Escape into the Cubiverse
HIGH Discovering a vast cave system underneath my house.
LOW Repeated game-killing glitches.
WTF The game can often be scarier than most horror titles.
Minecraft and I didn't get off on the right foot.
I'm a console player at heart, and it takes something really special to get me motivated enough to jump on a PC. When the Minecraft phenomenon began, I wondered whether I should investigate, and I asked people what it was about. The answers were all about the same.
It's like infinite Legos. It's a pure, limitless sandbox. You can build anything.
I can see how some would find that appealing, but as a goals-oriented player with limited free time, it didn't seem like a good fit. I'm not a fan of timesinks and I don't like games without an endpoint, so I never saw reason to take the plunge.
I expected Minecraft to fade away like so many other titles before it, but that didn't happen. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger—as did my curiosity. When review code for the Xbox 360 Edition arrived, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally give it a shot.
First impressions? Utterly atrocious.
Upon starting, I was only able to complete the tutorial before a game-ending inventory glitch happened every single time I tried to access my items. In an effort to get the game to work, I restarted, deleted the cache, began multiple new games… Nothing helped. I even contacted tech reps at Microsoft, but it remained unplayable. Frustrated, I blogged about it, removed it from the Gamecritics review queue, and promptly started my next assignment.
Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been the end of it. However, my ten-year old knew that I had it on my machine, and he'd been hot to try it after playing at a friend's. I told him that we probably wouldn't be able to get it to run, but he insisted and for whatever reason, the game worked fine.
(Imagine the sound of my teeth grinding together here.)
He already had a pretty good working knowledge of Minecraft, so I sat beside and watched him punch trees, build a house on stilts, and chase wolves around the blocky landscape. It didn't seem interesting but he was into it, so I continued on as his couch buddy.
After he went to bed that night, I started my own game (now functional for me as well) and wondered what the point was. Walking around, digging up rocks? Cutting trees and seeing the leaves continue to hover in the air? Getting blown to hell by stealthy green creepers? What was so great about this?
I had no clue.
Time passed in the real world and a little while later, my health insurance premium jumped up by 19% out of the blue. Compounding the problem, I hadn't received a paycheck in over a month. Life can be hairy at times for a freelancer like myself, and with financial obligations and mouths to feed, I was really wondering when some cash was going to come in.
After another night of watching my son putter around in blockville and with tension running high, I put him to bed and decided to give Minecraft another shot for the hell of it. This time, it just clicked. With the chaos and worry happening in my life, the soothing piano melody and total mastery over the world stopped being boring and became an appealing oasis from reality.
I can't afford to buy a house in real life, but in Minecraft, it's no problem. I just collect a few cobblestones and before long there's a castle perched atop a mountain. That growing grocery budget that's keeping me up at night? Punching a few endlessly-spawning pigs to harvest porkchops banishes food concerns. Though these actions didn't help a whit with my issues in reality, just being able to successfully exert my will somewhere was a good feeling.
This ability to control was certainly soothing to my nerves, but it was just my point of entry into the game. Even as an effective balm for tension, Minecraft wouldn't have held my attention for long without it having more substance to it—and it did.
As I was molding my corner of the world and forgetting my worries, I was reminded of fellow games writer Scott Nichols. Out of everyone I spoke to, he was the only person who described Minecraft as something other than a bottomless construction kit, and his comparison to little-known niche title Lost in Blue was apt. In that game, the player washes up on a desert island and must scavenge the landscape for the means of survival. To my surprise, I eventually found Minecraft to be much the same, and more.
After learning the basic mechanics of digging, collecting, and just plain building stuff, the struggle to carve out an existence in Minecraft's world became oddly compelling as a minor tale of Man vs. Nature. It began to exert a hold on me. This hold was then magnified by the discovery of a darker, hidden side to the game that I had never heard discussed before—just the sort of thing to hook an inquisitive player who can't resist trying to puzzle out a mystery.
The first hint of this otherness was when I came across a small, magical box spawning animals in the wilderness. It didn't fit with my initial concept of being in a wholly natural world, yet it wasn't some sort of glitch or mistake. It was put there intentionally. Later while digging, I chanced upon a vast underground cavern system filled with lava and precious minerals. I had no clue it was tucked underneath my house, and its very existence was a whisper of more. Then, one night I decided to stay up and take in the view from the top of my castle, and was horrified to see that the land so beautiful by day was covered with hissing spiders and wandering undead once the sun went down.
Though there is certainly no overt narrative, an unspoken story and theme to the world emerges slowly, pieced together over time by continued exposure to Minecraft's less-obvious elements. Far more than the simplistic building tools I was led to expect, this was a world rich with depth, both literal and figurative, and this hidden content is also evident in the Achievements. Rather than the tiresome "collect X items" or "kill X monsters" favored by others, Minecraft's are guidelines leading players towards discovery.
Between the challenge of establishing a comfortable existence out of rough-hewn wilderness, the hunger to learn the game's metanarrative, and the opportunity to de-stress from the worries of real life, Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition transformed itself from a dull dirt-digging sim into something challenging, appealing, and far different from what I'd usually spend time with. I never thought I'd become a devotee, but I have to admit that there is greatness here—anyone describing the game as simple creation is massively underselling the concealed complexity of the ultimate design.
Now, if only the developers could iron it out all of those glitches…
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 16 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time of review. (All achievements hadn't been earned yet.) 2 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains fantasy violence. While the game can get scary at times thanks to creepers popping up unexpectedly or hearing monster moans from unknown sources, turning the game to “Peaceful” removes all enemies and makes it totally safe for kids. At that point, the only violence is bopping a pig or cow and watching them POOF into resources. Safe for kids of all ages, I'd say.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Sound can often play an important role by letting players know when enemies are near. Frequently, they are heard before they are seen, especially at night. When playing on anything other than “Peaceful” mode, this may be an issue that leads to a few untimely deaths. Otherwise, there is no dialogue in the game and sound is not necessary to engage in any of the gameplay functions.
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