The cardboard boxes are starting to pile up left and right in my apartment which is also why I’ve been a little quieter. There are only five more days to go at my current workplace. Only two and a half more weeks in this canton I’ve been living in for five years now and desperately long to leave. Waiting and preparing are such an ordeal sometimes.
Between that and not playing much of anything right now (because in this too I am waiting, waiting for GW2), I didn’t plan for much distraction until the big move end of January. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself deep, deep down the cubic rabbit hole that is Minecraft – had you told me only three weeks ago, I would’ve laughed at your face. But then Minecraft happened, brought to me by the sneaky, little voice of an old friend. I’ve mocked him for the first hour, until gradually I shut up. Then, I started obsessing.
|This is only the beginning.
Who would’ve thought that oldschool pixel graphics could be that much fun? I’m a little late to the party, I know, but then the game has only just launched “officially” two months ago with v1.0. I had never really paid it an awful lot of attention before. Well…consider me pixelated!
Minecraft is a goldmine of creativity, simple complexity and many of the basic concepts me and other MMO veterans have been missing for a very long time. I find myself utterly fascinated by the game’s simplicity which creates such powerful, emergent gameplay. Then it struck me; after my Skyrim high of several weeks ago, this was only a next logical step. This vast, open world sandbox game, so diametrically opposed to Skyrim’s graphical splendor, succeeds in areas many current MMOs are failing me, stilling a deep hunger (and it has multi-player!). Obviously, Minecraft has one significant advantage there: it doesn’t need to look good (which means the world can be vast and generate random maps). And yeah, I use a texture pack too, mostly to display my own paintings, but this stands: if any game proves how graphics become secondary to otherwise fun and engaging gameplay (I’m saying that as someone deeply in luv with the eye candy), then it’s Notch’s little gem. Within a refreshing loading time of 10 seconds, Minecraft (in survival mode) gave me (back) all the following things:
- Monumental scale; a vast scary world forever dwarfing me in size.
- No sense of direction; there is no world map, there are crafted, lackluster zone maps (that you must uncover and better not lose). Prepare to get lost often and worry continuously about wandering off too far. Landmarks, the sun and moon become your friends!
- Impact; solid proof that I am leaving a mark on the world I inhabit (and its co-inhabitants).
- Scary adventures; annoying, sneaky, backstabbing, sometimes frustrating mobs killing me on a regular base.
- Punishment; dying comes with potential loss of all EXP levels you might have accumulated, as well as all your carried inventory (unless you are able to retrieve it in good time).
- No shortcuts, no rides, no teleports or portals (other than into the underworld). No “hearthstone” besides death…
- Complex, comprehensive crafting, resource gathering and an almost endless list of combinations when it comes to creating and inventing your own space.
- Cooperative multi-player.
- Player hosted servers.
- Different levels of difficulty and play-style/server modes. Console commands if you so desire.
- Randomness, bugs, imbalances….lots of running and screaming in terror.
How do they do it? By doing very little. By setting the stage only, with few parameters and limitations. By not creating content (much) and instead letting you do it. By controlling as much as necessary, as little as possible. There are no consumers in Minecraft, only creators.
I can’t say how long I will play this game, but right now I am deeply satisfied. The huge castle above the sea I am working on, with the magic library, the round table and Minas Tirith style balcony (including a white tree…GEEK!), will take lots of time to complete. I am still discovering new crafting combinations, under what conditions different crops will grow or how to tame and breed certain creatures. Then, there are all the areas of the game I’ve hardly yet brushed: mine carts and the automation system, the enchantments and spells, the random dungeons you can only find by traveling the world, the Nether world through the dark portal, the Ender dragon, PvP….and I still need to find a zone that features snow!
The best of it all though: coming online and finding the environment changed, again, because your friends have been busy while you were offline. Screaming for help as you are starving down that deep mineshaft. Getting lost, crying for an escort, sharing resources and setting up trade channels. Leaving a little surprise at your neighbor’s doorstep. The world feels alive.
Closing circles in a square world
Funny how often we need to go back, to move forward. In this, even game design seems to follow a basic truth of life; how we need to set out on long journeys into the wild, only to return to our own doorstep. Only then to behold it truly, for the very first time. They say man’s culture has always run in waves of ups and downs and individuals too, run circle after circle in their lifetime, or so it seems.
Yet, something is different when we arrive that second time: we’ve gone the distance and hopefully gained some wisdom, we’ve seen other things – maybe things we originally believed we needed, but mostly just wanted. Things that made us see and appreciate what we used to have. Experiences that made us want to go back. Maybe we can only ever truly perceive truth from a distance, when we’ve moved further away. That’s why it’s so hard to judge yourself (fairly) or a status quo, before you’ve lost some of it. Looking back is always easier.
In many ways, the features I’ve listed as Minecraft’s virtues would’ve been considered weaknesses and difficulties 10 years ago. Back then, all we ever shouted for was to remove the “frustrating aspects”: the long walks, the randomness, the imbalance, the punishment. The devs heard our plea, they polished away. Then came WoW and showed us how different it could be; how much smoother, more convenient, optimal. Later, it showed us how the polish and optimization could be overdone, ruining all sense of world.
Now, all we want is to get back. Not quite back to pre-WoW maybe, but to return to old values with new eyes. Maybe we even need to thank Blizzard for accelerating the insight. Concepts and features we used to complain about, have become what we crave the most. Does this not strike you as a little ironic?
There are still other players of course, those who will disagree with me here. Maybe they are still in the middle of walking their own circle – maybe the disagreement is genuine and will last. I’m not claiming in any way that Minecraft can replace a classic MMO or that it doesn’t have its shortcomings (java eugh), it sure does have room for much improvement (and I’m not talking graphics) which I trust will happen to some extent in the future. However, these things are not the focus of this article.
We’re talking about a game that is about to hit the 20 million mark for registered players, of which 4 million have already paid for an account. And they’re not nearly all of them of the “Sims”-persuasion; there is something to be learned and had in Minecraft that reaches far beyond building furniture or harvesting crops. Something we’ve lost in other corners of the online, multi-player world. A ingenuity and responsiveness that has magically managed to close a circle for me in an otherwise square world.
I can only recommend the journey.