Last Friday, Penny Arcade ran the first of a series of comics about Minecraft, and perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, there was a sudden increase in popularity over the weekend which ended up being more than the servers could handle. Personally, I'd jumped on the bandwagon about a month ago, shortly after purchasing my new laptop, and long story short, I've been looking for any excuse in a storm to write about the game ever since, and seeing as the iron is still somewhat hot (provided I don't get lazy and sit on this post for too long), now is as good a time as any for me to gush unabashedly about a strange, blocky world with which I am enamoured.
For those of you who are immune to internet hype (I envy you) and/or have yet to try it, Minecraft is a first person sandbox game in which you are dropped into a procedurally generated world where everything is made up of cubes. These cubes can be destroyed, collected, used as materials to craft tools, or placed elsewhere on the map. The long and short of it, it's a world made up entirely of blocks, which you can take apart, and then use them to rebuild the everything around you however you see fit, providing players with many opportunities to build penis-shaped monuments... or other things, I guess.
Now, I'm not going to spend all that much time going over the main appeal of a game like this, because the answer should be pretty obvious to anyone who's ever played with Lego. When I was a kid, I used to imagine I could shrink myself down to the size of a Lego man and walk around inside the things I built, and I've had an affinity for any game that's approximated that experience in any sort of way. I share with you this little slice of my childhood with the belief that some of you feel the same way. But it's not the ability to build in and of itself that makes me want to talk about Minecraft, after all, there are a lot of games and digital toys out there to scratch exactly that itch, it's what Minecraft does to distinguish itself from such toys that makes it interesting. At any rate, all you really need to do is watch a youtube video of someone playing for a bit, and chances are you'll have a pretty good idea if this game is for you.
The interface and visual style of the game is heavily inspired by another indie game called Infiniminer (which I'll gladly discuss in a future post, if you'd like), and also takes cues from games like Dwarf Fortress and Dungeon Keeper. I'm actually pretty inept at Dwarf Fortress, so I can't comment on that part of it very much, but the Dungeon Keeper connection is pretty clear, at least in my mind. Thus, while it's still a first person game revolving mostly around building, there's a simplistic RTS metagame going on underneath, which is built out of two particular aspects, resource management, and survival. Both of these are far more rudimentary (and accessible) than they would be in a proper strategy game.
Depending on what difficulty setting you choose, you may or may not have to deal with nightly monster attacks. Now, this not actually being a first person shooter, combat is a bit clunky, and it's rather dangerous to try and take them on directly, so you're much better off playing to your strengths. In short, building some kind of rudimentary shelter, then, as the game goes on, you'll be able to construct different kinds of structures to keep yourself safe, like massive walls or fences, elaborate traps, or even moats of lava, in order to keep the mobs at bay. At every step, creativity is encouraged, and you always get to build your base your way.
Of course, if you, like me, are far more interested in simply building random things all over the place, you can set the difficulty to "peaceful" and thus prevent monsters from ever spawning. In either case, you're going to have to manage your resources. In a technical sense, everything in game is in limited quantities, but the world around you is so huge that the odds of ever actually running out of things like stone or dirt is pretty slim, but nevertheless, it's not as simple as clicking on these blocks over here, and then clicking on empty spaces over there. Certain blocks can be collected merely by punching them until they break, while others - notably, different types of stone and ore - cannot be collected unless broken with a pick axe. Different types of ores will require pickaxes made of stronger materials. Also, each material comes with it's own durability rating. Thus, a pick axe made of stone will last longer than one made of wood, for example, but since you can't collect stone without a pick axe, you'll need to start with a wooden one and work your way up the supposed "build order." Some tools are necessary to get certain jobs done - the crafting table for example is essential for putting together more complex tools - while others, like the shovel or axe, merely speed things up. Also available are weapons and armour, as well as pieces to make more complex mechanical contraptions.
Just today, in fact, I installed a very crude rail system, thanks to some advice I picked up from this tutorial video. My system, of course, is far, far less impressive than the one shown. The ingenuity of some gamers never ceases to amaze me.
But anyway, not to bog things down by going over too much minutia of the gameplay, the important thing is that these RTS elements have a few benefits.
First: It breaks up the game into discrete chunks. You're never just building for hours on end, because eventually, you'll run out of materials and need to mine for some more. So you build a few picks and collect some stone, and when all your tools are broken, it creates a natural break during which you'll probably want to go topside and do a little more work on your current work in progress, and then this still is interrupted by the need to protect yourself from monsters. The result is that if any one part becomes too monotonous, there's something else you can do instead.
Second: It forces you to think strategically about things in ways that building games usually don't. You don't want to leave yourself vulnerable, or get started on any project that wastes too many hard to get materials for nothing. The best example I can think of in my own game was that, at one point, I was running out of lumber, and while I planted a few trees here and there, I was having to head out farther and farther away from my main base in order to refill my stock. What I did, was build a crude bridge to a little island not far from my base, then using mass amounts of excess stone and dirt I'd collected digging for coal, I extended the island to about four times it's original size, and used this as my very own private tree farm. It's still a pretty thin layer of strategy, as far as things go, but it still helps to keep you engaged and feeling like you're part of the world, long after the thrill of building penis-shaped monuments has worn off.
Third: and possibly most importantly, it delays gratification. Sure, you can build the biggest, most elaborate, impressive, awe inspiring, penis-shaped monument the world has ever seen, but you gotta work for it. Every single block needs to be collected, one way or another, and then there's the logistics of putting the thing together, one block at a time, keeping in mind that you can't fly, and take damage if you fall from too great a height. When you're finally finished, a fair bit of time, energy, and attention span, has gone into your masterpiece. As much as I loathe to even bring up the idea of "sense of accomplishment," I can't deny, at the end of the day, whether you've built a giant fountain, a roller coaster, a castle, a huge pixel art mural, or in my case, a network of completely pointless cobblestone walkways, the pride and satisfaction you feel at the end of the day is made all the more real by the effort that you had to put into it.
Well, anyway, there's so much more to talk about, but for the sake of winding this down, I guess I'd say that what impresses me the most about Minecraft is just how open to emergent play it is. Fans have already created their own sport, called Spleef, and the levers and wire systems can make for some really fascinating devices. There's even a page on the game's wiki devoted to making logic gates out of redstone and switches.
I'm sure a lot of people just assumed that making the game entirely out of cubic blocks was just a way to ensure it ran smoothly on fairly modest hardware, but it's more than that. The environment in this game is extremely interactive. You can dig tunnels or build buildings anywhere and any way you want. You can even flatten entire mountains and rebuild them somewhere else if it floats your boat to do so. Much in the way that a roguelike can take tons of wildly different outcomes into account by rendering the world in ASCII, the possibilities available to the budding megalomaniac in Minecraft are vast indeed, and by building the world out of simple blocks, all of it becomes that much more approachable. It's a simple solution to a complicated problem.