Minecraft is like a mix of the original NES Legend of Zelda, the Atari 2600 game “Adventure”, extruded into a 3D LEGO-style world using a DOOM-esque first-person game engine with Tetris-style addiction. Throw the TV show “Lost” in there and you’re starting to get the idea.
At first glance, the graphics stand out like a sore thumb in this world of 1080p high-def pixel and polygon phantasmagorias seen in most modern games. It could be for the custom-generated infinite landscapes which are created for each new game, but I think it’s also an aesthetic choice by the developer. What at first seems basic or rudimentary soon becomes minimalist and clever, especially considering the mechanics of the gameplay: digging and building. The modular look of the cube world ensures you’re never jolted out of it while playing.
Most reviews or tutorial videos I have seen on Minecraft overlook one of the most compelling aspects of the game for me: the first night. The video tutorials—while fun and entertaining—can be dry in that they just give steps of how to build your first shelter. But in some ways I think this overlooks some of the coolest things about Minecraft: the experiential self-discovery of how things work in Minecraft. Although you’ll be relying on the Minecraft Wiki pretty heavily as well.
Each new world you generate is created randomly, and I’ve read that the surface area of each world is close to 8 times the surface area of the Earth! There’s no cheat guide or walkthroughs. Just a set of rules and logic that seem simple on the surface, but complex in their interplay.
Your goal the first night — and every night — is to stay alive (the day/night cycle lasts about 20 minutes total). Since you have no tools or weapons, you need to figure out how to create (or craft) them yourself. It really taps into the caveman brain at this stage. Despite the non-realistic graphics, you really have a sense of urgency in the game, and get a huge sense of accomplishment when you succeed. I’m not sure if the creator of Minecraft intended it or not, but his game touches some very primal parts of the male mind. You’ll understand what I mean the first time you get up the nerve to venture out at night.
As you progress, you learn how to build more and better tools, and you’ll start getting the urge to explore. The environments are immensely vast, to say the least. You explore during the day, and craft at night. At least until you build a perimeter and set some torches to scare off the zombies, skeletons and spiders looking to kill you. And the Creepers. Of course the Creepers!
Because your first shelter was built out of necessity and ignorance, you’ll soon want to improve and expand it. The limitations and deficiencies will soon rear their heads organically through game play, and more building and digging will ensue.
Once your base is established, you’ll get the urge to explore. And to explore, you’ll need shelter along the way. This means working out the logistics to get tools and supplies to the area, finding a place with suitable natural resources to survive, and developing methods to mark your trail.
There really is no end goal in Minecraft. You don’t get any cutscenes or bosses. It’s more about the small victories. I liken it to perhaps a Zen rock garden, bonsai tree pruning or gardening. And of course playing with LEGOs. The appeal is in the playing itself.
As you play, a storyline emerges from within the game itself, just by playing it. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure that has no scripts at all. The “script” is generated in your head as you play. Sure, you can just build a dirt block house and stay in it forever (although with the recent Hunger Bar addition, this has been eliminated as well). But the point of the game is to have fun exploring and building. To create weapons, armor or to build requires raw materials, which you must venture out to gather. As you do so you’ll encounter enemies which add to your unfolding “story”. All of this requires tools, which not only must you build from raw materials you gather, but they also wear out. Tools made from better materials like Iron and Diamond ore last longer, but the raw materials are less plentiful and require mining—which requires exploration, digging, tools, food and so on.
And I am only scratching the surface here: there is an entire Redstone Circuit system built into the game which is like an electrical system which can power advanced items requiring power. There’s a mine cart system to create railways to move materials out of your mining caves (or for just building a roller coaster). And the Creative Mode was recently introduced, which allows you to just build without needing to gather materials or fight enemies. And there’s also online multiplayer as well, and hosting a server costs nothing extra once you’ve purchased the (cheap) game. And even more recently, Brewing and Enchanting systems have been introduced (which are a bit too RPG-ish for my tastes, but these can be easily ignored without affecting gameplay). And I almost forgot about the Hell-world alternate dimension, the Nether.
If all of this sounds tedious, that’s where the genius of Minecraft lies—all of this menial effort is actually enjoyable. Immensely so. As I mentioned earlier, I am convinced that Minecraft touches an ancient recess of the human brain, down where the survival circuits—unused for centuries—are massaged a bit.
Minecraft cannot be judged by screenshots, reviews, YouTube LetsPlay clips or Wikipedia entries. It’s an experience that must be had first-hand. And until you’ve survived your first “week” in Mincraft, you’ve not played long enough to really have the whole thing sink in yet.