The Big World as a Concept
What is it about Minecraft? There is no plot, no story line. The world is impossibly huge, many times bigger than the planet Jupiter. And it is flat, meaning you will never, ever circumnavigate the planet. What does a single person do in an environment that big?
The answer to all these questions, as well as the answer to the bigger question is: “Minecraft is a great game because you can do whatever you want!” There are a few rules, like physics, which limit you (you can’t make water flow uphill, for all I know) but then again even those rules can be bent almost to the point of breaking (for example: you can use a waterfall as an elevator, especially if you are in a boat…) and in creative mode, many of those rules don’t even apply (for example, flying is a real part of the game, as is falling “out of the world.” which is literally the only way to die in creative mode.) All of these things will be discussed in turn, but there is a different discussion that we should tackle first.
For those of us who are used to linear gameplay, the style of Minecraft can be a little daunting and/or a bit boring. In most games, even in games with huge worlds attached to them (nothing compares, of course to Minecraft in terms of world size, and each time you start a new world, a new, next-to-infinite world is created) there is nonetheless still a story line that players follow. Go to town, meet the mission giver, take the mission, go on the mission, come back, get the reward, upgrade your sword/pistol/handheld nuclear weapon, and do it all again. Even in supposedly open game worlds like GTA, to advance the story, you can’t just do whatever you want, because the game gets boring real quick. You go over the same ground over and over again, do the same repetitive thing, and eventually fall into the storyline that the developers created for you to follow.
Minecraft is a bit different. Well, it is a lot different. There is no mission, nor is there a mission giver. As a matter of fact, in single player mode, there aren’t even any other people. The closest thing is a vaguely humanoid figure called a “villager” who is only moderately aware of your existence. It is literally as if you are the only sentient creature on the face of an immense world. How you got there is not explained, getting off the planet is not really an option, and there is no convenient help bot to tell you what you are supposed to do when you gain consciousness.
Cantr: Textbased Minecraft? Perhaps, if Minecraft was in Slowmotion
I need to take a step back, actually. Minecraft isn’t the first game which is a truly open sandbox. Something like this has been done before. One game which comes to mind is Cantr II. Cantr was a remarkable game in that you can do anything you like, you can be anything you like. Cantr is an ambitious text based browser based persistent massive multiplayer role playing game, meaning, you play an rpg with other players in your browser which keeps running even when you are not logged in. In other world, it is a world that is running on a server, and the players enter the world, do stuff, log off, and then log on the next day and continue to do stuff. Meanwhile, other people are doing the same stuff, most of them entirely unaware of your existence.
I played Cantr for more than a year. The premise of the game is that the player can be anything he or he wants to be. If you want to be a diplomat, go be a diplomat. If you want to be a capitalist, go be a capitalist. Most people will end as dirt farmers, trying to scrape enough food together from the ground to get them to the next town where there may be some other opportunity, but probably more dirtfarming. But I built characters that were sailors, cartographers, businessmen, and yes, dirtfarmers. The game was fun for a long time. But there was a serious flaw in the game, which the game developers treat as an asset: everything occurred in realtime. Not so much realtime, but the website basically says it: “There are 20 days in a year, 8 hours in a day, 36 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute.”
What this means is that the process of doing things takes an incredibly long time, and only slightly less if a lot of people work on the project with you. If I wanted to build a hammer, which was necessary to build any other tool, I would tell my character to scratch the soil for a real time day (meaning a 20th of an ingame year) I would then get iron ore, and had to spend some length of time at a smelter (which may or may not be owned by someone else, which I would have to rent for some of the potatoes I had previously scratched from the soil) to spend 2 more RT days to smelt iron ore. Then two more days on the anvil, and finally I would have a hammer, with which to build anything else.
Those are real time days, not ingame days. If I wanted to go somewhere, I would leave and would get there 4 RT days later, and if, by accident I picked the wrong destination when I started, I would only figure that out when I got there, and it would take me 4 more days to get back to my starting location and then whatever time it took to get to the place I was originally going. I could spend a year on the server, and still not have the cars that I saw others cruising around in (the criminals in the game, the ones who went and stole things that it took so long for others to make, all seemed to have cars, and impenetrable armor, and the rest of us were always at their mercy.)
I finally accidentally figured out how to glitch the game to get a lot of some very important resources for myself, and was discovered by the mods. It’s not that I am a criminal. It is just that it became impossible to do anything in the game in a short period of time, and whenever you accumulated enough resources to allow you to begin to think of things like living a modicum of normalcy (you would build a shed, put a lock on it, and stash your horde of iron ore and stone inside) you would log on one day in time to see a band of thieves rolling out of town, having easily broken your lock and stolen anything of value from you, probably attacking you and everyone else in the village in the process and then hopping back in their car and making it to the next village before you even have the time to think about leaving.
Cantr’s real problem was that it was too ambitious: when you want to make a model world, you want to leave off a bit of the realism. If it takes me as long in game as it would in the real world to mine iron and build a hammer from scratch, what is the fun in that? But on the other side of the same token, this game really demonstrated, more than any game I have played, that it really does take a society for members of the society to live well. As individuals, we can neither live the way we like to live, nor can we adequately protect ourselves from those who have just a little more than we do and use that little advantage to take everything we have. If people worked together on the same project, it got done faster. If the whole community worked on a huge project, a group of 20 people could come up with a working automobile (with only 4 seats in it) in like four real time months.
Cantr’s inspiration was Legos. The developers of the game talked about building a world which resembled the legolands they constructed as kids, and coded the rules they themselves developed for their lego world into the game. In order to prevent one player from “godmodding” the lego game, they developed a system where each player had to spend a certain length of time to build a tool, or to perform some action or go to some other part of the town. While this makes sense for kids who regularly say stuff like “Well, you have a knife. Oh surprise, I have a gun that I have been working on in secret….” in a video game it got real old after a while. Then again, those who play the game long enough to acquire a car, like that system, and are used to it. The system rewards old players, and makes it relatively impossible for new players.
Minecraft: Cantr on speed with a GUI
Minecraft itself is, in a lot of ways like Cantr. The link to legos is obvious. Minecraft is what the world would look like is it was build entirely out of 2×2 legos of different colors which can stick to one another on the sides, and lack the little pips at the top. Cantr lacked “graphics,” so to speak, but if it would have been graphics-based, it may have looked like Minecraft does. But the comparison goes a lot deeper. The game of Minecraft allows you to do anything you want. You can be an emperor, or an explorer, or an architect, or on large multi-player servers, perhaps a diplomat. In creative mode, you can be a god. You also have to get resources together to build components which are used in various combinations to build other, better things. Without the requisite resources, or the per-requisite knowledge, the world is for the most part closed to you, and all you really can do is scratch at the soil, hoping to get enough dirt to build yourself a house before you are attacked by creepers.
What makes Minecraft different, however, is the different degree of time. You can mine iron ore in a second, smelt it in the next minute, and build it into a pick axe to get better and more materials in the next second. What takes several real time days in Cantr takes only a few minutes in Minecraft, meaning you can do a whole lot more at a time. You largest dreams can come to life, right in front of you. In a day, you can build fully functional models of buildings that took generations to construct in the real world. It therefore treats time exactly opposite than Cantr does, and therefore keeps you engaged for hours. It resolves many of the limitations that Cantr had, though it sacrifices some realism in the process, it more than makes up for it in terms of game play.
Most importantly, all the huge world games like Minecraft share one thing in common: the world is a character in the story. (In this way, games like GTA are also Big World games, though they are not sandboxes of any sort.) It is perhaps more of a character than the player’s avatar is. You can build and build and explore and explore and still never reach the end of the world. We’ll leave off that if you reproduce your real life bungalo house in Minecraft, on Minecraft scale it seems like a mansion: the fact is, you can spend hours in real time just flying from point A to point B. It took Dan Patterson several hours to fly, at top speed to a location that we figured out was probably no more than 10 miles away, in game, but it seemed like it was on the other side of the planet (turns out, there are probably 100 more planets out in that particular direction, and in all other directions for that matter). But along the way you meet NOBODY. If you are playing on a private multiplayer server, with a few friends, you can literally go for days without seeing any other people, and if you are playing on a large public server, there is still plenty of room for each of you to build empires of your own if you like.
The importance and the real draw of this game is precisely centered on the fact that the world is huge. It is managed by the computer to load little bits of it at a time into your memory (in your immediate vicinity) but to your surprise, you find that places VERY far away don’t change when you return to them after a long time. So you can build cities, then go out and explore and return a week later to find that city, for the most part still there (if creepers blow up your friends in that town, your town may be partially destroyed. Or, if for example, a fire starts because one of your friend built a fireplace in a wooden house, and half your city burned to the ground.)
But if you get tired of one area, you can easily move to a new one, far away. If you think all the minerals in one area are completely played out (they aren’t, ever) you can move to a new mine. If you want hills, there are hills. If you want mountains, there are mountains, if you want oceans, there are huge expanses of oceans. If you think you would like to develop a cliff city, there are canyons that are generated in the game which are dozens of blocks deep, giving you the feeling of being able to go into the depths of the earth. The expanse of the Grand Canyon is not duplicated in Minecraft, but it is often modeled.
The Creative Big World: Where being God is the point
The game, in a few words, allows you to become a god: A very short god, and one that is, to some degree manipulated and governed by time and some rules of physics, but a god nonetheless. If you can dream it, you can probably make it. There is a way to make it, and someone in the extremely active community has probably already come up with a solution to the question you are asking.
This blog will answer a number of basic questions that you may find yourself wondering about. You may find yourself frequently without something to do, but in that case, pick a mountain, cover it with TNT blocks and obliterate it right before your very eyes to the degree that anyone who has ever thought of planet smashing deathrays would only dream about. If you want to complete missions, go play in a limited world. If you want to literally bend and twist geology to your will, play Minecraft.
In the end, you will only be interested in playing Minecraft as long as you have an imagination, and want to try new stuff. You will learn how involved a process turning on a light is, and while Minecraft doesn’t present you with an ingame community the way many other MMO’s do, there is a huge community following that likes to post stuff on the internet. This blog, for example, is a work designed to give a little back to the community for what I got from them. This is how knowledge about the game, and the processes within the game spreads. It goes from person to person. If one person figures out how to do something, they share it with others, who themselves may then improve on that thing and then share it back.
Minecraft is easily as good a model of the world, and of many of the processes we take for granted in our day to day life as anything that exists now, and in Minecraft, you have a lot more freedom to do things. You will only really enjoy the game when you get past the fact that nothing readily presents itself for you to do. The developers definitely do not hold your hand through the game. But when you realize how liberating that is, the game becomes something very important, and something very special. You realize that you are literally in the process of creating and then living in an alternate, and quite alien dimension. And that is truly amazing.