Thursday , 31 July 2014
Home » Feature » Unevenly Distributed: Minecraft (or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Build”)

Unevenly Distributed: Minecraft (or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Build”)

In Minecraft, I am immortal, the last man on Earth.

Over ‘Earth,’ imagine a superscript. Think of it as a three-dimensional period, counter-gravitationally defiant, hovering in space as if kept aloft by the very memory of its support. This is very much in keeping with the world in which I, an immortal, find myself… but it’s also the crux of why Minecraft isn’t just PC gamings’ trendiest new box of 8-bit building blocks. It’s also a solipsist’s god sim… with all of the loneliness and pathos that implies.

In Minecraft, the world is made up of blocks, each a three-dimensional pixel or a voxel. This world has mountains and trees and seas and animals and rivers of lava, but all of these exist in a universe in which Euclidean geometry past the cube is as arcane and impenetrable as it would be in Flatland. Trees are simply blocks of wood and blocks of leaves stacked on top of each other; pigs are just quivering cubes of bacon, stacked in pig-like configutation. When I chop down a tree, or hew coal out of a mountain, or scoop water out of a lake, the chunk or bucket comes out in my hands in a perfect, self-sustained cube.

If I were of Minecraft’s world (which I am not) a pyramid would be as nightmarishly unfathomable as some Eldritch thing, poking its beak through the abyss. Since I’m not, he physics here seem promising, almost over generous.

In Minecraft, you can build castles in the clouds, not because the turrets are held aloft by some sort of counter-gravitation engine, but because you built your sky castle on a support high enough to reach the cubist ether… and then dismantled the support, leaving your castle hover in mid-air, as if supported in space by the mere memory of solid land beneath it. (In this way, the world of Minecraft borrows some of its Newtonian rationale from Road Runner cartoons.)

These are the essential elements of Minecraft: a world made up of infinitely rearrangeable cubes and a working model of gravity that embraces levitation, and therefore removes the onus of practical physics from architecture.

Added to these two integral gameplay elements are a host of supplementary systems including a robust crafting mechanic, monsters that rampage through the world at night (or within the Earth’s darkest hollows), a random world generator, support for farming and keeping livestock, a fast-travel dimension haunted by murderous ghostly swine, and many, many more things besides… all of which have helped to make Minecraft one of the most astonishing financial and creative successes that indie PC gaming has seen in the last few years.

In Minecraft, you can build yourself a life-size replica of the USS Enterprise, so vast and massive a space ship that you can’t even see the warp nacelles from the saucer. You can recreate levels from your favorite video games. You can build a working 16-bit computer with the devious analog complexity of a labyrinth. All you need is the time to bring your architectural fantasies to life, voxel by voxel.

Luckily, you’ve got plenty of time, because you, the player, are immortal. Death — whether from digging a block of copper out from under you and subsequently falling to your death in a mile-deep underground chasm, or simply by being attacked by one of the bouncing Creeper blobs that hop around the overworld — is a very transient thing: when you die,your equipment and building blocks are spewed in every direction and you immediately respawn at a set point in the world… the omphalos from which the rest of Minecraft‘s infinite, procedurally generated world spreads. Depending on how far you’d wandered since you last died, your respawn point might only be a few feet away from where you died… or several continents away.

A lot of attention is paid to Minecraft as an incredible sandbox game, but there’s more to Minecraft than just a 3D set of building blocks to play with. Minecraft‘s setting itself is haunting, in that it forces players into a situation where the entire game is to answer this question:

Obviously, for makers and DIYer types, the world of Minecraft is a fantasy land of possibilities. But for someone like me — who doesn’t even understand the base physical principle that allows a hammer to drive in a nail — Minecraft is instead steeped into a broad genre of fiction about both loneliness, immortality and the ironic futility of great works.

When I play Minecraft, I am reminded vaguely, on the video game side, of Planescape: Torment, Black Isle’s breathtaking 1999 CRPG that explores the changes a man makes in both the world and in his own soul — gradually, millennia after millennia — when he can never die. But as I explore a huge underground cavern swarming with the undead, I am also reminded of the protagonist of Harlan Ellison’s classic post-apocalyptic science fiction story, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, in which the five protagonists (the last survivors on Earth and made immortal by a god-like and deathless computer named A.M. expressly for the purpose of torture) set on a year long journey through the center of the Earth, just to see if there might be a can of peaches on the other side.

However unintentionally, though, Shelley’s Ozymandias is the work that Minecraft most consistently evokes in me when I play it:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Are the massive castles or statues I built in any of my inevitably discarded Minecraft worlds really much different? Colossal works of deific arrogance conducted for the benefit of the author’s own ego, then swiftly forgotten.

Minecraft is a delightful, quirky and entirely unserious game. It’s a jumble of many things: a world-builder, a spelunking simulator, a light-hearted action game, and more besides. If you want to spend your time in Minecraft digging a giant underground chasm for yourself, or building a working roller coaster, or creating an automated bacon vending machine, or even just uninspiredly creating an enormous, island-sized pixel art Mario levitating a thousand feet in the sky, you can do it.

But pluck the world of Minecraft from a video game and bring it into fiction, and all of a sudden, it has a depressive heart, of boredom and loneliness and the utter futility of great works when there’s no one to appreciate them. I’m not sure if that secret depressive heart makes Minecraft a better game or not, but it does, at least, make Minecraft the rare game that you can actually think about.

* * * * *

Unevenly Distributed is a weekly column written by John Brownlee fusing the weekís most interesting tech stories with history, context, weirdness, humor and vision towards the future. You can drop John a note by writing to john AT gearfuse DOT com.

10 comments

  1. Good job and keep going! It’s amazing! I would love to see it when it is all done.

  2. Hey John. You can backup and export your single-player Minecraft maps to share with other people through third-party tools. That way, you can let other people enjoy your toys and creations and it isn’t as lonely.

    http://www.minecraftwiki.net/wiki/Programs_and_Editors

    Cheers!

  3. I have two words for you: Survival Multiplayer. There’s a woolly world of other people out there playing Minecraft with you… or against you.

  4. Minecraft creations are ponarvs, projects of no apparent redeeming value – as are pyramids, cathedrals, novels, paintings, theorems, and all true creations, whether celebrated or unknown.

    In my dark moods, I sometimes think as you do that it is all “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” †But despair is not wisdom.

    The trick, I think, is to burn away all traces of ego and create for the pure joy of creation. †Meaning is over-rated. †Instead of “why?”, ask “why not?”.

    (I am not always able to pull this off, but the days I do are my better days – and better, too, for those around me.)

  5. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but the minecraft experiment (http://www.pcgamer.com/2010/11/20/the-minecraft-experiment-day-1-chasing-waterfalls/) is a really well-written feature on learning to play.

  6. A very nice introspection. +2 for “omphalos”, -1 for omitting discussion of key features, but then as a player of the game I can recognize that this is not meant to be a review, per se. I have certainly spent more time exploring my single player worlds than competing for real estate on multiplayer servers, and I agree that it does a marvelous job of letting the player establish a motivation and narrative howsoever desired.

    The moment I decided Minecraft was for me was after becoming lost under a mountain without proper tools or torches. Block by block I was able to dig myself out of the earth in total darkness, with only the sounds of hillside animals guiding me closer to the surface. The game gives me all the tools and means to survive, and it’s up to me to make effective use of them – if I choose to.

    It will be fascinating to see how the game evolves into a finished retail product with its own optional narrative.

  7. Some really wonderful comments here, guys. Brackynews, as you note, this isn’t really meant to be a review, per se: I’m a few months too late to that. Really, it’s just meant to be an introspective about a game I have felt drawn to, but have never quite felt that I understood in the same way as the sort of creative gamers who have made it great. I don’t really have the drive to build gigantic towering structures. Strangely, my compulsion is to dig and to keep digging into the earth, looking for what I might find inside… probably a statement in and of itself as to how Minecraft philosophically appeals to me.

    As for multiplayer, yeah, I left that mention out… mostly because I don’t play it. Anyone recommend a good server that would have me on board?

  8. Beautiful article, it hits home on why I prefer the Single Player survival more then multilayer at the moment. There’s a sense of loneliness that can easily add or subtract from the experience, but when looking back at my work, I take alot of wonder and amazement in the fact that many of the changes to the world where only made by myself. From moving out of the side of the mountain into a very large and expandable Ranch home, to exploring and setting up many mini-bases and farming locations. I would love to bring someone over to see what was created, but that would also invite the feeling of letting go to my world, and losing some of my deity control of it.

  9. Great article, but I think John Cartan has it right. If you’re creating these things out of ego then you’re doomed to the depression and loneliness that you describe, the transcendent part is when you step out of that and realize it doesn’t matter that it’s pointless.

    Emergent gameplay like this is coming of age lately and starting to garner public attention. Ironically, they’re usually the product of developers who feel the same way about their creations as the users who use them to build these monolithic structures. Dwarf Fortress is a prime example of this, programmed by a single individual over the course of 10 years, it ‘dwarfs’ even the most complex Minecraft/Dwarf Fortress mega structure.

    I just can’t wait for the day when someone combines Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress and Nethack…

  10. Nice article. The first thing a thought about was this comic: http://xkcd.com/505/ a story about an immortal guy in an infinite big desert of sand and rocks.

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