In which I discuss Minecraft

Minecraft is a hell of a thing, and I’m dismayed at the lack of coverage from the larger sites. That said, I realize that there’s simply not much of a venue for it in the structure of traditional games coverage. It’s out in Alpha form, but you can buy it (~$14), so it doesn’t really fit into the preview/review spectrum. It’s not really news, though there’s plenty of relevant news associated with it, and while plenty of writers could blog about it most sites don’t do much in the way of promoting their editor/user blogs. This is all very unfortunate, since it’s a fascinating game that really everyone should be checking out and chatting about. (And if you’re not planning on reading any further, at least check out this video.)

What I’m most impressed by, and what inspired me to awkwardly break my five-month long silence (and my 15-year sabbatical from PC games), is how it accomplishes so much with so little, and elegantly demonstrates so many elements that speak to the most basic compelling tenets of the medium. For lack of a less cliché generality, it really shows off the power of video games.

Starting up a new game, you’re dumped into a randomly generated landscape of voxel-y tree-dotted hills, snowy mountains, stretches of desert, vast lakes, and gaping cave mouths. Worlds can vary hugely, but they usually encompass at least a few of those elements in some form. And while the blocky aesthetic keeps it in obviously unrealistic territory, I’ve found the worlds to be far more immersive, intriguing, and substantive than those in even the most “realistic” games. The distribution of the geometry may be random, but it doesn’t feel random in the same way that action-RPG dungeons do; rather, it feels natural and, importantly, unpredictable. Awkward edges jut up against each other, pieces of land sometimes float in the sky for no apparent reason, rivers spring forth from cliff faces and immediately pour down cavernous sinkholes. There’s no comfort of scrupulously set paths or sensibly navigable structures. And as diluted as modern level design can be from focus testing and endlessly massaging players’ relationship to their environment, it feels much more genuine and empowering exploring a world that isn’t baby-proofed.

The experience – and perhaps the point – of the game revolves around harvesting/mining different elements that occur naturally in the world, and creating tools, structures and new elements out of them. One thing leads to another, and soon you’re putting parapets on your castle in between excursions into the local cave for buckets of lava to heat up Jacuzzi Island (not that I’ve taken it that far, yet, but I’m mighty proud of my decently-lit protective hovel). When the sun sets, a variety of deadly monsters emerge and wander the world til daybreak, so most days are spent building/gathering while nights are spent hiding/mining. There’s no instruction, no outlined goals, and no indication that most of these elements even exist as potential gameplay opportunities (outside of the less subtle being-torn-apart-by-monsters-post-midnight).

As overwhelming as it can feel at first (especially if you’re aware of the nighttime threat going into it), there’s an immediate wonderful sense of discovery and desire for exploration that I haven’t felt since first emerging from the sewers in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. And with that feeling layered on top of the sense of attachment that comes from existing in a world grown just for you, the novelty becomes something quite substantially more than that.

While your results may vary based on why and how you play games, I couldn’t help but want to carve out my own little spot in the world as soon as possible, and make it mine. I dug out a beachfront hillside, put some lights on my stoop so that I could see it from far away if I got lost getting home one evening, popped a front door in flanked by some flashy glass panels, and starting expanding; bedroom, kitchen nook, basement. But as I struck ground beneath my feet, the square of floor fell away to expose a dark cavern: my first true mine, and the closest I’ve come to experiencing the feeling of the secret sound from Zelda. I scrounged up the materials for a few feet of ladder, and headed down. And down. And down. Dozens of branching passageways, sudden drops, pockets of running lava. And from time to time, the heart-stopping shuffle or moan of a zombie or a skeleton. The presence of enemies can be truly terrifying, again despite their one-track behavior and Legoland looks. You’ll almost always hear them before you see them, and it can be tough to tell whether they’re two caverns away or right behind you. I had a giant spider that would just camp out on the ridge above my nook, night after night, hissing until the sun came up and assuring that I’d never step foot outside.

While much of the buzz around Minecraft is communicated through videos of massive creations people have built within the engine or feats that they’ve collaborated on, I find the experience itself to be even more powerful than the toolset. Seeing that someone has built a calculator in LittleBigPlanet is stunning, but it’s nowhere near as special as being introduced to your Sackboy for the first time while Stephen Fry tells you to make a cheeky face. This is something like that.

There’s been talk of adding more traditional RPG tropes as the game develops, a little more structure. Interesting as that may be, I hope that it never ventures too far from what’s made it so relevant and exciting in the current landscape: a confluence of approachable aesthetic, austere mechanics, communal creativity, and – most importantly – pure, unchecked adventure.

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Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 3:37 am  Comments (6)