Monday 20 September 2010

Of all mines of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up.

What is Minecraft? I keep trying to answer the question rather than just bringing you a post droning on and on about my latest ‘adventures’ in the game, which would essentially boil down to things that were fun and exciting for me at the time but would probably sound painfully tedious to an outside observer. I could probably try to spice things up, weave a yarn of daring-do and madcap escapades, but at the end of the day I have to relent and simply admit to myself and to you that I spent a large part of my free gaming time over the weekend digging a sodding great big hole in the ground.

And yet… and yet that’s not what I was doing at all. For I was adventuring like I haven’t done in an MMO or RPG for a long while. Properly adventuring. I started off with nothing, in a strange new land, and all I knew was that At Night The Monsters Come. So it was that I started wandering about the land looking for shelter, and although there were defensible hills and caves, I was unarmed and unarmoured and knew I wouldn’t stand long against a concerted attack by monsters. I could see the sun slowly making its way across the sky. Time was already running out, and I’d only just entered the world. I was Robinson Crusoe against an army of darkness, what was I to do?

“I know you’re scared; we’re all scared, but that doesn’t mean were cowards. We can take these skeletons, we can take them, with science.

Time to get crafting. I’ve spent more time crafting in Minecraft in the six or so hours that I’ve played it than in any of the grind-bound craptacular churn-fests that are found in WoW, LotRO and others of that ilk. At a basic level this is how we build things the Minecraft way: you smash things to get raw materials, you put the raw materials in your 4×4 (9×9 if you’ve built a crafting table, which is one of the first things you should do) crafting panel, and depending on the pattern of the items and which items you use, you craft an item. Instantly. As in bing! Done. Whoomp there it is. Drag it in to your inventory and use it straight away. Stacked multiple amounts of raw materials in the crafting panel? Then you can just keep dragging copies of the crafted item out until you run out of the right balance of raw materials.

But how do you make things? What are the patterns? Ah, now you’re exploring again, now you’re both crafter and explorer in one. The subtle idea is that, in a general sense, items are formed by a pattern of raw materials that vaguely resemble the object to be crafted; once you get the hang of the first few objects that you’ll need – a crafting table, a pick-axe and a torch – you can make a secure shelter, and once you’ve done this, you can experiment at your leisure with various patterns. If you know how to make a pick-axe, for example, then it’s quite easy to see how you could change that pattern slightly to form the shape of an axe, and sure enough you will be rewarded for this intuition. The simple joy and exultation that was had when m’colleague cracked how to make a storage chest is hard to express; the same happened when I discovered how to make a door so that we no longer had to block up the entrance to our cave homes with stone each night and then dig ourselves out in the morning. Yet the patterns were very basic, and once you knew them it seemed hard to understand how you hadn’t worked it out for yourself, and sooner. The crafting in this game is simply brilliant, and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of it. Why not? Because I’ve been scratching deeply beneath other surfaces.

What do you do in a world where the only rule is that At Night the Monsters Come? At daybreak you run around the landscape, you explore, and you try not to get lost: there is no mini-map or map to start with, if you run off and lose your way, you may never get back home and will lose everything and have to start over; I may have done this. You chop up trees for lumber, you kill any wildlife you can find for its meat and hide and wool, and in all too short a time the sun begins to set and you run back to your home, block the entranceway (or close the door if you’re sophisticated) and you wait until morning. What is there to do in the meantime? Well, you can craft, which is brilliant but only gets you so far. What you can do is smash things. You can smash anything with the right tool. So you can hollow out this hillside hovel, and you make room for yourself and your rapidly expanding inventory of items. You learn how to make glass and you put windows in so that you can actually see when night has turned to day and it is safe to venture out. And as you are mining out your home you find iron ore and coal and other items, and you learn to make a forge, and you discover how to smelt things, and you realise that you can replace your wood and stone tools with metal ones that last longer and work faster; so you dig deeper.

The Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dûm… shadow and flame.

In your digging you will discover underground caverns. I found one recently that had a waterfall cascading down the inside of it, and after marvelling at it for a while I realised that I couldn’t see to the bottom of it. So I dug stairs around it in a spiral and lit it with torches, and I dug deeper and deeper following this waterfall, eventually reaching the bottom. I found rich veins of valuable stone there, most of which I have no idea what to do with yet. That’s when I heard the low murmur of zombies, and the rattle of skeletons, and the cry of… something, I know not what. And so you learn to make a sword, and armour, and a bow and arrows. And you go back to where the monsters are, deep beneath the land, and…

What would you do? The choice is yours. You don’t have to kill them. With skill and a little luck you could wall them in, create a zombie petting zoo five hundred feet beneath your home. You could try to fight them, or you could build a trap using the fast flow of water from the waterfall. You could climb to the top of the hill your home is set in and dig down, channelling the sunlight deep down into the ground and burning them all to a crisp. You could avoid them altogether and dig somewhere else, perhaps go outside and divert the course of the nearby river so that it flows past your front door, just for the hell of it, or to irrigate your crops – if it interests you that’s all that matters. You know deep down though, in your dwarven heart, that deep in the ground, where there are monsters, there is also gold.

I feel I haven’t played enough of Minecraft to do it justice yet, but I wanted to try to express my rapture – and I think that is the word I want to use – at just how much this game has captured everything I think is missing from MMOs at the moment. Adventure, exploration, invention, free will, exhilaration, joy, panic, horror, defeat; all these emotions and more, from a ‘simple’ game with basic graphics and no real rules or restrictions at the moment, other than At Night the Monsters Come.

Minecraft is currently in its alpha release stage and runs on Windows, OS X or Linux, being that it is Java based. As of yesterday evening the game was still free to download and play due to the Minecraft registration sever collapsing under the weight of people trying to order the game. Eventually the registration server will be fixed and you will be required to order the game in order to access the alpha. When I purchased the game it cost about $13, or £8, and gave you access to the alpha client, the final version of the game upon its release, plus any expansions and content released thereafter. Personally I’d pay that for the game as it stands, which is incredibly stable and relatively bug free considering it’s an alpha. Multiplayer is currently in development too, and various rule sets and game modes are also planned, so as far as I can see the game is only going to get better.

As a final small endorsement I would just say that Mrs Melmoth, someone who has resisted all attempts by me to get her to join in with my various MMO escapades for these many years, has been hooked on the game all weekend, and I’ll be purchasing a copy for her as soon as the registration server is back up. She is not a gamer and hates first-person controls with a passion, but she is getting used to them because she enjoys the game and wants to play it. She especially does not like trying to kill monsters, so she doesn’t; I don’t think she’s killed a single monster, and yet she has a house that has multiple levels, one of which has a room that has two walls entirely made of glass looking out upon an overflowing volcano which lights up the night sky. She took me up there and showed me last night, and I couldn’t work out whether I was mostly proud, overjoyed, or envious.

Simply put: Minecraft is a game that allows you to dig deep, as deep as your imagination will take you.

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