Ending an endless game: an interview with Julian Gough, author of Minecraft's epic finale

Born in 1966, raised in Galway on the west coast of Ireland, and now resident in Berlin, Julian Gough has been many things: lyricist and singer for cult Irish rock band Toasted Heretic; author of the novels Juno & Juliet, Jude: Level 1 and most recently Jude in London; poet, playwright and polemicist. Julian and I met around five years ago, when I was an editor at Prospect magazine and he had just won the 2007 National Short Story Award. We're now both full-time writers and have stayed in touch ever since, sharing a love of genre fiction and video games, fascination in the future possibilities of narrative, and sporadic despair at the state of contemporary literature.

This conversation took place in December 2011, prompted by one of the most unusual commissions of Julian's writing life: his invitation to write a story to end the indie gaming masterpiece Minecraft in time for its official launch at Las Vegas in November 2011.

Tom Chatfield: So, how did you come to be writing the ending for Minecraft?

Julian Gough: A series of coincidences, like a lot of things in life. I live in Berlin now, and a couple of years ago a friend of mine called Robert Zetzsche organized something called BIG: The Berlin Indie Game Jam. Some people came over for it, and I said there was a nice cafe round the corner from me, so they organized it in the upstairs there: it was a small thing, really.

I met some nice people and saw some games. As it turned out later, and I didn't realize this then, one of the people I had met was Markus Persson – aka Notch. At the time, he was just a guy in a hat working on a new game. Then in 2011 the completed version of the game was about to be launched in Las Vegas and they still didn't have an ending, so Markus tweeted a request saying: does anyone know any talented writers, famous would be a bonus.

A couple of people who must have known us both from BIG recommended me, because they had read my fiction. So I got an email which I was not expecting, saying: would you like to write a high quality piece of narrative for the end of this game, Minecraft? Basically you can do whatever you like: surprise me. Which was an amazing, open brief. 

It was only much later that I realized that this was the guy in the hat I had met two years earlier. I don't know if he remembered me. He just tweeted.

TC: Was there any kind of audition process or dialogue?

JG: No, he just tweeted, some people recommended me, then he sent me an email.

TC: You didn't even need to reply to the tweet personally?

JG: No, I didn't even know he'd tweeted! I just got this email and I was like, what the fuck, what is that about? Why is he asking me? And then of course I Googled away like crazy and realized how big Minecraft was.

TC: You hadn't really heard of it?

JG: This is the weird thing: I'd played it briefly in alpha in Berlin along with a bunch of other things – and Minecraft hadn't even stood out at the time, because I was mostly just looking over people's shoulders. 

TC: So you looked it up, saw what it was…

JG: …and realized how big it had become, which was a bit scary. Then I downloaded it, started playing and asking friends about it, thinking oh my god I've got to do a crash course in this. I immersed myself in it completely for a while to get it into my system.

TC: And you were given total freedom in what you wrote?

JG: I gave Markus an idea of what I was going for, once I knew myself, and he said great, that sounds good. And when I finally delivered it he said that it tied in with some of his feelings about the universe. That was nice, that we were philosophically on the same page. He didn't cut a word.

TC: That's the complete opposite of most experience of writing for video games, when your words are usually part of a very, very complex mechanism, and have to be precisely tailored to match the rest of it.

JG: Yeah, this was the opposite of the usual game writing experience, and that I think was what Markus wanted. I didn't have to explain where the dragons came from. He just wanted me to do something interesting and original, because it's a very interesting and original game, and he wanted something that people weren't expecting at the end. Like an ending, in fact. I mean, a lot of people didn't want the game to have an ending at all, and I totally understand that.

TC: How much Minecraft would you say you've played yourself?

JG: Oh, embarrassingly little compared to the people who are really into it. In a way, I felt that Minecraft is what it is, and I didn't want to explain it all away. I didn't want to get inside the game and feel I had to explain everything that happened in it at the end, because people had had their own stories in their own minds. I wanted to do an ending that was outside of the game.

TC: That's interesting to me, because there is this huge contrast between the ending you wrote – which is essentially a fairly cryptic short story 1,500 words long – and Minecraft itself, a sandbox game that's famous for its openness. I think people have given your story the title "wake up", because that line comes at the end, and it feels like it's about different layers of dreams, or realities…

JG: The word "dream" gets used, but it's really a story about the dream of a game, and the dream of life. It's dream as metaphor. I love the strangeness that comes when people get so lost in a game that the game becomes the world. Because you do get lost like that. Especially in something like Minecraft, that's so endless. You're actually startled to come back into your life at the end of it. So I wanted to play with that moment, where you're between two worlds, and for a short little period you're not sure which one is more real.

TC: Yes – and, as your story seems to suggest, the way in which we get lost in playing games is very much like the way we can get lost in the stories we tell about our own lives. I'm fascinated by this relationship between games and stories, because it always seems to come back to the tension between a pre-written story you're being told, and the story you're making up yourself in real time as you play a game.

JG: The fact that we write the stories of our own lives is very interesting. We're hardwired to be storytellers, and when we look back on our lives we build them into stories. And the more we find out about the nature of human consciousness, the clearer it is that we are making up stories after the facts a lot of the time, to make sense of decisions that we've made at a totally unconscious level: we have to make them into a story in order to navigate our own personal universe.

When someone goes into therapy, for example, you see how they can build two totally different stories about their life from exactly the same materials. When you're playing a computer game, especially a very open one, you're creating a self and an epic adventure that you're the hero of. But you're also doing that in real life when you're walking down the street.

TC: So the format you went for in the story was an overheard dialogue: the player is effectively listening in on two alien intelligences talking about them. Where did that come from?

JG: I wanted a dreamy kind of feeling, like you'd broken through something. When you're playing Minecraft in Survival mode, you're performing a quest that is difficult and takes a long time. I felt that at the end of the quest there should be some moment of enlightenment, some ambiguous wisdom. That you should have something to bring back – and you should feel you've broken through into some other level. That is the feeling I wanted, and I liked the idea of an overheard dialogue to create it.

Now, here's an odd thing. When writers look back over stories, they make up a story about the story and say, oh, I wanted to do this, I wanted to do that. But that's not actually true to how it feels at the time. If I went back and told you what it was like writing it, it was quite odd, because I started trying to write my way into it and thinking, what do I want – but about half way through it, I had an odd feeling that doesn't happen very often, where my hand started moving faster than my thoughts and I was just watching my hand.

Probably for the last third of the piece, as it ended up, I didn't really change it at all, because I found myself writing it in the first draft and almost floating back and looking at my hand moving, and being very pleased and surprised to see what came out next.

TC: Thee story itself seems to encode that kind of automatic writing process: this idea that you're taking dictation from the universe.

JG: Yes, and by the end of it I actually felt like I was taking dictation from the universe. Now, I'm sure there are many ways of interpreting that experience that don't require cosmic voices from unknown entities to be talking to each other, but it actually did feel like I was taking dictation. So perhaps it is real wisdom in the story, who knows?

TC: It always seems to me there are two approaches to stories in games. The first is where the story is a linear thing, albeit with many branches, and you trot along making decisions and progressing through a plot that has been scripted in advance. And the second is what I call environmental story-telling: where everything is simply there to be discovered, and rather than a plot progressing as you take actions, the real narrative occurs as you piece together how the world you're in came to be like this.

Most games have a mixture of these things. But I always worry that there is something fundamentally bogus about the first type of story-telling in a game, because it betrays the power of games as a medium: you're squandering the chance to build a truly exciting, coherent other world based on allowing a player freedom of action.

JG: Somebody else was saying this recently, a guy with a very Irish name. I read a couple of things by him – he was saying, and it's a big influence on me at the moment, that linear storytelling is a bad use of what games can do. In games, we are creating worlds and environments, and the environment is the story, and it's an infinite story: a hologram. Look at it from any angle, and it's going to be different.

TC: It may sound strange, but in some ways your ending to Minecraft reminded me of the film Inception. I thought Inception was crap in a lot of ways; but what I felt it captured very well was the experience of "coming up" after entering the other world of a game, in this image of someone falling in slow motion as music grows louder around them.

During the end of Minecraft, you're forced to sit there for nine or ten minutes watching a very slowly scrolling screen full of text, and nothing else. It's a bit like the slow-motion fall in Inception – or like a hypnotist counting gradually down from ten to one. I know it irritated and bemused many players, or they saw it as a joke….

JG: Yeah, some of them really didn't like it.

TC: But more interestingly than that dislike, for me, was the fact that this ending really got to some people emotionally. It's remarkable and strange – but entirely of a piece with reactions I've seen to other games – that some people seem to have gone away and thought about it loads. Those ten minutes have been a kind of miniature spiritual experience for them.

JG: Brilliant! Because that's what I wanted to do. And I have been getting messages on Twitter from people for whom that's what seems to have happened: they can't stop thinking about it, or are thinking about it a week later. I'm not going to take all the credit for it, but it's like I've triggered some kind of emotion that was in them already. I've had some extremely touching messages – it's kind of embarrassing to talk about – from people saying "thank you", and that it really made them think, or that it was beautiful.

Of course, a lot of that comes out of the fact that this story is at the end of Minecraft: it would be very different if they had read it cold. I dip into forums from time to time to see people arguing about it, and it's had the whole range of big reactions, which I think is a good thing. I'm always interested in stuff people hate, almost as much as stuff they love.

TC: I was the lead writer for a game called The End in 2011 – a free-to-play Flash game for Channel 4 Education, for which I designed what you might call a philosophy mechanic, where people answered philosophical questions and it suggested ideas about their personality and beliefs. And one really interesting thing for me was just how receptive people were to quite big ideas through the context of a game, and how this gaming context also seemed to bring some big emotional reactions with it.

Some people got angry and were saying the writing was crappy, high school stuff – and some people were saying they had spent half an hour thinking about one question. But it was the emotional intensity and depth of engagement that got me, compared to what usually happens when I write for a newspaper or something…

JG: Yes, it's much more engaging in a game: you get right under people's skin.

TC: I think this is another reason why I'm so interested in the film Inception, to go back to that, because part of its message is that if you go deep enough into the dream – or into a game – you can seed an idea in someone, and it will get to them in that paranoid, strange little place where myths are born or perpetuated.

JG: That's certainly what I wanted to do. And I was greatly relieved when it turned out that it was working for some people. In fact, I would say that there are mental states accessible through computer games that similar to those accessible through drugs or meditation or religious experiences. You can break the shell of your mind, and find that your mind is bigger than you thought it was: there are frames beyond frames.

This probably sounds terribly pretentious, but fuck it. I'm fascinated by computer games. They are capable, I think, of helping us achieve any of the mental states that we are capable of achieving. They are not a genre, not a toy; they are infinite, and we haven't begun to explore what they can do.

TC: The gaming pioneer Richard Bartle talks about games in mythic terms: how your personal encounter with a game space maps quite closely to the mythical idea of "the hero's journey." You go in as this novice, this noob, make your way through perils and challenges, become heroic and powerful, and triumph over adversity.

This surely describes our experience of so many game-worlds. At the very end of Minecraft, you slay a dragon, for goodness sake! Markus has gone for the mythic bullseye.

JG: Yeah. I'm a huge fan of the original book about the hero's Journey, by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I've read it quite a few times, and love his idea that there is one mythic story through all cultures – the monomyth – and that if you tease out the elements of any myths in any part of the world, they are the same story.

The next step, which is the one that interests me, is that this monomyth is essentially a metaphor for the individual journey that we all have to go in our lives. Whether we leave the house or not, whether we pick up a sword or not, we are going to have to go on a journey, encounter the universe, and try not to be destroyed by it – try to grow, and to come out of it with knowledge.

The trouble is that we start to believe that a myth is actually a set of facts, and that destroys it. If we think it's actually a story about a guy who got nailed to a tree, or who went up to heaven off the top of a building – if we think these things actually happened, it kills it for us, because these are stories that are trying to go beyond language and words, beyond what we can say, to the unsayable truth.

Campbell's argument – he wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces just after World War Two – was that we live in a time when all the myths are dead, and this means that we're in trouble, because it means that we don't actually know how to achieve wisdom. We don't have a stable myth that works, and so it is the job of the artist to try and make myths that are alive again. Campbell was really excited when Star Wars came out, because George Lucas had famously based Star Wars on The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And by god it worked – in every single culture around the world!

I think computer games can serve the function of religion. They can do the good bits that religion used to do, and hopefully not do the bad bits…

TC: This has an interesting connection to that word "game", which is inadequate in many ways, but has the great advantage that it insists on not being taken literally or seriously. 

JG: Yes, the playfulness of the myths is very important, and it's when they lose their playfulness they die.

TC: Yet one of the counterpoints to the idea of games expanding our consciousness is what's sometimes called the solipsistic argument – it's explored in science fiction by authors like Greg Egan. Essentially, it argues that we're beginning to create simulations that are tailor-made to tick our evolutionary boxes, that are fun and rewarding – and this is dangerously seductive and easeful. So the future of humanity may be one in which we are addicted to toys, rather than seeing a great expansion of consciousness.

JG: The trouble with working in an advertising-funded capitalist-structured world is that everything does tend to start speaking that language, including games. But what I think and hope we are going to have is the equivalent of the novel, where you have a mass-market product that most people consume, like they chew chewing gum or eat sweets – but you also get the Thomas Pynchons and Jane Austens and Shakespeares of the game world, who will do something meaningful.

It's okay, I think, as long as only ninety or ninety-five percent of what's out there is shit. I don't think people can handle a relentless series of deeply meaningful encounters. I'm just about to start something on Twitter, in fact, from chatting to some friends of mine: the unfashionable book club. I think the first entry is going to be a Dick Francis racing thriller. Because some of the stuff that is absolutely genre, and making zero attempt to expand your consciousness, actually has tremendous power, and seems to me to be an important part of the culture that gets neglected by the elite. It's a vital part of the cultural diet: and there's a different between good crap and bad crap, it's not all the same.

TC: Yes. In games, too, I think there's the risk of a dangerous kind of snobbery. When you look at massive social and casual games like Angry Birds and Farmville, a lot of marketing people rub their hands and look at the money, and a lot of high-minded gamers stick their noses in the air and talk about them as a kind of fodder for gaming plebs. But this means that interesting lessons aren't being learned about why hundreds of millions of people are enjoying playing things like this.

Speaking of which – what kind of lessons and inspirations, if any, do you think we could be taking from Minecraft?

JG: I'm still most inspired by its openness, and by what people do: the crazy Zeppelins, the Starship Enterprise. It's infinite, and I love the way that it can be a completely different game for everybody. Your personality can come through.

I love seeing what people do: when they build a mile-high penis, even. It's all good. In a way, it connects your conscious and your unconscious, which is always a good thing. We don't get enough of it in our daily lives – and you can't really do it in your office, just go and build a giant penis in the corner.

It's not just mucking around, though. In an open game like Minecraft, you sometimes find out about yourself in a way that is interesting. Do you want to dig down and hide; do you want to build up a fortress?

TC: When I play in Survival mode, I always like to build a tower first, square and straight, with torches on the walls all the way up to drive off baddies. Then I can stand safely on the roof, above the clouds. And then, only then, do I dig down, with doors to seal me off from the dark, after the beacon is in place.

Which probably says a lot about me as a person. It could almost be a tool for psychoanalysis. You watch someone play and see whether they build up, dig down, hide, go out killing, explore, create…

JG: I'm not much of a one for killing. I'd rather build up bigger, madder things. But I think I'm a bit blocked and calcified. I need to go nuts in Minecraft for a bit, and find out who I am.

Tom Chatfield is the author of three books on digital culture, including Fun Inc., which explores the culture of video games. His next book, How to Thrive in a Digital Age, is forthcoming worldwide from Macmillan in May 2012. He tweets at @TomChatfield and blogs at http://tomchatfield.net