The True Sandbox Game
Minecraft is brilliant. It's the best video game I've played in years. It's my new favorite.
It's absolutely amazing that this game was pretty much written by one guy - a mysterious Swedish dude who goes by "Notch" - as a labor of love.
It's still in beta. There are bugs. Especially in multiplayer. Multiplayer requires running your own server or joining somebody else's server. There's no canonical Minecraft world, but a multiverse of personal worlds. It's like IRC or other early internet protocols before everything got centralized all to hell.
Running the server involves allocating like 1.8 gigabytes of memory to the Java virtual machine. Yes, it's in Java. The answer to "have there been any good programs written in Java" is now "Yes, one".
Above: Sadly, I can't make my socks two differnet colors as there is only one leg texture, repeated twice.
Anyway, there are bugs, but the bugs are part of the wierd charm. Players invent machines based on exploiting bugs. Boats float to the top of waterfalls instead of being pushed down by them as you would expect. So players build boat-and-waterfall based elevator systems. If the bugs were fixed now, they would break everything people have made. So it's not so much that the game is buggy as that some of its best features were discovered rather than designed.
I'm slightly surprised Minecraft isn't open-source. I bet a lot of people would be thrilled to be able to submit patches to the project. Also, Minecraft costs 15 Euros. What? Paying money for an unfinished game? Crazy, I know, but even in its unfinished state it's well worth 15 Euros.
Above: CREEPER IS WATCHING YOU SLEEP.
Minecraft is similar to Dwarf Fortress in many ways: a vast, randomly generated world, simulated in great detail, with minerals at various depths that can be mined out and turned into useful tools for technological development.
But Minecraft is far more accessible than Dwarf Fortress. Partly because the graphics are more, shall we say, representational. Partly because you interact with the Minecraft world from first-person, with your avatar's own hands, whereas you look down on the Dwarf Fortress world from above while issuing suggestions to a bunch of stubborn beardy guys who may or may not be in the mood to do what you say.
But also because Minecraft has a very simple set of verbs: walk, jump, hit/mine a block, put a block, make an item, use an item. That's it! Everything you do, from digging an iron mine to building an elaborate roller coaster, is composed of those verbs. Dwarf Fortress has as many obscure commands as a Linux shell.
Above: I left my door open when I left my house. I came back to find a cow, a sheep, and a chicken partying on my bed.
Here's what Minecraft doesn't have: Quest chains. NPCs who assign you repetitive jobs in exchange for paltry reward. Deadlines, milestones, incentives, checkpoints, prerequisites, carefully balanced power curves, deliberately designed progressions. Screens of statistics. Management interfaces. All the stuff, found in hundreds of video games, that makes them feel like work.
Minecraft is play. Not in the sense of "playing" a game, but more like the play that children do when they play outside or play with toys. You were a kid once (or maybe you still are). Remember how you used to play in your backyard? You explore, you build cool forts, you chase animals, you run away from "monsters", you make "swords" out of sticks and wave them around, you dig holes, you hunt for "treasure", you play house, you try to find neat things to put in your "house" to make it special. If it's been a while since you played like that, Minecraft will bring it all back to you.
Above: zombie mosh pit!
Forget Grand Theft Auto. That's not "sandbox". That's merely a mission-based game that happens to have a large world and a lot of optional sidequests. Minecraft is the real sandbox. Almost literally - you could flatten out the land like the sand in a sandbox, or dig a giant hole and use the resulting blocks to build a mountain.
Minecraft is fun to the extent to which you set your own goals. If you didn't set your own goals it would get boring very fast. Luckily I have no problem setting my own goals, not when the world of Minecraft seems so rich with possibilities. In fact I usually have three or four goals at any one time: right now I want to find a wolf and tame it to be my pet, I want to perfect my two-way minecart transport system, I want find enough diamond to make a suit of armor out of it, I want to grow enough sugarcane to make a bookshelf (paper is made from sugarcane, go figure) and I want to build an awesome undersea base with a glass dome accessible by tunnel.
While pursuing your goal, you'll run into all sorts of memorable and hilarious misadventures:
Getting ambushed by suicidally explosive Creepers. Making a corpse run without any torches to try to recover all the sweet loot you dropped. Digging upwards from a mine and accidentally poking through the sea floor. Getting lost outside at night and not being able to find your house. Digging downwards and breaking through into a magma lake. Finding diamond and not being able to get it because you just wore out your last iron pick. Trying to start a fire and burning down a whole forest. Having your minecart tracks blocked by cows. Having all the ingredients but one for that item you want to make and scouring the land for that last piece of string or whatever.
Sushu had a skeleton archer take up ambush position in her basement once. She couldn't go in the house without getting shot to death. And all her weapons were in there. My first few attempts to rush in there and kill it, armed with a wooden sword made from a tree, were failures. By the time I finally killed it the ground was littered with wooden swords.
I myself managed to collect enough gold to make a solid gold block, which I put up on the roof of my house to show off. Then I decided I wanted to move it, so I tried to collect it with my bare hands... turns out I could have used the pick in my inventory to collect the block, but by trying to do it with my bare hands, I made the block break without dropping anything. My nine gold, wasted because I punched it to death!
These misadventures are oddly satisfying. And they all emerge organically from the game systems; none of them were planned. Once I start playing Minecraft, it's hard to stop, because I have so many different projects going on in-game and something interesting is always happening. I always want to play just a little longer because there's one more thing I want to try.
Have game designers been doing it all wrong all these years? Trying to make all these goals and storylines and levels and linear progression mechanisms? Maybe all we ever needed was an open-ended environment where we could make our own fun.
Will Wright knew this. I remember many years ago, reading his description of SimCity as not a "game" but rather a "software toy". Minecraft is in the same spirit as those sim games, from SimCity to The Sims. Mess around. Set your own goals. Tell your own story.
The biggest flaw in Minecraft's game design as it stands is that it's not self-contained. Without reading external documentation it would be nearly impossible to figure out how to craft anything or even how to survive the night. No hand-holding tutorials in this game. Thank goodness for the Minecraft Wiki. I do feel like it spoils some of the discovery. But I'm not sure how I would ever have stumbled on some of the more obscure crafting recipies without reading the spoilers - the number of possible crafting combinations are astronomical, only a tiny sliver of them produce anything useful, and nothing in the game gives you a hint what those combinations could be.
I feel like it would be a stronger game design if it was self-contained, if it was possible to discover the game without spoilers or walkthroughs. But I'm not sure how they'd even do that without compromising the crafting system or cluttering up the game world with tutorials and breadcrumbs and hints and recipe books. I quite like the fact that when you start the game thre's no intros or tutorials; no intermediation. Just your bare hands and a giant wilderness. It's very primal.
Above: There are five creepers in this scene. Can you find them all?
That's because the fifth one is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
Minecraft is a great game. Let's define that: "A great game" is not merely one that induces you to play it for long periods of time. That's merely an addictive game. A great game is one that's addictive and that also teaches you new ways of thinking while you're playing it. The way playing Tetris for a long time makes you mentally rearrange furniture and buildings to form complete lines, or playing Katamari Damacy makes you look at things and calculate how big you'd need to be to roll them up. Minecraft makes you want to harvest cubical chunks of your floor and put torches everywhere to hold back the darkness. Even better, it teaches you to think of your environment as raw materials to make cool stuff out of. As an approach to life, that one's not bad.