By John Walker on September 27th, 2010 at 2:00 pm.
Perhaps you’re a bit like me, and when you hear about everyone else getting obsessively stuck into an obscure indie game you assume it’s not your sort of thing, and wait for the fuss to die down. I know I’ve been like that about Dwarf Fortress, never even giving it a go so sure I am that I won’t like it. And I was dangerously close to adding Minecraft to that list. My housemates were playing it, my colleagues were playing it – everyone in the universe was banging on about it. At a certain point it becomes tempting just to be an iconoclastic prick and not play it so you can say you haven’t. The noise is offputting. But during a recent RPScursion to London, Kieron showed me his Minecraft world, and despite needing to stay for another seven or so hours, I really just wanted to get on a train back to Bath and start playing. Because Minecraft, I realised, comes incredibly close to being a game I’ve wanted to exist my entire life. So I, eventually, have a request.
One of Minecraft’s most remarkable features is how different people approach it. Some see it as a giant Lego set, and set about constructing wondrous things. Others see it as a combat game, letting you create armour and weapons and fight your way through the nights. Me, I see it as an exploration and home-building game.
If you’ll forgive a strangely personal diversion, I’ve long suffered from anxiety disorder. It’s not a lot of fun, but you develop certain techniques for feeling safe in the midst of your irrational fear. One of those, for me, is to revisit the books of Enid Blyton. An absolutely abysmal writer of prose, but unmatched in her ability to create the spirit of adventure with a knowledge of what made children feel safe and yet excited. Mock me if you will, but there’s something protecting about those tales of kids making shelters in mountain caves, underground rivers, or remote islands.
In Quintin’s excellent diary series about the game last week he wrote, “The entirety of MineCraft taps directly into that part of your mind that made it so fun to build forts out of sofa cushions as a kid.” That’s precisely it. Because building a fort wasn’t only about construction. It was about sitting inside your creation, feeling safe and contained, in your own space within the larger world. That fort, whether a pirate cove, underground military bunker, or smuggler’s den, was sealed off from the rest of the world.
I’ve always wanted a game that was about surviving. But no game that I’ve played has ever gotten it right. Most, of course, focus on combat. Even if the rest of the world is aggressing against you, and you’re in a constant state of defence, it’s still about the fighting. Or they are about crazed time management, forcing you to juggle events in a constant frantic panic to not fall short in any area.
Most guilty of the latter is the DS game, Lost In Blue. I’ve only played the original, and neither of the sequels, but this was a game that presented itself as being exactly what I was looking for. You play a boy stranded on an island, who discovers a fellow strandee, a blind girl whom you must look after. Aside from being a game that ignored all notions of emancipation (the helpless blind girl sits in your cave and cooks for you), it was really a game about seeing how long you could last in its maniac panic. Making no attempt at realism, your characters were so idiotically hungry and thirsty that exploration was rarely an option, instead being forced to prepare a vast banquet of food for every meal, and sleeping like a hibernating bear. Rather than offering any notion of safety and adventure, it was instead about constant pressure. Fail.
What I’ve wanted, and wanted for so long, is a game that focuses on exploration and realistic basic needs. This does not mean no threat – in fact, if it’s to work, if my sofa fort is to mean anything, it requires a degree of threat. But not a world where you can be clobbered to death in most instances. And wow, does Minecraft come close.
Nothing has offered such a wonderful sense of fort-based safety, surrounded by the thrill of adventure.
Quintin has already thoroughly covered why the game’s cave building and crafting are so magnificent, so there’s no need for me to repeat that here. Just let it be said that I’ve spent most of the weekend, including hours more normally devoted to sleeping, with this game. Tunnelling, crafting, and nest building. Occasionally getting caught out a night, and deaded. Sometimes not being able to find the spot where I died, deep within my labyrinthine tunnels, and thus hopelessly searching for special equipment I’d been carrying. At one point falling into a pool of lava, and losing absolutely everything, and feeling so despondent I went to bed, and never loaded that world again. I’ve been decorating the mountain that contains my current home with so many torches that it glows like a beacon throughout the land. And leaving myself breadcrumb trails when prospecting deep underground, in the form of upright torches stuck into the ground. In four worlds, each time I’ve played I’ve refined my movements further, making a more secure, more permanent home, and then venturing outward in carefully planned routes.
The game offers a lot of what I want. Get injured and you need to heal. And this tends to involve work. Find some pigs, chop the poor squealing fellows up, and then roast their meat on your stove. That’s rewarding itself. Also, why not try penning in a chicken. If it can’t go anywhere, all its eggs are yours. A chicken coop of your very own! And of course that most important element: being scared of the dark. Darkness means enemies spawn, and enemies tend to mean death, unless you’re quick with your sword.
But it’s not quite there. So this is my request: someone, please make exactly the game I’m after.
The difference is slight, but important to me. It’s slightly more of the basic needs. What I want is Minecraft, but with a need to eat, drink and sleep.
Adding this element in seems to send most developers completely stark-raving bonkers, either offering day/night cycles so fast that the Earth gets dizzy, or requiring your character eat enough for a village at every meal. They also have absolutely no comprehension that most people can get by on a few hours sleep for a couple of nights, before needing to catch up. I don’t want to rush. I don’t want to panic. But I do want to have to do some basic tasks in my day.
Knowing I need to find food before night time arrives – that’s not a crazy pressure, but a simple responsibility. Ideally I’d like to see the day/night cycles slowed down a good deal too. There’s no reason for night to come around so frequently, and adding in sleep would see pass a lot of that added downtime sensibly. There’d also be lots of excellent new reasons to craft – water filtration systems, perhaps even irrigation from the rivers to your home. You could build larders for food, and of course a bed. Build a better bed, get better sleep, perhaps even need less of it.
I don’t want the Sims here. Goodness knows because it’s more guilty of incessant nagging and panic than most. Just enough to make my fort feel all the more important. If I could hole up for the night, eat my evening meal, and curl up in bed, I think that would make waking up to a new day of mining and exploring all the more thrilling.
So could someone make that for me, please? I don’t want elaborate multiplayer. (Although I’d be very happy to see an Animal Crossing-style option for having friends come visit and spend time in my world – I think I’d set it so they had no block-destroying ability, or goodness knows it could be awful.) I don’t want extra combat, or more challenging enemies. I don’t want to have to budget my time so I can’t explore as much as I’d like. I want the utter freedom that Minecraft offers, but with a little bit more need to have a home. And sure, if you’re caught out by the sunset, dig a quick shelter for the night. It wouldn’t be as effective for rest, but it would do.
I think that would be thrilling. It would take Minecraft further in the direction that so enormously appealed to me when I glimpsed Kieron playing it. It would tap into all those safe-places of mine, those Blyton-esque adventures, the childhood den built out of household furniture and bed sheets, the sense of being in control in a wild world.
So someone get on with that please.