|In Minecraft, one person can change the world.|
I am lost, and night is falling.
With only a shoddy hide tunic to protect me from the evils that emerge once the sun has set, I head back toward home -- the home I built myself from wood, rock, soil and sand. At least I think I'm heading that way. With the daylight vanishing and unfamiliar terrain greeting me everywhere I look, fear takes root. What if I'm wandering away from my stove and my bed, and instead I'm stumbling blindly into the hands of my enemies?
And then I see it, beyond the top of a row of trees, distant but unmistakable: Stonefort.
I built a tower atop a hill near my modest house. It's a tall, glass-crowned cobblestone tower, made only because I wanted to erect some big, bold statement of my existence in this world. I named it Stonefort (which I imagine is the same name I would have given it if I'd built it in the sandbox during pre-school). It never served any purpose until this moment, but now it is my compass. I make my way back surely, oddly prideful, keeping my eye on that grey-white parapet.
If you're a veteran of the PC version of Minecraft, you've had experiences like this one. And with the release of the XBLA version this Wednesday, May 9th, those of us who are console-bound will get a chance to experience the much-hyped, cube-heavy game for ourselves.
I had, of course, heard of Minecraft before, and I'd seen the YouTube videos of amazingly detailed user creations ranging from insane roller coasters to replicas of movie sets. But otherwise I was a complete newcomer to the whole thing. It's difficult to sum up my reactions to Minecraft briefly, but I realized that this game is about human instinct... but in a very different way than other video games are.
In the XBLA Minecraft, you're dropped in the middle of a vast, newly generated world, where everything is composed of blocks. Virtually all of these blocks can be mined in some way or other, so the entire natural world is full of potential to be remade as you see fit. At the outset, with nothing but your skills as a handyman and your natural inclination to explore, it's up to you what to do. The only impediments to your progress are the materials available to you and the hordes of monsters that spawn from the darkness each night and assault any who are not inside a solid shelter.
But don't think that after a little time roughing it, the game will send a messenger your way with news of a huge goal to be achieved on behalf of some Minecraft king. The progression of the game is simply about building more and more, exploring further and further. A pre-written plotline doesn't fit into this most open of open worlds, and so this is simply not included.
This prompted anyone who watched me play the game over the last few days to ask, "So, okay, what's the goal of this?" Which is a fair question. Part of the definition of "game" is usually that it has a goal. It sounds belittling, but maybe Minecraft is more of a toy -- something to be played with that has no time limit or predetermined end. Something that is what it is, and you can spend as much time with it as makes you happy, and leave it behind when it doesn't anymore.
If you're a Minecraft vet, none of this will daunt you, you'll just be wondering how it stacks up in relation to the computer version. From what I've picked up from looking at the differences between descriptions of the PC version and my experience with the XBLA game, there are a few major tweaks. Creative mode, where you essentially have unlimited access to whatever blocks you wanted and could build anything you desired, is absent on Xbox at this point, so in order to make anything you have to earn the right to do it by toiling in the quarries, on the beaches or in the forests. And, of course, since the XBLA version is based on an older build of the game, mods and newer updates are not part of it, though free updates have been promised to keep the game somewhat near, if not at, the PC Minecraft's state in terms of content.
While I've not played the online components of multiplayer, the idea is that you can link up to eight people in one session, limited to one's Xbox Live friends to avoid griefing. I have played the split-screen co-op with a friend, and once we both got past the "okay, what do we do" stage, it was remarkably addictive and very fun. There are a couple downsides: inventories and crafting screens get very hard to see on the reduced size of the split-screen windows, and some of the more elaborate multiplayer elements available through the PC version are, at this point, impossible on the 360. But, at least in the local co-op, Minecraft lends itself surprisingly well to the type of very social gaming that consoles have always done better. If you play Minecraft with a like-minded friend, you'll both be screaming at creepers and cooking up porkchops together for a long while.
If you're new to the game, Minecraft's Xbox incarnation does its part to help the uninitiated -- the crafting interface is simplified, and there's a tutorial that fills you in on basic skills. The controls are well-explained and become intuitive once you've spent a little time with them. The big question here is whether a game without set quests or big bad guys or epic conflicts will hold your attention. And that's completely up to you. For me, personally, the lack of inertia in the game was sometimes distracting, sometimes it was boring, but ultimately it was irrelevant. Once I realized a bridge was needed to gap a chasm or a bit more iron could build me a better sword, I was off again.
I think a lot of great games appeal to players on a very visceral level, and Minecraft does as well. But most games involve stimulating basic impulses like the desire for revenge, the desire to go on a rampage, the desire to destroy without consequence. I don't think it's bad that we indulge these instincts most in video games; it's what we've grown used to thinking of the medium as being about.
Minecraft has its share of combat, as elementary and panicked as it is. But on the whole, it doesn't tap into that part of our caveman brain -- it taps into the part that made people first goad sparks from two dry pieces of wood. It accesses the part of us that drove our ancestors to try to build the most beautiful church, the highest skyscraper, the best city that they could imagine.
It's about survival, yes, especially in the beginning. But it's more about innovation, hard work and the fact that creating things can be just as much fun as blowing stuff up. While there may be tedious stretches even for those inclined to give it a try, I found myself giving in to the phenomenon. Stonefort will grow higher and more regal each chance I get to build higher, and will serve as a guidepost, a shelter and a symbol of my own successes for some time. All you need to make your own mark are your ideas, the world around you, and maybe a pickaxe or two.
The Official Verdict: 4.25 out of 5