Yes, I’ve been playing Minecraft again, thanks largely to several members of the Squadron of Shame finally biting the bullet and jumping on the bandwagon. And, once again, I am rediscovering the sheer joy of that game.
The first time I played Minecraft I wasn’t overly enamoured with it. Not because of the deliberately lo-fi graphics — on the contrary, I found them highly endearing — but because I had literally no idea what I was supposed to do, and at the time I started playing, it was largely up to the player to either work things out for themselves or refer to a wiki. Nowadays, of course, there are achievements to guide your early days in the game and basic techniques are practically common knowledge — the Xbox version also removes the need to remember the specific “patterns” to craft tools altogether, making it even more accessible and a great jumping-on point for those who have no idea what Minecraft is all about.
After spending a hefty proportion of time in Minecraft’s many pixelated, blocky worlds, however, that sense of “what on Earth do I do now?” is, as it turns out, precisely what appeals to me about the game. I have no goals aside from the ones I set for myself. There is no “end” to the game aside from the time when I wish to stop playing. (Well, technically that’s not quite true — you can “finish” Minecraft through a long and convoluted process culminating in a difficult boss battle against a giant evil dragon thing. But you can carry on playing after that.) The world is different each time I start a new game. And therein lies Minecraft’s biggest joy.
Minecraft is like being a kid again, assuming you were a kid who never had to get home in time for dinner, and a kid who was trusted with various sharp implements. Minecraft taps into that youthful desire to explore, to discover, to see what’s over that next hill, around that corner, on the other side of that sheer rock face. It taps into that youthful fear of being lost in the middle of nowhere and having no idea of how you’re going to get back home. And, like those youthful expeditions into forests and caves, it’s much more fun with friends.
Minecraft is what you make of it. I currently play on two multiplayer servers — one with a small group of “real-life” friends and the other with a group of people I primarily know online — the aforementioned Squadron of Shame. The differing approaches we take on each server are very interesting, and represent two very different social dynamics.
On my “real-life friends” server, everyone quickly staked their claim to their “territory” and built something big and impressive there to mark it. Tim built a huge castle; James built a wizard’s tower and network of connected walkways with giant mushrooms (plus a huge tree made of trees); Andie built some quaint (and practical) little houses; and I built a large, experimental pyramid-like structure and enormous, intricately-carved bridge.
On the Squadron of Shame server, meanwhile, things were a lot more cooperative from the get-go. I was one of the first people on the server, so I took the time to establish a basic base camp — wooden hut with crafting table and furnace, sufficient to last the night. Over time, and with the assistance of others, this hut expanded with an extra room containing beds, and a large mine beneath it. Other structures sprang up nearby until our improvised “base camp” started to look like a small village. I built roads in every direction as I explored, and others followed suit to help us find our way to various impressive landmarks. When we found a cool piece of randomly-generated scenery, we talked about it as if it was a real place. Other “citadels” sprang up around the map, and we as a group went further and further afield. I constructed some kick-ass bridges.
In both cases, the world feels alive — because it is alive. It’s constantly growing and changing according to how far people have explored and what they have built. It’s an immensely satisfying experience to know that you’ve played a part in the shaping of a virtual world, whatever your contribution and whatever your particular skill sets might be. In many ways, it’s similar to the satisfaction of playing an active role in something like Second Life, which I’ve been known to spend time in in the past, and which I once referred to as “taking a walk through other peoples’ imaginations”. The key difference here, though, is that Minecraft has a great deal more immediacy than Second Life — and considerably fewer prostitutes.
So if you’ve been holding off on playing Minecraft, I suggest you give it a shot — preferably with friends. If you have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for, fire up the Xbox version and play online or in split-screen. When you’re ready, grab a copy of the full experience on PC and prepare yourself for the most immersive game world you’ll ever experience — the one you helped create.