It’s not easy, coming to a game like Minecraft long after the greater internet has already swallowed, digested and excreted it. Were not for innumerable articles, diaries, disections and YouTube videos I’d likely have never discovered the game; but having found it in this way I knew that I could no longer discover it for myself. For all that it is expansive, Minecraft is also very simple: a linear staircase made of different-coloured bricks, a cave that becomes a fort that becomes a castle that becomes Dick Mountain. It is, somewhat like life, a unique and individuated journey that nontheless conforms to well-trodden paths and patterns, and as such it is easy to become cynical about one’s own place in it. I was never going to be the guy that builds a functioning CPU or receates the Starship Enterprise: the best I could hope for, as a new player, was to come to the game on my own terms and hope to be surprised. I did, and I was – and in telling the story of that experience I also hope to explain why I will never play Minecraft again.
Returning to a state of innocence is pretty difficult, even when discussing a primary-coloured playpen full of happy blocky animals. Coming to Minecraft as late as I did felt a little like arriving at the gates of Eden after it’s all become rather awkward and the monkeys have started biting each other and building lewd totems. In this environment, attempting to act the innocent – to behave as if I didn’t know what was going on – would be at best roleplay, and, at worst, roleplaying as a games journalist. As much as I was and am interested in the game as a piece of art, as a fable, and as a tool, what I wanted was an experience – a story wholly mine, preempted by no-one. For that, false ignorance wouldn’t cut it. I needed a structure to shape my postlapsarian overthought into something with meaning. I needed rules, engraved on pixellated tablets.
Fifteen minutes later I returned from the mountaintop.
- I will read no guides, forums, or Minecraft material of any kind once I have begun playing;
- I have one life to live, and on death will delete my save;
- I will make only those changes to the landscape that I need to;
- I will be vegetarian.
That last point may bear some explanation. I have been a vegetarian for nigh-on three years, a decision made at the time to make some sense of a disordered existence – to process freedom into something I can work with. Vegetarianism is a little moral fulcrum that helps me delineate wants and needs, that suspends me a little above my guilts and regrets (for I am a friend to pigs) while holding me back from ready contentment (I really used to like bacon). Vegetarianism keeps me alert and uncomfortable in the best sense; so it would be vegetarianism, I hoped, that made Minecraft mine.
If you’ve read any of the above and thought “piss off back to your cave, hippie!” then, fear not; I’m about to do exactly that.
I begin on the exposed shore of a lake, one of several, among wooded foothills. It’s already light; late morning or midday. I had expected to begin at dawn, or in some secluded spot: the sudden openness and brightness is disorientating, like stepping off a plane in another timezone. I also expected to begin alone, but I am not: along the shore of the lake happy little sheep bounce in and out of the water, unresponsive to my presence. I briefly feel a little self-conscious, as fresh and new as I am among these animals who are clearly just having a day out and don’t need me getting in their way. Then, amusement takes over. This is great! Thirty seconds in and I already have friends. Silly, wooly friends. Fear not, wooly friends – I’m not like the others. I’m not going to punch you to death. I’m going to find a nearby cave that I can hide in when the monsters come, and then I’m going to come back here and we can prat about in the water together – because I’m not going to punch you to death.
My place in the world starting to take shape, I bound up the nearest hill to get a better view. There are red and yellow flowers on the way: I punch them all in quick succession, and like that – punch punch punch – I have a bunch of flowers. I’m going to put these outside the cave I’m going to live in, I think. That way I’ll know where it is, when I’m on my way back from playing with the sheep.
I take in the view. On the other side of the lake from where I’m standing is a low hill, the one I was facing when I started the game. On the other side is a short dip, then a series of sandy mounds surrounded by water. Farther still is a steeper wall of earth, and among the brown I make out an edge of grey stone and darkness. Cave! I’m going to live in you!
Back down the hill, I offer a rigid full-body salute to the sheep and trace the lake around to the far side. I punch a few more flowers, and briefly consider punching a tree but decide that I should get to know the landscape better before I make that kind of drastic alteration. I start to climb up towards the next lake and a piano arpeggiates: I’m on my way, the game says. One thing at a time. Sheep! Flowers! Cave!
Accross from me is a valley, and in the valley is a pig. The pig moves to and fro, shuffling and lazy-eyed. As I approach it raises its head and clocks me, snorting as if to say “whatever.” Oh, pig. Hipster cousin to the sheep, burdened with the intelligence of a three-year-old human child. We’ll learn to respect each other, in time, I’m sure. Those sheep know how to have a good time but you and I have an understanding. You disdain me now, sure, but that’s because you don’t really know me yet. Didn’t you hear? I am a friend to pigs. I am not going to punch you to death, no sir. Pig, I know we’ve just met, but I’d like you to consider taking a room in my cave. It’d do us both good, to have the company of an equal. Anyway, consider it. I’ll be back when your room is ready. Cheerio!
And off I go, out of the valley and down the hill and from sand-dune to sand-dune until I reach the mouth of the cave. It’s bigger than it looked, and deeper, grey and dappled with red dirt and sand. I push inwards, and it’s exhilarating. The first corridor gives out into a roughly circular chamber lit by a single skyward opening: perfect, I think. This will do. I’ll build out from here, and – oh.
In the far corner the earth gives way to a passage, leading underneath the cave wall to another, deeper, chamber. Hm. If I’m going to live here, I should know where that passage leads. Monsters could get in that way, or pig could go in there and get lost. I toy with blocking it up and forgetting about it, but it’s too early to be closing doors in a world this full of opportunity.
The second chamber is actually smaller than the first, but angles off sharply to the left, to a steep drop lined with stair-like protusions. Taking the cue, I inch down, block by block, double-checking all the while that I’m not dropping further than I can climb back up. It’s fine, I reassure myself. Down we go. At the bottom, there’s a single-block-gap in the wall, through which I see a pit streaked by shafts of daylight. I must have reached the other side of the hill, I think. I was right to come this far. The only thing obstructing my progress is a single brick of soft-looking earth, and so with minor internal fanfare I make my first amendment to the world I have received.
Having never read the controls or had the actual mechanics explained to me, I assume that things are broken with repeated mouse-clicks. I do this and, though it takes a little longer than expected, the block gives out. I’m on my way, I remind myself. I’ve just done my first Minecraft. There are many to come. I nip through the gap and look up to a broad rectangle of open sky; I spin to look down, to a rift in the earth like an abandoned quarry. I strafe along the edge, hold W and A a little too long, and drop like a stone into open space.
My fall is stopped by a rocky outcrop about mid-way down the pit. I’ve lost a few hearts, but I’m okay save for the fact that there’s no immediately apparrent way back up. Hm. Problem. I rashly try to clickclickclick the stone next to me, but nothing happens. Having not been told that you hold the mouse button to dig, I assume that I can’t break it because I don’t have a pickaxe. There’ll be a way out, though, through the bottom of the pit. There’s sand and dirt there. I can break those.
I pick my way down to the bottom and start chipping at the softest parts of the wall. I break through enough to see that there’s a cave on the far side, but I can’t tell if there’s a way back up. There’s no daylight, so I’m not hopeful, but if there’s sand, or dirt, then maybe – I stop myself. I can’t get through here because there’s still a great hunk of granite in the way. I can’t get back up.
I am stuck.
I look up towards the sky and wonder what time it is. It’s probably almost dusk. I wonder if the monsters will know that I’m down here. I wonder if the initial fall will kill them. It didn’t kill me, though, and I just got here. I open the inventory and consider my options. I have half a dozen red and yellow flowers. Lining them up on the grid does not, as hoped, produce a rope.
I am stuck.
I decide to climb as far as I can, to see if there’s a trick to jumping that I have missed. I get as far as the outcrop on which I originally landed and try double-jumps; punch-jumps; jump-punches. Nothing happens. Angry at myself for being careless, I jump too far sideways, and drop down to the bottom of the pit. I take another heart’s worth of damage.
I am stuck and my one means of interacting with the world is throwing myself off an outcrop to lose a heart. There’s probably a way out, but: no guides, no Minecraft Wiki. One life. I think about waiting for a monster to come and take it from me, and then realise that no monster may come at all. I could wait here forever, and as far as I know I can’t starve to death. I briefly consider how that does in fact make it easier to be a vegetarian. Then I climb back up to the outcrop, and drop. Three hearts. Up, and drop. Two hearts. Up, and drop. One heart.
Up, and drop, and that’s that. I delete the save, and close the game.
I played Minecraft for forty-five minutes, picked some flowers, made several friends and bludgeoned myself to death on the floor of a cave far from any of them. My time was short, brutal, and littered with errors – but staring at the menu screen I realised that it was, in its own way, perfect and unrepeatable. I will not start a new game, and walk through the same actions as if they were new. I will not take a different tack and set about building my own Dick Mountain. That was Minecraft, and I’m not going to do it again.
I’m also not going to go camping any time soon.