The last video game I played was Pac-Man, when I was 10 years old, sitting on the faded blue wall-to-wall carpeting of my family's living room. Decades later, my 8-year-old son sat beside me in our cluttered Brooklyn apartment and announced that he had built me a house. "Really?" I asked, "Where?" It sounded sweet, but I knew it was a setup. At this point in his life, he was obsessed with Minecraft — a video game where players build and battle. Unlike games where you follow a rigid structure to reach the end, Minecraft is a "sandbox" game, allowing players to have a series of unstructured adventures. All conversations with my son led to him either recapping something that happened in that day's game or trying to find a way to sneak in another hour in this dark universe, which many parents claimed was "semi-educational." My Luddite personality left me resistant to that idea.
Despite wanting him to wind down and go to sleep, I let him show me the house he had built for me in a meadow biome in Minecraft. I was happy with the airy wooden design and verdant (though rather blocky) landscape surrounding my new abode. I felt as if I was watching the Minecraft version of House Hunters as my son gave me a tour of my new home, including my spacious bedroom and a bed fitted with red sheets. In the Minecraft universe, we were neighbors. Although he didn't want me to live in his house, there was something so touching about him having built mine next to his.
When I put my son to bed that night after he showed me my Minecraft house, I thought that had been the beginning and end of my education on the game, but I was wrong. The next morning, during my daily search for freelance opportunities, I spotted a job posting about working on an adventure series for gamers. When I reached out, they told me that they needed a writer to create a middle-grade novel set in the Minecraft world. The main characters wouldn't be real-life players, they explained, but imaginary characters that live in the world of Minecraft. I told them about my house in the Minecraft universe, shared some writing samples, and was hired. I never mentioned that the only thing I knew about the game was that house, which I believe was destroyed a few days after my son gifted it.
This job seemed like another gift. As a widowed mom of two young kids, I was on constant lookout for writing gigs to keep up with the never-ending stack of bills that my other editing and writing jobs couldn't cover, and I needed flexible hours because an office job had proven untenable while parenting two elementary-aged kids alone. My husband had died three years earlier, when my children were 5 and 8, and we were both in our 30s. He had suffered a severe bout of depression, and while I had naively believed that because he was undergoing treatment, he'd get better, he didn't. As I tried to process the complicated emotions surrounding his suicide, while nursing my shattered heart, I also had to maintain a stable home for our children. My late husband and I both had family and friends nearby, and I couldn't sacrifice this loving community in Brooklyn to move somewhere cheaper. So in order to survive in an expensive city and support my grief-stricken family, I worked a lot.
Upon accepting this new writing gig, I was given two weeks to write a 20,000-word book set in a world I had only briefly visited. Faced with such a tight deadline, I realized I needed to immerse myself in the world of Minecraft to find my bearings. It wasn't as easy as I imagined. During a sleepless night watching YouTube videos about how to gather wood, survive various difficulty levels, and slay the Ender Dragon, I started to seriously question whether I had enough time to grasp this world and write a whole book about it. In fact, I was all but ready to email the editor and ask to cancel the contract, when I came up with an idea.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.