Retrospective: Minecraft

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DevinRogersMinecraft is a very unique experience despite its many clones that have appeared over the years, one that warrants praise from beyond its stereotypical audience.  Though it certainly has a following amongst the hardcore gaming crowd, if you asked a random passerby who the target audience of Minecraft is, they would probably say it’s a game for kids. And that isn’t untrue; it certainly is a family friendly game and arguably the most popular game for younger audiences since Pokemon. But like Pokemon, it is a game that stretches beyond one particular age group and can be enjoyed thoroughly by just about anyone.

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Minecraft is a game with no goal and limitless goals all at the same time. For the uninitiated, the main gameplay cycle centers around mining for materials, then using those materials to build structures, items and accessories. Just about anything in the world can be gathered as a resource: ore from underground caves, wood from trees, raw pork from wild pigs, water, lava, sand, snow, fungal mushrooms… the list goes on and on.  What you do with those resources, should you even care to gather them in the first place, is up to you.

You could ignore the crafting element entirely and just go exploring, walking around the procedurally-generated world to see what is around the next corner. Plains, forests, jungles, deserts, mountains, caves and abandoned railroad mines, underwater temples… there is plenty here to find. Many enemies such as bow-wielding skeletons and gelatinous slimes can be encountered (assuming you aren’t playing on Peaceful difficulty), and there is even a dragon boss you can hunt down and kill to “officially” beat the game. Sooner or later, though, you’ll need to create some tools to progress in your adventure.  And before long, it becomes hard to resist our natural human tendency to use those tools to begin creating structures.

Minecraft is an enormous virtual sandbox that lets you build anything you can think of. Just doing a Google or YouTube search for popular Minecraft creations can give you can idea of the scale of what is possible. Granted, not everyone has time to build a literal city within the game, but even a child with a beach bucket sand-castle finds joy in their miniature creation.

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I’ve easily spent over 100 hours playing Minecraft – a very small amount in the grand scheme of things – and I have progressed from a man with naught but a paper map to his name into the lord of a railway in the sky that leads across oceans, through mountains and even into a warehouse containing my entire inventory of organized resources. I’ve created farms of wheat, watermelon and carrots. I have an endless supply of cows. I even have a portal that can transport players to the Netherworld, Minecraft’s version of Hell.  And currently I am building a fortress that rains down lava from the sky.

But still I feel there is so much left to do. So many stones unearthed, so many buildings not yet built. I’ve stayed relatively close to the starting area of world, and although I’ve defeated the Ender Dragon and watched the credits roll, I haven’t come close to seeing all that lies within my instance of the game.

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For the most part, the entire world of Minecraft is made up of blocks.  Up close they have an 8 or 16-bit quality texture to them.  But when viewed as a whole, and from a distance, the world becomes quite breathtaking.  There is so much variety in the types of blocks you’ll find that the scenery looks like an actual landscape put through a Photoshop filter.

The day/night scale has a major effect on visibility.  At night the landscape gets dark.  Very dark.  During this time, should you not rest in a bed until morning, you’ll have to rely on torches, lanterns or lava to light things up. This is especially important when you begin spelunking, as caves typically contain no light. There are some awe-inspiring cave formations that, given just a bit of light, rival the views above ground.

The music in Minecraft is incredible and one of the stand-out soundtracks of the past few years.  The ambient tunes can ignite a sense of adventure and conjure feelings of somber isolation at the same time. There is a subtle intensity to Minecraft’s compositions that accentuates the environment, transforming the personality of the world in a way only music can.

For the most part, Minecraft’s sound effects are relegated to minimalist clicks and muted thuds. However, living (or undead) creatures will all let you know they are around by their moos, oinks, groans and, in the case of Creepers, explosions. These sounds really stand out and let you know that an animal or enemy is nearby. The same goes for natural occurrences of rushing water or fire, which may be hidden by dirt and rock.

Generally speaking, Minecraft does not have a story.  There is an ending, however, one that utilizes a form of existential storytelling seen in other games like The Witness. However, it is a technique that seems custom-built for Minecraft and is the wonderful parting gift for having reached the end.  Still, there is no plot to the game proper, and so I had a hard time determining if I should even give Minecraft a Story rating.  Ultimately I decided not to do so.  The game gives you the tools not only to create your own world but also tell your own story, yet it does not have one on its own.  The developers could have shoehorned in a plot, but that would have gone against Minecraft’s core principle: creation.

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To close out this retrospective, I’d like to share one of my Minecraft experiences to illustrate how impactful this game can be.  As I was exploring around the foot of a mountain, I came across a beautiful ravine that went deep underground.  I started hopping down the steep cobblestone cliffs with the hope of finding some diamonds, and eventually I found myself in a dark web of caves.  As I went along, my torch supply quickly ran out, but I decided that I could press on just a bit further to see if I could find anything of value before turning back.  In the dim lighting I didn’t see a hole in the ground front of me, and falling into it I landed in a waterfall that carried me deep underground.  Once I came to the bottom, I panicked and stepped into another hole and fell into complete and total darkness.

At this point, something happened that I did not expect.  My heart began to race and I started hyperventilating.  I was literally gasping for breath brought on by a form of claustrophobia I never knew I had.  It took me a moment to realize that Minecraft was giving me a very real panic attack.  Instead of putting the controller down, I desperately searched for light, for an exit, for anything.  But it was so dark and I was so turned around that going back the way I came was not going to be possible.

So instead, I started dropping blocks beneath my feet to raise me to the ceiling.  Once I hit the top, I’d look up into total darkness and let my pickaxe go to work until it seemed like it wasn’t hitting anything.  Then I’d jump and place more blocks beneath my feet, chip away at the ceiling again, and so on.  This seemed like a good plan until water came pouring in – I had dug myself out into the bottom of a nearby ocean.  I was literally unable to breathe the entire time I swam towards the surface.  Fortunately for my game character, I made it to the top before he died.  I quickly saved and turned the game off, catching my breath and reflecting on what was easily one of the most memorable, most unexpected, and scariest experiences I have ever had playing a video game.

It may be a game of blocks, but if those aren’t experiences that only the best games in the world can offer, then I don’t know what are.

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