Much as the molten core of its world swills deep below its grassy topsoil, so Minecraft the game is buried somewhere deep beneath the crust of Minecraft the phenomenon. This is no great surprise.
An independent web-game written in an outmoded language and drawn with rudimentary blocks and 16-bit colours that finds unprecedented financial success will confound the wisdom of most video game critics, consultants and publishing mavens. So it’s inevitable that discussion of the “what” will be smothered by discussion of the “how” and the “why”.
Released long before it was finished, Minecraft has no in-game tutorial, no instruction pages and few explicit goals. November’s update moved the game from its extended beta into full release by introducing an endgame, but players are still forced to adventure outside of the confines of the game in search of YouTube videos to explain how to make one’s mark.
The basic rules are otherwise inscrutable, and, for players brought up on to-do list play, the passage of time largely aimless. And yet, in a few short months, Minecraft made its creator, Swede Markus “Notch” Persson, a multimillionaire, and revealed its player base to be one of the most creatively motivated in video games.
Why? In truth, the answer to the why is hidden inside the what.
Put aside Minecraft the phenomenon for a moment – the excited whispers of Lego deals, the unlikely merchandise, the endless industry awards snatched from the fists of Goliath blockbusters – and the in-game story of Minecraft is essentially the story of man: survival, hunting, community and, eventually, hubris.
The world is uniquely yours. All players share the 1×1 blocks that comprise its mountains, valleys, lakes and clouds, but their arrangement is randomly assigned to you alone. Day one and your goal is mere exploration, charting the terrain around you, a carefree sort of cartography as you feel out the contours of your domain, marvel at the scenery and build a mind map of natural landmarks to set your bearings by.
Then night falls and monsters rise; dead-eyed zombies, skeletons and camouflaged creepers, whose kindergarten path-finding AI has them pursue you with night-terror single-mindedness.
In a flash you spring from tourist to tormented, your goal shifting to a quest for survival as, using the action button, you begin to dig a cave with your bare hands in search of shelter.
Your interactive skillset may be limited to destroying blocks and rebuilding them, but soon you learn how to build tools from the materials around you. After the first night the rhythm and structure remains constant – work during light, shelter during night – but the next day’s objective is largely one of your own making.
You can choose to turn your cave into a castle, the urge to survive making way for the desire for comfort as you venture back out to gather the raw materials needed to laminate the floor of your home, build a bathtub and a stove onto which you can cook your meat.
For some, constructing a shack in the shire is adventure enough, and Hobbit-like they leave the game happy to have made a house a home. For others, ambitions aren’t so easily met, and they embark on a project to build a scale replica of the Taj Mahal, or the Starship Enterprise, or even to use sand and water to create logic gates that fire a giant rudimentary computer scrawled into the landscape.
Your creativity may be bounded to the resources that surround you, but dig deep enough and you’ll find everything you need to replicate on-screen that which sits in your imagination.
Once you have exhausted your self-made goals – added that extension, converted that garage, scaled your own Tower of Babel – Minecraft’s multiplayer servers allow you to venture forth to the community. Here you’ll find collaborative projects that dizzy the mind with their scale or pedantry, a thousand stubby arms chiselling at metaphorical pyramids, slaves to naught but their own aspiration.
In recent months, Minecraft’s makers have sought to take what is, in essence, a playpen of wild potential and mild peril, and mould it into a more formal video game structure. Achievements point you toward light goals, RPG levelling provides an abstract numerical read-out for your progression, while an end boss offers a conclusion for the kinds of players who need to “beat” a game rather than merely play one.
But these feel like half-hearted, tokenistic designs intended to bring some form of closure to the Minecraft phenomenon’s aimless evolution.
At its worst, the full-fat, full-price 1.0.0 Minecraft release is conflicted. A hotchpotch of game design clichés awkwardly stapled onto a wide-open space of joyous creative potential.
But those recent, orthodox game features can be roundly ignored and their presence does not diminish the wonder of the true core of the player-defined experience.
By offering us the tools we need to express ourselves, and by constructing the world from 1×1 blocks, video game atoms that can be arranged in every imaginable combination, Minecraft is perhaps the closest we have to a true god game.
And yet, it is also a game that indulges the instincts and aspirations of man, from lighting that first candle in a cave in order to ward off monsters, to building a tower to the stars. And beyond this, Minecraft has irrevocably changed the landscape of gaming, even as we have irrevocably changed its landscape in kind.
This review was first published at The Guardian here.