The torch-lit stone bounces geometric shadows in the cramped shaft. My items: two stone picks, a shovel; some gravel, stone and dirt; one last torch. A stone pick breaks. Nothing. More bloody stone. More bloody moans. Somewhere a zombie is eyeing my character. Desperation settles in. One last stone pick. I’ll have to trek back to the surface. I need to get some wood, a craft bench and more torches. Which way? North, South, East, West, who really knows, who really cares a mile beneath the surface? A wall crumbles. A cave. Dark. Vast. Open. Full of Creepers. Shit.
Without a narrative structure, Minecrafters have to craft a story for their world. Mine is an empty, flat wasteland. Clouds, far above, placidly follow the sun on its northbound arc. There are no mountains, no natural wonders; few trees, short beaches; plateaus of rock, dirt and clay. It’s a world without inspiration, so I mine. Below the surface, my world branches off into vast cavers, each littered with resources and undiscovered territory. Telling a story about the outside world, the world of light is a tedious exercise. Telling a story about a mine lit by torches, riddled with dead ends, lava, enemies; it’s exciting.
Minecraft is an open-world, independently developed video game in which you use blocks to create a world around you. It’s a video game about creating, breaking, bending and destroying the world environment around you. How do you do this? With the creative use of resources, tools and weapons. How do you create these tools? By mining. The mineshaft is a simple and now rudimentary video game structure. The mineshaft I’m digging out plummets for mile. A straight run into an open cavern: Coal. Iron. Redstone. Gold. Diamond. Dark corners of an infinitely expanding, extensively branching underground. It’s dark. Only a ladder, some torches and a sign keep me sane. In the anteroom above there’s light, the sun, sanctuary; storage rooms, extra tools, weapons. That’s all you need to feel safe. But you need more to survive.
In the depths of a mine, ingenuity can save your life. Staggering ladders for extra height, torch placement every ten steps, using picks and shovels on appropriate materials. But you will die, over and over. Zombies. Skeletons. Spiders. Creepers. Threats abound. Imagine There Will Be Blood’s crazed-religious angst replaced by exploding critters, zombies and skeletons. A number of said critters are looking up at a newly opened crevice. My character’s fleshy, block arms tantalizing to their eyes. I’m calling out to them with my presence. The moans, the hisses, the silence of the Creepers. Darkness. It spawns monsters far below the surface. Light. It makes them go away. Minecraft is, as well, a game that begs for narration.
Minecraft is focused on the player’s agency within the experience. We are given the freedom to build a world that caters to our specific needs as players. It’s an innovative game that hinges on the player’s creative faculties. This innovation, however, is heavily mediated by a set design structure. No matter how complex, how intricate, how amazing the player’s creations may be, they are all part of a closed system of design, a player-centric system. Minecraft thus emanates a sense of placelessness, of being ill-at-ease with your environment until you can make it your own. This is where the creative aspects of the game come in.
Building a sanctuary surrounded by torches, bathed glass filtered light or protected by a river of lava gives a feeling of belonging few games can provide. Game spaces like these are often mediated by our interaction. In Minecraft, we are given a set of building blocks and tools to work with. We are told to make the game our own and we are told to mine. Creating a custom tailored world gives you a video game space in which you can creatively express your freedom. How you express this freedom is up to the player. Minecraft is an example of good game design. It’s a set structure defined by a strictly moderated game space – i.e. the day and night cycle. It provides players with the freedom and agency to create whatever they desire, and do so using any play style or personalized mantra.
The most important aspect of Minecraft is creation. Many players set up markers to help them find their way back to the spawn point. Players dig in at various locations to build sanctuaries just in case night falls and they’re deep in enemy territory. Players have built traps, cannons and automated defence systems in response to the growing online community. Huge worlds with giant structure have been created by the community. One-to-one recreations of real-world architecture, world heritage sites and wonders. It’s an open ended gameplay design, but any Minecrafter knows how frustrating the open-world design can become. A game space so large, so varied that a ten minute walk away from your base can get you lost. Unless, that is, you’ve got a pretty good idea of where you’re going, or a compass.
Markus Persson, the creator of Minecraft, has literally struck a goldmine when it comes to his servers. Thousands of players are online; building, creating and destroying inside of Minecraft worlds. The creation of a metagame has also spawned a modding community that has thrived in this open environment. Texture packs, tips and tricks, strategies for building a perfect base; the online community has flourished because of the freedom Persson has given to players. Constant updates bring new and intriguing developments into the community.
Back on the surface. Night has fallen. A torch-lit plane leads me back to my temporary shelter for the night. No creatures are around. It’s silent, save the sound of footstep and the occasional cow, pig or chicken. The wooden structure my character calls his home open with the click of a button. Inside, crates and furnaces some still working away creating iron ingots or glass blocks. The moon outside continues its arc across the sky. When the sun comes up in a few minutes, I’ll run back to the mine to keep digging, to keep delving further and further down into the earth. What am I looking for? Freedom within of a mineshaft.