If you’re not already familiar with its blocky universe, check out my introduction to Minecraft. Existing initiates, read on…
In The Beginning Was The Block
There’s something supremely satisfying about starting up a new Minecraft world. Discovering what landscape you’ll spawn in, the power to delete it from existence if it doesn’t immediately suit your whims. Even though your first night in Minecraft is the most memorable, and at this point you know exactly what you need to do before the sun goes down, it’s still kind of a fresh adventure each time. Why is this?
I don’t think you can get more low-resolution in a video game that you do in Minecraft, but its worlds are so much more immersive than other 3D FPS RPGs. I think in a sense, it’s because in graphics extravaganzas like World of Warcraft, you’re riding shotgun to the story and the action. You’re not so much in control of your destiny in WoW—your control is little more than the order of the repetitive tasks you’re required to perform.
Back To Block One
The release of Minecraft Pocket Edition for mobile devices sheds some interesting light on this. Initially intended to be little more than a very basic Creative Mode version of the game, players went crazy and demanded a more full Minecraft experience. The development progress has been quite slow, and new features are added piecemeal. But the slow pace got me thinking with each release: what makes Minecraft Minecraft?
Of course, Survival Mode is a big factor. It drives the story along to a big degree. At first I thought the hunger bar was a bad idea, until I used it. It’s another tool to force the player into action and explore. Caves and ore are a huge factor as well, as they too encourage exploration. Getting out in the world is what starts a chain reaction of events that generate the ongoing saga of your time in the game. Staying out past dark and having a skeleton scare the crap out of you and making you resolve to build some armor immediately—that’s how the “story” unfolds.
But unlike scripted RPGs, there’s no epic story arc. It’s a much more personal tale. As I mentioned in the linked article above, I believe Minecraft taps into the reptilian parts of the human brain. They are still there, we just rarely use them. But Minecraft has an ingenious system whereby the tasks you’re completing in the game to “advance” (make stronger tools and weapons, build armor, etc.) actually feel satisfying. In fact, early versions of the Pocket Edition just offered up a ton of unlimited blocks—even in Survival Mode—because there was no way to make many of them due to a lack of furnaces at the time. The odd thing was that I missed that extra work required to craft them for myself.
Although there’s a day/night cycle in the Pocket Edition, there’s no sun, moon or stars. And I feel this also detracts from the experience. But that’s a pretty obvious one. The gentle instrumental music and atmospheric effects would be nice too. But really, I think the most important game elements as far as the immersion factor go are those that encourage the organic story to move along.
Just A Little Bit
Still, I’ve yet to tap into what makes it so immersive. And I think the low-res graphics are the key: with the 8-bit graphics, there’s plenty of room for your imagination to participate. Too often in games, there’s no room left for the player. Even nook, cranny and polygon has been polished to a foregone conclusion about the world you’re visiting. But in Minecraft, you get to decide. Are you stranded on a desert island? An alien planet? Or just a mountain man setting up his corner of the world, Jeremiah Johnson style? It’s up to you.
Obviously Minecraft isn’t for everyone. And some just want to play Creative Mode and build. But at it’s essence, regardless of your playing choice it’s those minimalist pixels that give your imagination a place to hang out, and make you feel like it’s your world.
- Minecraft: Zen and the Craft of Mining (georgecoghill.wordpress.com)