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“Minecraft”: A Whole New World, One Block at a Time PDF Print E-mail
Lifestyle - Gaming
Written by Grant Williams   
Thursday, 20 October 2011 18:54

Minecraft starts off, in the single-player mode, as a game about survival. Alone and empty-handed, stranded in a retro-cubist 3D landscape with a first-person perspective, you have to gather resources, make tools, and build a shelter before the safety of daylight passes into the danger of night, when monsters prowl. It’s a tense and desperate experience, especially when you’re new to the game and trying to figure out how it works as the sun sinks toward the horizon.

The tension arises purely out of the mechanics. There’s no plot or pre-authored story, no voice over the radio telling you where to go, not even a map in the corner of the screen showing your location. Minecraft is a sandbox, a game of unexpected experiences emerging out of the actions of the player within some basic rules.

Once you grow accustomed to the rhythm of day and night and learn to deal with the monsters, the game becomes much more than sandbox survival. While still interspersed with moments of extreme tension, it becomes more of a quiet, contemplative, and occasionally awe-inspiring experience focused on exploration and creation. Despite its deliberately primitive graphics, Minecraft generates surprisingly beautiful vistas, and a surprising variety of terrain – from forests to swamps to deserts to tundra. Beneath the surface are labyrinthine cavern systems, filled with monsters and rare treasures such as diamonds and gold.

Rather than presenting you with a living world and asking you to empty it of life, as many video games do, Minecraft offers a canvas and the raw materials to constuct your own architectural fantasies: towering castles, vast underground complexes, dense networks of roads. Architecture, and the structuring of space, is the most visible and physical evidence of society; it is no coincidence that games about crafting a new order from an undeveloped world, such as SimCity and Civilization, center on architecture.

Minecraft’s worlds aren’t (yet) as complex or dynamic as those of SimCity, but they nonetheless feel more real by virtue of perspective. Rather than being positioned as a deific, detached overlord, in Minecraft the player is indelibly part of the terrain, always seeing things from the ground level, always waiting out the monsters at night. And rather than simply plopping down pre-designed buildings, everything in Minecraft is built one block at a time.

Because of the implicit connection between architecture and society, Minecraft’s single-player mode makes one feel a little bit like a lonely megalomaniac, building grand monuments and whole cities that no one else will ever be able to directly experience. No society emerges from only one person.

In the multi-player mode, however, Minecraft realizes the potential of its premise. Your work becomes part of a constantly evolving shared space in which people collaborate to produce amazing and often beautiful works.

By default, of course, players can destroy just as easily. Thus they are forced to negotiate their relationships with the game’s limited communication tools. In most cases, the results are – contrary to typical video-game communities – not just respectful but friendly, trusting, and caring.

Few titles, especially multi-player ones, provide participants the ability and freedom to influence the game world as Minecraft does. Of those that do, none (as far as I am aware) also forces players to face the repercussions of their actions to the extent of Minecraft. For every great castle, there is a correspondingly great scar in the earth where the stone for it was mined. Minecraft is most powerful as a way to build a new world unburdened by the accumulated baggage of our own; but unlike almost all other video games (and culture in general), it makes responsibility and sustainability a core part of its fantasy.

Minecraft is (by far) the most successful emblem of a reinassance of independent video games that has emerged over the past several years. In 2009, Swedish programmer Markus Persson began releasing early test versions of Minecraft for a small price, which guaranteed access to all future updates. At major development points, Persson increased the price for new players. Without any corporate support or paid marketing, Minecraft’s player base grew at an astonishing rate, and these early players provided the financial backing to continue developing the game, now under Persson’s new company Mojang.

As of August, Minecraft had sold more than 3 million copies – and it hasn’t been officially completed. The current version for sale is one of the last betas before the “official” release in November, though that terminology is largely a formality: Mojang intends to continue updating the game with new features.

The current version of Minecraft is available for PC for $21.95 from Minecraft.net.

Grant Williams is a developer at Sedona Technologies who hijacked an English degree to study video games. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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