Riding the Atomic Wave

So at long last I’ve spent a bit of time playing Minecraft. I downloaded and paid for the alpha a week or so ago and spent bits and pieces of time being bewildered by the interface and the “point” in the single-player mode. After I’d learned a couple of basics surrounding how to not die at night from the zombies and how to make some basic tools I gleaned that it was a very interesting game, but I still didn’t throw myself into it.

But then today I had the chance to play some multi-player with Chad, and this changed everything. The multi-player is (currently) pretty much the same thing, but without zombies and with immortality (two things which aren’t exactly great, if we’re being honest – I look forward to them changing). But you gain the opportunity to share the weird blocky world with someone else, and that turns out to be extremely special.

Long story short, we careened around the landscape, jumped down waterfalls like they were hydro-slides, climbed the highest mountain and looked at the view, fell into holes, almost drowned in naturally occurring paddling pools. It was the very definition of emergent fun, I suppose. Then we went spelunking, exploring a giant network of caves that just happened to nearby, and that, too, was magically for yet more reasons.

The thing I wanted to write down briefly here, though, is about the “atomic” nature of the game. Minecraft is, in one sense, a very simple game, made literally out of “atoms” – the somewhat LEGO-like blocks that make up the world. Along with the world, you have an impressively limited set of potential actions – you move around, you jump, you “craft” objects, you use objects, and you pick up and put things down. There’s not a whole hell of a lot more.

Most of the complexity, then, comes from the act of crafting – knowing the recipes that allow you to make various tools or other objects, and from how you combine the available actions and tools to shape the world around you, since that’s pretty much what you’re there doing. You’re either making the world, or you’re exploring it (which, thanks to the procedurally generated content, is almost like “making” it anyway). Both are great, though I have more experience with the latter than the former.

What all of this means, though, is that the game is very atomic – there are a small number of elements which you combine, and this means that very little about the game feels pre-authored by somebody else (an Intelligent Designer, say). If you want to “give” your companion something, there’s no specialised “give to person” command, no, you throw the object toward them and they catch it – or not. And, see, that’s the beauty. You could throw someone a tool, they could step out of the way by mistake, and it could fall of a cliff and into the sea. That could happen. That could never happen if there was a “give”.

And that’s how the game is. There’s not that sense of particular things you ought to be doing, of a ghostly, opinionated voice that has plans for you. It’s just you, your actions, and a world (somewhat like… life). You can move some dirt around if you want. You can make a giant skyscraper with stairs (and, for all I know, elevators). You can spelunk to your heart’s content. You make a fishing rod and fish. All that, and the game could care less. Perhaps the only valuation of your actions is whether you end up dead or not (just like life?).

It reminds me in one way of the Skate series. In those games your character was capable of doing “everything” from the very beginning, every skateboarding trick from the simplest ollie to the most complex 360 varial heel-flip. It was up to you to gain the thumb-based skill necessary to execute them, and that felt extremely liberating, to not be tied down by how the game wanted you to progress and do things – to be capable. Minecraft is similar in that the world is just there, waiting to be used – you don’t have to level up, you just need to gather the knowledge needed and to explore your environment until you have what you need to make something happen. Again, there’s no sense of being tethered to a design/divine plan.

It’s all quite exciting. Late though I am to the Minecraft party, it’s a good party and I think I’ll stay a while.

24 October 2010
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