Minecraft redux

October 19th, 2010 | Tags: , ,

So it’s now almost November, and I was going to write about how my novel planning has been coming along, but it isn’t. Instead I’ve been bound to the siren song of Minecraft. The developer set an update freeze when I bought my copy of the game, so I have no cool new features to talk about, but as I mentioned before, that’s not really why I’m playing it. Instead, let me share with you why I must set it aside during NaNoWriMo: Minecraft is captivating.

It’s not enthralling in the same way that certains MMOs have garnered a following; there are no “achievements” or even formal quests, and in the (very) alpha multiplayer survival mode, monsters can’t even attack you. This leaves only one possible lure, and this is the most powerful one of all. It’s captivating for its lack of creative constraints, ironically enough. With the only objective in the game being to survive the nights, your own imagination becomes the steering force, guided only by some extremely basic physics. And we’re talking basic! Sand and gravel fall, leading to a few gruesome deaths by suffocation early in my career as a minecrafter, but dirt and stone of other varieties do not. Nor do other objects once placed, even if the blocks they were placed atop are removed. This allows you to construct all manner of seemingly impossible architectural feats–floating cities, cavernous subterranean sculptures, and even arboreal citadels:

The sheer potency of the sorts of things you can build with your virtual hands comes from the fact that it’s coming from you. Even in virtual realms, little greater joy is found than the act of creation. This isn’t about doing things that give your character bigger numbers which you pit against other numbers, or about pulling levers to watch a pre-written story (or even multiple possible stories) unfold. This is about the process of invention. This is about raw creativity.

If there is another side to this coin, it is fear. The night brings creatures, and they try to kill you. Most succeed unless you prepare. When you die in the course of exploring your world–be it through a climbing accident or a vicious spider-riding skeleton–you are returned to the point you originally appeared. The gear you had on you remains at the place you died. If this place is a very long way from your spawn point, you can kiss it goodbye; it doesn’t stay there forever. So built into the game already is a sustainable scarcity. To do the things you want to do, you must build in a way that mitigates risk. Risk of losing your stuff by building storage vessels and cooking food. Risk of getting caught by that creeper you didn’t see by crafting armor and designing secure, light-filled structures. Risk of losing track of where your safehouses are by leaving breadcrumb trails. (The landscape is procedurally generated as you explore further, potentially covering a surface area eight times larger than the Earth’s.)

This element of the game adds something to the sandbox that no game I have ever played brings forth: a sense of ownership. I find I want to tend to my growing network of safety, to preserve it against nothing else but the raw forces of entropy that the engine brings to bear: creeper explosions, underground water and lava spouts, and the random distribution of the minerals I need to continue bringing forth my vision into a semblance of being. This world, as lonely as it is, is mine. My choices determine what sort of environment I live in. It’s easy to read into the game a very environmentally-conscious design, but I think it might just be a side effect of playing in a simulation of the forces we are subject to here in the real world.

The one dimension of the game I haven’t begun exploring is the set of activatable items and their power source, redstone. This material allows you to create complex circuits to effect programmatic control over the workings of your operation. You can set up automated minecart delivery systems, trap doors for catching intruding monsters, airlocks for stopping an unexpected flood of water or lava from destroying your work, and so much more. I hesitate even to begin, just because it adds a whole new layer of complexity. Some guy even built a working computer with it. After NaNoWriMo I shall tinker around with it. Until then I must content myself to getting a feel for good building technique, and maybe even start to learn more aesthetically pleasing ways to shape structures.

But because of the sheer open-endedness of the game, as I have hopefully described in better detail this time, I must set it aside for NaNoWriMo, or at most put very hard limits on the time I spend at it. Otherwise you won’t get a novel out of me, just excuses. :)

  1. October 23rd, 2010 at 00:17
    Reply | Quote | #1

    As tempting as it is, I cannot get involved in Minecraft at this point. I doubt I’ll even play much of Civilization 5 when Nessa gets it. I must say, my friend, that you paint a most elegant picture, and your passion for this game invites interest. I’m particularly struck by your arboreal creations. You have an eye for aesthetic qualities. I will live vicariously through you, amigo, and enjoy a digital world-builder at his wondrous work.

  2. Steve Killen
    October 25th, 2010 at 23:43
    Reply | Quote | #2

    I cannot claim that the massive tree is my work; I posted it from a forum thread as a showcase of some of the crazy things people get up to. But I think it overshadows even the best architecture using traditional materials. It certainly inspires me to try to push the boundaries of my own imagination!

    If I do keep up Minecrafting during November–a big if–I shall try to limit it to building those things touching on the setting in which I’m writing. Vindulan, the Wall, freeholds, the road, the seedship wreckage…the possibilities are endless!

  3. December 7th, 2010 at 02:25
    Reply | Quote | #3

    My biggest love in Minecraft is constructing working computers. I’m learning a lot about computers in learning how to do that in Minecraft, and I can’t wait to start constructing a video output and LCD! I’m no where near as good as some of the folks on youtube, but I’m getting there!