What could I possibly write that hasn’t already been written about Minecraft. In the last two months the game has gone from relative obscurity to virtual infamy. If you are a serious gamer, it is easy to sit back and view the Nintendo 64 era graphics and discount it as yet another viral internet phenomena. As a very serious gamer of almost 35 years, I have to tell you it is worth almost every single bit of the hype machine surrounding it.
Why you should care about Minecraft
One of the biggest problems surrounding Minecraft is the fact that so many of the articles I have read are about the “phenomena” and not the game experience itself. This is especially true with what I like to refer to as “brand name” publications. Somewhere in a corner office, someone noticed that Minecraft was trending on Twitter, and decided that their games editor should do a piece on it. What we the reader ends up with is a piece completely aghast with how someone has managed to buck the system and make over 5 million dollars off a game that isn’t even finished yet.
Some of my fondest memories growing up were spending time with my dad. We used to sit in the floor of the living room with an assortment of cardboard boxes, building blocks, containers, and From them fashion the most elaborate and complicated bases for my action figures. In my little mind, I would build imaginary narratives about the wars my troops were having, and the adventures they were going on. Playing Minecraft is just like sitting in the floor with my dad all those years ago, or at least it flexes the same mental muscles.
Your only weapon is imagination
Above is the video that started it all for me. It was posted by a user on a forum I frequent, talking about a game that a whole bunch of his guildmates had been playing. I’ve heard a good number of folks say that in order to understand the draw of Minecraft, you just have to play it. This is true to an extent, but about halfway through this video I “got it”. I had this moment where I could see the massive potential behind this relatively simple concept laid out in front of me.
The game has a number of gameplay modes, but the one I will be covering today primarily is known as survival. Your character is placed into a completely random generated world, and at first it is really hard to wrap your head around the truth of that statement. The world you were just dropped into is in its entirety roughly eight times the size of the earth. Everything you can see, on all horizons is made up of little blocks and these blocks can be interacted with by the user. If you hit a tree with your hand long enough, it will break into wooden blocks… that can then be used to make tools… that can be used to harvest other materials.
Each resource you gather lets you do something new and cool through the crafting system, which is both intuitive and engaging. Unlike MMO games, you aren’t spoon fed patterns to items. You have to look at the materials at hand and reason what you might possibly be able to make from them. Sure there are a series of great help sites out there, like Minepedia, but for the most part they all make a kooky kind of sense. You basically “sketch” the item in the crafting window with the raw materials in order to create it.
You aren’t alone
Minecraft would not be much of a “survival” game if it were just you and a series of blocks ripe for the harvesting sitting around. The fact that it is quite literally virtual legos’ is amazing, but the game goes much more deep than that. The world you live in functions on a day and night cycle. Each leg of this journey lasts 7 minutes of real time. During the day cute and friendly animals spawn like the ones seen in the picture above. These can be harvested for food, clothing and armor… which you will need to do quite often.
And you might ask yourself, why exactly do you need armor? During the night all manner of wicked things spawn that are dead set on killing your poor defenseless blocky self. Along with nighttime, Monsters can spawn anywhere it is not illuminated such as enclosed caves. It’s time to dust off that childhood fear, because once more it is rational to fear the dark.
Build to Survive
Building in Minecraft is not just something you do for style, it is a necessary survival trait. You are dropped into this game, exposed with nothing to defend yourself. From the moment you enter the game you essentially have seven minutes to build some form of shelter in order to survive the coming night. If you are out in the open when night falls with no weapons, and no armor you will die quickly. A single spider can rapidly shred your hitpoints to nothing in a matter of moments, let along the onslaught of zombies, skeletal archers, and the silent but deadly creeper.
Your first few cycles, you frantically try and gather resources during the safety of the day with your eyes always to the glowing orb in the sky watching for signs of the impending night. As you expand your base, built defenses, your realm of influence increases. You begin to have more area to move around at night safely. You figure out how to grow all the resources you need from outdoors in caves. You become the “master of your domain”.
Then a Creeper shows up and blows a hole in your base. This guy, is the creeper. It has become the “unofficial” mascot for Minecraft. It will go down in the annals of gaming history as one of the “cheapest” mobs ever. Most of the monsters in Minecraft have very distinct sounds, and you can hear them a mile away so you have plenty of time to react.
The Creeper however has no idle sounds associated with it. Its default action is to run up to the player as soon as it sees them, and it’s only attack is to explode 4 seconds after getting within 1 block of the player. The warning the player receives is the sound of a hissing fuse, which is just fast enough to say “oh sh!t”, but not really fast enough to react.
Creepers have the nasty trait of being able to stick around during daylight hours if they spawned the night before. So as you exit your base to begin a day of foraging, the player always has to be on the watch out for stray creepers. Dying to a creeper is annoying, but even more annoying is the fact that when they explode they take out an 8 block radius, which could mean they just blew a hole in the side of that castle you worked so hard to build.
Bridging the Gaps
Minecraft is a game that really lets you express your creativity in ways that you normally cant in traditional games. Above is the Riksdagshuset (Swedish Parliment building), that was created entirely in Minecraft by a player known as ecrider as a christmas gift to the games creator Notch (Markus Persson). This is just one of the many examples of phenomenal creations that players have built using the game.
Personally I’ve been playing with a few friends, and I find that each of us is excited to tell the others about our latest creations along with screenshots. Several of my friends are playing this with their children, letting them help decide what new creations to build. The multiplayer game, while still very incomplete, has been able to boast server after server of lush player created communities. On one server I just found out about a few nights ago, the players attempted to replicate the look and feel of the underwater city of Rapture from the Bioshock games. As the game gets closer to beta the multiplayer should get closer and closer to replicating all the functionality of the single player game.
If you ended up skipping down to this paragraph, here is the quick sell. Over the last several months Minecraft has generated a prodigious amount of hype surrounding it, while some of it misguided, it shouldn’t distract you from the fact that there is an amazing game underneath the media coverage. At it’s core you have one of the most addicting and creative sandbox games out there, wrapped in a very detailed and in-depth “survival horror” narrative. If you are looking for eyecandy, this isn’t it. If you however long for a time more about gameplay than using the latest and greatest Direct X shaders and deformations… then this is your game. One word of warning, if you do start playing… prepare to start dreaming in blocks.
If you are curious, I released a series of youtube videos walking through some of my creations.
Review by Belghast the Author/Creator of Tales of the Aggronaut and Guild Leader of House Stalwart on World of Warcraft (and elsewhere).