else was finding success across the map.


Meanwhile, my digital life took off. I started a Minecraft server of my very own. It was a java server, meaning, I could update it with mods or whatever I wanted. I posted the link on a Minecraft forum and people started trickling onto my server from all over the world. We built cities on one map, which I titled “Otherside.” As the owner of the server, I played god. I could cultivate the community and set goals. I could destroy. I could create. I could fly around and make others take the train.

My escape into Minecraft was perpetuated, I realize, from my real life’s lack of sandbox and open world elements. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t do anything. In fact, I barely knew what to do next, other than go to work each day at the Home Depot, watching old ladies choose between swatches of carmine to crimson (don’t paint your living room red, yo, you’ll regret it) and blending it for them in the cheapest bucket they could find (but do we really need primer?).


So, when my girlfriend decided she was going to leave, move far away from Belleville with or without me, I chose what looked like the path of adventure. I got married in October of 2010. Minecraft went into Beta in December. My new wife and I moved to Seattle in July of 2011.

At a rest stop driving from Belleville to Seattle

Leaving Southern Illinois felt like my first true “open world” reality moment. I quit my job. I sold my car (my wife’s was better). I got rid of any possession that I couldn’t deem as essential. I even remembering telling my Minecraft server to expect a hiatus while I got settled in a new city. We packed a car and drove off across America. She had a job lined up, but I didn’t. We didn’t have an apartment, either. Nobody told me what I needed to do next.


All my life, there was a track. School, mostly. Elementary, middle, high school, university. I remember seeing the giant wind turbines in Wyoming, thinking, I was as free as could be. Not sure if I really was, but the feeling was there. We stopped and bought cherries, fresh from a farm, ate them while viewing the mountain ranges of the State of Washington for the first time.


Landing in Seattle had some beautiful chaos to it. We stayed in a hostel for a few week as we sorted out the details. Our stay was in the International District, and during the Chinese Dragon Festival. The streets each day were fun to be on. I explored this new world, doing whatever I wished. Of course, I also spent time job hunting. I got hired after about 2 weeks to one the hardest places I’ve ever had to work, which was at KinderCare Learning Center. We did get an apartment, too. Our first year in Seattle had many fun things: starting-over, making all new friends, seeing completely new sights... etc. After that year, I think the open world elements scaled back quickly. I don’t think either of us were happy. What had been refreshing—not knowing anyone and starting over—became isolating and lonesome.


I dove deeper into my Minecraft server. Back to my escape. My server grew. I had hundreds of different people on each day. People built entire cities. Entire worlds.


That marriage didn’t work out. I moved back to Belleville after two years, and my perspective was fresh. Seattle was different but not that different. Belleville wasn’t Derry. A few of my friends moved back, too. As my life lost direction, my need for Minecraft slowly faded. I enjoyed having a sandbox of reality again, and wild things happened constantly.




I think what makes it easily one of the greatest games of all time is that it is not a story, but it is a platform for storytelling. It’s a reality, where storytelling elements are baked in. Secrets are threaded throughout, but the mysteries are what the players make of them. Imagine being teleported to the world of Sherlock Holmes—the atmosphere is ready, the world is populated, everything is randomly generated, and the clues have been hidden throughout. But—the clues direct the players to the mysteries the players they themselves generate. I think of this as sandbox storytelling. Minecraft is a platform, the game is whatever the players decide.


I have more to say about this, but I think I’ll end with this: My goal is to author a platform, not just a story. I want to figure out the magic that can turn a book I write into a sandbox where readers can take the lead and go wherever they want to. That’s the secret ingredient I’m working on discovering. 

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