I once listened to a radio phone-in about the greatest ever toys. Transformers, Barbie and other staples from across the generations were mentioned and lauded, until the show was completely derailed by one irate caller who had particular beef with Denmark’s finest ever export. Lego, he proclaimed, was rubbish. “Well,” he continued over the hoots of derision, “once you’ve built what it tells you to build, what’s there left to do!?”
At that point you could only feel sorry for him. So devoid of imagination was he that he had worked himself up into such a rage over his building blocks and their limited potential that he was forced to ring into a national radio show. Heaven only know what he’d be pushed to with Minecraft.
The PC phenomenon has crept its way onto the Xbox, and although it may be a slightly stripped down version it offers a world full of sandbox fun. It’s a game powered by the user’s imagination, that can see whole worlds spring forth if they only have the time and inclination to commit to it. You can turn a meadow into a village, a bare seascape into Atlantis, or fill the skies with a recreation of the Death Star.
Though I fear I am getting ahead of myself; at the beginning such possibilities seem a long way off. Dropped into a land made of cubes with nothing but the ability to hit things until they break, you must build yourself up a toolset to make life easier. Collecting (read: punching) wood from trees and stone from rocks allows you to create at first a workbench and then spades and pickaxes with which to more easily mine the world about you.
You first hour or so is spent simply harvesting, replacing blades when they dull and break, but mainly gathering resources simply because you can. No tree is safe or rock out of the question from this early frenzy and soon you’ll no doubt survey the environmental damage you have wreaked and decide a little more focus is needed.
That is ably handed to you by the monsters that come out at night. As square as the world about them, they aim to put a stop to your ways and so the only reasonable course to take is to build a house and hide until morning. At first it’s a necessity, a place to cower only to prevent yourself from losing all the inventory you’ve built up, probably no more than some dirt thrown together in a high-sided square. The second night, however, is where the magic of Minecraft gets you. A dull square is no longer good enough; you’ve foraged more materials and maybe you have grand design for a sloped roof? If you extend it a little out back, maybe you can create a mineshaft so the night is as productive as the day? Or how about a castle? If you’re still happy with a dirt hovel, you’re playing the wrong game.
With elements from glass bricks to stairs, working switches to rudimentary water, there are enough bits and pieces to fill any young architect with glee. With enough planning and resources the world is your highly angular oyster.
And so unfolds the other great facet of Notch’s wondrous creation: the world itself. Each land is different, randomly generated and brought into life for you to then mine to destruction. But it’s huge, genuinely vast, and hides some true natural wonders. Above ground the hills rolls out as far as the eye can see, whilst the coastlines teem with sea caves. By sheer chance however, towering cliffs, dramatic valleys and cracks splitting the land also form before your eyes, and all warranting further exploration. For a game based on giant cubes and a random number generator the landscape can prove stunning, and yet it is below ground the true treasures wait.
To build up enough resources for your 1:1 recreation of Hogwarts you’ll need to head through the bedrock, deep into the bowels of the earth. Choose a cliff face or dip in the floor and head down and you’ll gather enough rock to start building those magical walls, but every now and again you’ll chance upon a hidden underground cavern offering possible ores and precious stones, items needed for the more advanced pieces. More than that though, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a maze of caves, looming of into the darkness just teasing you to explore them.
From tiny pot holes to vast caverns that you could fit a cathedral into, poking about and seeing what natural wonder hides round the next corner was a huge draw to me. Collecting essential stones became secondary as I longed for the next underground river or cracking through a rock to be met with the subtle glow of a lava flow. By this point I’d turned the monsters off, I wanted nothing to get in the way of my subterranean adventure.
Objectively, Minecraft seems at the same time nothing and everything. You’re plonked in the world with next to nothing and an objective to survive. There is no narrative, no grand story to “complete.” It is a sandbox where they stories write themselves, be it tunnelling in a cave alone or building a grand structure over Xbox Live with friends, it will be the telling of the stories that is most likely to draw people in.
Like the time my brother and I built a floating castle and tried to create a lava flow from the top turret, only to realise that doing so with wooden flooring might be a mistake, but tried it anyway with hilarious/catastrophic results. Or the time I was struggling blindly through a cave, having run out of torches, only to burst through a wall and find sunlight streaming down on me through a natural opening that ran 100m dead-straight up to the blue sky. The cave of chickens my brother found, or the pub my boss hid under his friend’s cathedral, or the squid that swam into my kitchen, or the cow that stole a minecart, the giant fire-filled floating arrow someone made for their brother who kept getting lost, or the countless other tales that are created by handing us a simple set of tools and letting our imagination and little random luck from the world take its course.
So, to the man on the radio: think. If you could build anything, what would it be?