15 June 2011


Minecraft is a simple first-person 3D game developed by Mojang, where the player is given free reign to explore a randomly-generated world comprised of blocks of terrain, rather like being immersed in a Lego world created by some isometric demiurge; there's no objective, per se, but the game is based around breaking nearby blocks in order to salvage building materials (like chopping down trees for wood blocks or mining stone for cobbled stone blocks) and collecting other useful resources (iron and gold ore can be smelted into iron blocks - which can be used for armor or stronger weapons or tools - and gold blocks - which is used in the creation of powered railway tracks and other useful objects). Through collecting, crafting and smithing, the player is given free reign to build structures such as wooden cabins, stone castles, underwater cities or aerial palaces - all of which can help keep them safe from the many monsters that roam throughout the land, especially at night, which can kill the player if they're not careful. The game is currently being distributed in a Beta version for 14.95 Euros (around £13 pounds) with continual updates every few weeks, and as of June 2011, Notch, the lead designer, reported that it had over 2.5 million purchases.

I came to Minecraft quite late, comparitively speaking. I knew a lot of people who sang its praises, saw folk playing it on their laptops during lectures, and saw posts about it all over the Internet, but for whatever reason, I didn't really explore it for a while. I knew it was about mining ("Riveting!") and there were zombies ("Innovative!) and the graphics were pixel-3D ("Aesthetically profound!"), but I dismissed it out of hand as being dull without really playing it. Shameful as it may be, it wasn't until my friend Max utterly sold me on the concept by tying it to my interests that I gave it a chance: his description of a "completely solitary survival horror" (paraphrasing) instantly flew in the face of all my preconceptions, and I immediately went to play the free Classic mode on the Minecraft website. And then I got hooked.

Lego Architect

Ironically, the mode I played doesn't even feature the survival aspect that I was lured in with: Classic is all about building things.

As a kid, I had crates full of Lego, I'd design floorplans for buildings just for fun, and I loved building "dens" and forts at the river - building things was always something that really engaged my interest. You're given infinite stacks of various types of blocks that you can find in the main game, and using these, you can build with reckless abandon. I've since found out that it's a common thread amongst players that after building simple structures - a small wooden cabin, or a wall, or a vertical mine running into the center of the earth - they progress into building up. One of the great things about Minecraft is that, unlike Lego, there's no need to worry about gravity when it comes to your creations - you can create a free-standing bridge between the peaks of the two tallest mountains in your world just by peeking over the edge of the block you're standing on and placing a block there. Similarly, there's absolutely nothing stopping you from building a glass castle that floats far above the land and colossal gold staircase that rises up to it out of the sea. In fact, there's so much scope for building architectural delights and megalithic megastructures - indeed, many people have already seized upon and realised some fantastic creations here, such as a model of the Earth, a replica of the Taj Mahal, and the Reichstag.

And that's just the beginning. Classic mode may provide you with infinite stacks of blocks, but it's still a pared down version of what Minecraft has to offer. Just as Lego includes things that aren't just simple building blocks (remember the doors and windows? The tiny bulbs with switches attached?), Minecraft has a number of non-block objects that can enrich the game - but they're only available in the Survival mode that comes with the full game.

Lego Engineer

There's a fair amount of variety to the non-block objects you can get in Survival. Some have simple and obvious functions, such as doors, ladders, and trapdoors, but others can display an emergent complexity that is awe-inspiring- a case in point being Redstone circuits, which can be used to create things as complex as 16-Bit ALU computational devices that actually function within the game itself. Add to this the other objects that can be found in the game - such as wheat and sugar cane that can be grown in crops, minecart railway systems, switches and levers that activate doors or detonators - as well as the other dynamic systems such as the flow of water, weather and so on, and the potential for complex systems in the Minecraft world becomes readily apparent.

But there's another thing that Survival mode adds to the gameplay experience - the thing that led me to trying the game in the first place, and the reason for which Survival is so named.

Lego Survivor


If there's a deep, dark cavern near your base, they will spawn there. If you've neglected to put a torch in one of the tunnels of your mine, that's where they'll come from. If one of the rooms in your home is poorly lit, they'll get in. And when the sun goes down, they'll be everywhere.

In Survival mode, monsters will spawn in places with little to no light - and at night-time, when there's no sunlight to keep them at bay, they will appear all over the countryside. Building a structure is only one part of Minecraft - you also have to use it to defend yourself against these monsters. Zombies walk towards you and take chunks out of you if they get close enough; skeletons fire arrows from afar; spiders drop down onto you and rip you apart; and creepers - by far the most insidious enemy - actually attempts to detonate itself if it gets to within a foot of you, potentially putting a severe dent in both your health and the blocks around it. Oftentimes, there's no indication that an enemy is nearby except for a slight audio cue, which greatly adds to the "horror" element of the game - zombies moan, skeletons rattle, spiders squeak (eurgh) and creepers stay completely silent until they get within a foot of you and make a horrifying hiss that signals the onset of the impending explosion that will take you and your building with it. It's fairly easy to build a structure that can keep the monsters out - but if you're not careful about how you build the interior of that structure, they can actually spawn within the walls of your building. Areas that are poorly lit will spawn monsters that can destroy you or your buildings, which adds a whole new factor to consider when building things like mines - where every nook and crevice should either be easily defensible or brightly lit to avoid monsters spawning there.

When you're digging your way down to the center of the earth, with only the light from a torch at the entrance to guide your way, it can be terrifically unnerving to see just the faintest sliver of movement in the darkness behind a nearby passageway, the chilling ambient echoes of a yawning crevasse below you, or the indistinct clatter of bones inside an empty room. Even though Minecraft's horror elements are not at the forefront of its marketing (or even the gameplay itself), it's still quite effective at putting you in the right mindset when you've only got three torches left and your home base is half a mile of poorly lit tunnels away.

Lego Overachiever

In addition to the gameplay, there are a number of factors about the developers themselves that make me excited about the future of the game. For example, a couple of months ago, Achievements were implemented that function similarly to the Xbox 360 feature of the same name. However, rather than have Achievements for otherwise meaningless, banal tasks such as collecting 100 of a particular item, Notch implemented Achievements that led the player into trying out things in the game that they might otherwise have not known about, such as an achievement for baking a cake, which requires finding out how to gain milk, eggs, wheat and sugar, or smelting iron, which requires constructing a furnace and finding iron ore. Notch also implemented a Stats system that measures particular data such as how many hours the player has played, the number of blocks they've created or destroyed, and so on.

As well as this, the overall commercial success of Minecraft is inspiring: despite having no publisher and only being advertised through word-of-mouth, the total sales of Minecraft's versions up to and including Beta was estimated at $33 mil in April 2011. Mojang also recieved pride of place at E3 2011, where they announced that versions of the game would be coming to the Xperia Play and Xbox 360 Arcade.

Implementing Achievements could have been seen as jumping on the bandwagon of console systems like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, but having a split between Stats and Achievements seems to demonstrate Notch's strong awareness of game design principles - he's not being reactionary and simply tacking features on to follow the lead of Sony and Microsoft, he's giving actual willed attention to the features that get added to the game. Not only that, but Notch's knowledge of what makes a good game comes through in every element of Minecraft to the extent that his sales are phenomenal. If Mojang maintains this awareness towards enriching the game with each feature added, we could have an even more dynamic and evolved gameplay experience when the full game is released.

Lego Pioneer

This review only concentrates on the stuff I have first-hand experience with - there's still so much to discover about the game, such Multiplayer mode and being able to customise the game through Texture Packs and Mods. Minecraft is still technically in Beta, and what you pay for is what you get - an unfinished game. Notch has claimed that the full version will be released on 11/11/11, and will be being updated continually as long as there is a large userbase for it. But even in its unfinished state, it's well worth the £13-ish it sells for, and it's so compelling and addictive as it is right now that it's hard to imagine how immense and exciting the final product will be.

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