Every weekday throughout December, we’ll be looking back at our favourite games of 2011, in no particular order. Click here to see them all as they appear.
Minecraft is a children’s game, first and foremost.
When I first encountered it, back in 2009, it was touted by the poster as ‘online legos’, and to some extent that’s still what it is. Of course, it was truer then; it was completely freeform, with neither mining nor crafting playing an important role. Endermen were but a distant twinkle in Notch’s eye. I remember the first house I built. That makes me feel like an old man, even though it was only two and a half years ago.
Minecraft is the kind of game which will age gracefully, unlike many games of this generation. It’s the simplicity, more than anything; simple systems form complex patterns and interactions, and that’s what makes it so delightful.
There’s a freeform sense of play which comes with the game that you can’t get anywhere else. Even with the addition of structured levels and devious enemies, exploring its hidden depths inspires a sense of childlike glee. It’s creepy sometimes, but it’s a straightforward fear, like finding a snake at the bottom of your garden; the enemies are just another simple system for us to test the limits of.
And that’s what makes Minecraft such an amazing children’s game. It’s simple, but it constantly asks you to push the limits of your own world. That’s how a simple house grows into a mansion, how a quick cave exploration turns into a dangerous trek to the center of the earth. Minecraft makes me want to go back to the various dens I carved out in the woods near my house as a child, and it allows me to build new ones without feeling like a manchild. It’s amazing, beautiful, silly and clever.
I think Minecraft is pretty cool. That’s all the input I feel qualified to offer here as I haven’t really played the thing since incredibly early into development. I remember a time before pistons or powered carts and, hell, I remember a time when you pretty much just stripped the world of its natural resources and made a big stupid house.
I don’t even know how you enchant stuff. How do you do that?
What I think is most important about Minecraft is that we’ve seen it grow almost from the ground up. The system of allowing such early access for a lessened fee than when finished is the real novelty; that’s just not how game development works. The culture that Minecraft has developed is probably all due to this openness; if Notch had waited until the game was finished to release it do you think it’d see nearly the same swelling fanbase?
I’m not sure what effect Minecraft‘s uniquely open genesis will have had on the medium overall, but it’s more than paved the way for a different independent pricing structure.
The randomly generated worlds and ease of use allow for players to all find something they enjoy, even if they find parts of the game dull. For me, there’s no greater joy in Minecraft than spelunking. Discovering a cave system and getting lost in endless winding paths, grabbing ores as I see them, setting up temporary bases and then finally following half-remembered landmarks towards my home base to dump all my loot. It’s exploration of a space that nobody’s seen before. A space that didn’t exist before I went to explore it. It’s the kind of exploration that mainstream games aim at all the time, but in nearly all cases come up short.
I know people for whom the greatest joy in Minecraft is simply the mining. Carving out a web in the deepest levels of the world, stretching out as far as your pick will take you, searching for diamonds and iron that you can use to dig further, deeper, faster. Some people like to explore the surface. Search for the (un)natural wonders of the world. Find a pack wolves to bring with you. Carve a hole into a hill where you can temporarily dump your bed and workbench to prepare for the next day’s travel. Some people simply want to create. Build a redstone structure of convenience. Build a castle. Build a sand castle. Build an iron castle. Build roads. Build landmarks. Build signs. Build statues.
I think that Minecraft‘s greatest strength is the interdependancy of these systems. You can’t build your castle if you don’t find some stone. You can’t explore the wilds if you haven’t got a way to protect yourself. All your goals (excluding whatever it is that you can do to ‘finish’ the game now) are self-enforced, but in almost all cases, your goal will require you to complete some other tangential tasks along the way. Everybody’s got their favourite thing to do and the systems in place never allow them enough time to get bored of it. The pride you get from constructing something huge and ridiculous isn’t down to the task of building it, but the effort it took. It’s not a monument to your skills as an artist, but to your skills as a survivor against the elements. Your skills as somebody who hasn’t dropped all their obsidian into a lava pit.
Basically what I’m saying is creation mode is boring as hell.
Making Minecraft one of our games of the year almost seems a bit redundant. Not because it’s been available to play in some form or another for over two years, but because it often barely feels like a game. There is no real set objective other than survival in a world of danger and uncertainty. Saying it like that, it’s the most direct simulation of life you could ask for. You can spend hours grinding away to collect resources that you can turn into other, bigger, nicer things, but you’ll never be satisfied with the bigger and nicer things. You’ll always want more shiny trinkets to add to your growing pile of shiny trinkets, and you’ll go to ever more time-consuming and, sometimes, dangerous lengths to get it. It’s a hollow, empty cycle of temporary fulfilment feeding a tenacious materialistic greed.
Wow. That all sounds rather depressing. So where is the fun in Minecraft? Like any good road movie, it’s not the destination that counts, but the journey. Every new world is a vast canvas filled with potential and littered with miniature stories waiting to be uncovered. Every floor added to your towering homestead is a miniature victory, a goal well earned. Every blast from a creeper is only a temporary setback; you just have to pull yourself up and back on your feet. The game doesn’t even tell you your destination, and instead gives you the freedom to set your own. Is your goal for this game to devise an elaborate mine cart transportation system? You got it buddy. Want to be a monster hunter and lure the world’s savages into your traps? Off you go. Want to build a giant penis-shaped house? Okay, if you must. That you can have so much freedom in an interactive medium shouldn’t sound bizarre, but then that’s what makes Minecraft so much more compelling.
It’s rare that a game can simultaneously break and redefine the rules of the medium. It’s even rarer for that game to be so much goddamn fun.