Minecraft, as if you’ve never heard of it, as if we haven’t been telling you to play it for years, as if we didn’t already give it Game of the Year in 2010, is a game about building things out of blocks with your friends.
The game world is rendered in cubes, every one of which can be destroyed, stored in your inventory, and placed back down anywhere you like. The map generates more terrain as you explore in a new direction, almost infinitely (you will run out of hard disk space at some point). That terrain is a quilt of discrete environmental regions, or biomes: as you travel, the thick forest you spawned in will give way to veldt or cliffs, or a desert peppered with cacti. You might reach the ocean, or a marsh clogged with exploding monsters and lily pads, or an ice floe leading to a wintry island.
Such random features as rivers, caves, waterfalls and ravines thread this world. Herds of friendly, blocky animals graze happily here and there: pigs, sheep, cows and chickens all provide useful products when slaughtered, and they can even be kept and bred.
When the square sun sets, however, you need to worry. Whenever a given tile is dark, a monster can spawn on it, and at night, there are hundreds of them. They’re a varied bunch. Spiders are low and wide, can climb vertical surfaces, and tend to jump right in your face while hissing. Zombies are slow melee oppressors, walking in a straight line towards you and able to hop over short, one-block-high obstacles. Skeletons prefer to circle you and fire arrows. Endermen are tall, teleporting nasties who only get angry when you look at them. They’re scattered infrequently throughout the night, and each requires careful attention to dispatch when you’re unarmed.
Creepers are the iconic, green, cactus-like Minecraft enemies that populate fan art all over the internet. They have four stubby legs at the base of their long, phallic bodies. They like to scuttle deftly towards you, hiss, inflate alarmingly, then explode. The explosion deals significant damage, tearing a great chunk out of the ground and any surrounding masonry. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the impulse to rebuild – or perhaps improve – is invigorating.
Crafting caters to that impulse. Crafting enables you to make new and upgraded equipment. Once you’ve fashioned yourself a sword and some armour, stabbing skeletons is a great way to while away the moonlight. With a punchy iron sword, if you slice while falling through the air to score a critical hit, there aren’t many foes that won’t drop in a few swings. Until then, you can keep a few zombies at bay for a while, but all the teleporting and climbing and shooting and exploding will get you one way or another. Better to keep moving.
Better still, you could scrape together a mud hut with your bare hands and avoid running into any monsters. Then again, it’ll be dark in there and you won’t be able to tell when it’s morning and, just, what the hell is wrong with you? Cut down trees! Make a log cabin! Sing hearty songs! Grow a beard! Then go outside anyway and punch skeletons until dawn! Endermen, skeletons, and zombies all catch fire and die in the morning light, while spiders who aren’t already chasing you become docile. Creepers still try to explode at you, but for the most part, the danger is over at sunrise. Only where it’s still dark, deep in caves and under rocky overhangs, are monsters alive and deadly during the day.
Before you’re ready to start fighting, the first thing you’ll make is a wooden pickaxe. It lets you harvest stone, which you can use to make stone tools, masonry and furniture. For a new player, it’s a steep learning curve if you don’t know about the crafting recipe page on the Minecraft wiki. This is an issue that the developers, Mojang, have been slow to address, even as they crest four million sales.
But I can’t stay mad at it. Minecraft is a phenomenally important game for the PC. The appeal is vaster than the objects I’ve built in it. You can build anything you can imagine, and it’s vastly more functional than you first realise. Waterfalls are just the beginning. You can craft pistons that shift blocks back and forth. You can harvest a curious red dust that functions like electrical wire – and you can lay it out in the shape of functioning circuits. That means logic gates. That means computation. There are computer science students who have built functioning CPUs in Minecraft, and some have even developed rudimentary computer games to run on these computers of dust and dirt.
Even you and I can easily wire a series of traps and security doors and secret panels. Crucially, you’re learning real electronics when you do this – it’s not some abstract skill that won’t help you in real life. I know what an RSNOR latch is. Do you? No? Play Minecraft!
Again, you’ll have to make use of the community tutorials to master most of this stuff, but my point is: this is a game where you can spend a few months happily perfecting a lightswitch, and still know nothing about potions, or breeding animals, or fighting, or exploring alternate dimensions, or enchanting, or designing integrated rail networks.
It’s a good job there’s a robust multiplayer, then. If you rent a server, you can invite lots of friends to come and help you build, and this is where the majesty of Minecraft becomes undeniable. Most of the servers I’ve visited have been teeming with massive, painstaking projects, recreating whole cities from Pokémon and Studio Ghibli films. But the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on Minecraft servers were those where I got to team up with a few passionate builders on the same project. As each builder gravitated towards their areas of aptitude, I began to feel more like part of a team than I ever had in a game of Team Fortress 2. I was the wiring guy. I had this skill that nobody else could fathom. I built a wall that could automatically rebuild itself, forever. I built a secret door in a fountain, where the water drained away carefully before the plinth slid apart to reveal a long descent of stairs. By Googling liberally, following greater Minecraft architects than I, and being creative in how I implemented what I found, I could achieve wonders.
Many multiplayer games, even our favourites, offer nothing more than friendly feet shuffling alongside us. In Minecraft, each of us is a god, toiling to emboss ourselves upon the world. Other players aren’t just helping you kill things and healing you, they’re carving out mountains for the secret base you’re making with them, pouring waterfalls off your floating fortress to give you a safe way down, or carrying buckets of lava underground to help you make a sauna.
I played World of Warcraft for years, and now that I think about it, I didn’t really enjoy any of it. I’ve been playing Minecraft in alpha or beta for over two years, and every piece of the game that’s clicked into place has utterly reinvented it. There’s so much left for me to do. I haven’t built a skull mountain yet. I haven’t finished my terraced farm with my brother. I’ve hardly ever played with minecarts and tracks and switches and pressure plates. I can barely fit in all the creative, arty, sexy things I want to do.
But it’s not just a fun old game with lots of hours-divided-by-money-equals- value. It’s an exciting and important direction for games to be walking in. Look, no tits! No guns! Parents can buy it for children, and leave them playing it safely! Women won’t run into horrid stereotypes of themselves wearing armoured thongs! Teachers can teach it in schools! Deus Ex, up at a score of 95, made me think: “What if more shooters were like this?” Minecraft locks me in hour-long paralysis as ideas course through me. If Doom spawned the FPS industry, what the hell will the fruit of Minecraft’s cubic womb be? Has the future of PC gaming ever looked so good, before we saw it from the top of this big blocky mountain?
I showed the game to my nineyear- old cousin and her six-year-old sister, and there was a period of stunned silence, followed by a din of suggestions and pleas and queries. My parents get it. My grandparents get it. People burnt out on WoW get it, people tired of shooting men get it. Almost everyone gets it. And you should get it too.
Intuitively interesting and contagiously fun, with an unparalleled scope for creativity and memorable experiences.