The Living Minecraft

By Graham Smith on June 27th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

“The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain–not in Keats’s sense. Beginners, not unnaturally, do the same–I did myself. They want the startling view, the horrid pinnacle–sips of beer and tea instead of milk. Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

I’m used to pairing games together with other mediums, but normally it’s music or television that sits alongside whatever I’m playing. Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain is the first time I’ve found myself mentally connecting a videogame to a book.

Recommended on Twitter by Proteus dev Ed Key, the book is as he described: fewer than a hundred pages of Nan Shepherd writing wonderfully about the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the Scottish highlands. She walked the mountains regularly all her life, and her descriptions are evocative but plainly written.

“The inaccessibility of this loch is part of its power. Silence belongs to it. If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness.”

As I began reading the book, a friend invited me to join their private Minecraft server. I had not played the game in years and though I loved it when I did, I think my memories of it had become warped in some way. Minecraft had ceased, in my mind, to be a game, and had become a cultural phenomenon. It was no longer mine. The jeeps had found it.

I was curious to re-visit the game mostly to discover what had been added in my time away, but I’ve yet to encounter any of its new features. Instead it’s been a process of re-discovering what I’d lost.

“So I am on the plateau again, having gone round it like a dog in circles to see if it is a good place. I think it is, and I am to stay up here for a while. I have left at dawn, and up here it is still morning. The midsummer sun has drawn up the moisture from the earth, so that for part of the way I walked in cloud, but now the last tendril has dissolved into the air and there is nothing in all the sky but light. I can see to the ends of the earth and far up into the sky.”

I’ve played a lot of craft-and-survive games since Minecraft and I had become cynical to their mechanics. How sick I was of punching trees! My one great fear about No Man’s Sky was that it might be about punching its vibrantly coloured oaks and birches to harvest spacewood.

Yet punching trees in Minecraft is wonderful. It doesn’t feel like the mathematical exchange of time I’d come to fear (punch four times, receive one wood, repeat). Instead it’s the Lullatone-scored fruit juice advert that depicts work as we like to imagine it to be. Hard graft and honest toil for smooth results, the busy days broken up by smiling friends and simple pleasures. Except Minecraft isn’t selling me anything other than its own fantasy.

“This is the River Dee. Astonishingly, up here at 4000 feet, it is already a considerable stream. The immense leaf that it drains is bare, surfaced with stones, gravel, sometimes sand, and in places moss and grass grow on it. Here and there in the moss a few white stones have been piled together. I go to them, and water is welling up, strong and copious, pure cold water that flows away in rivulets and drops over the rock. These are the Wells of Dee. This is the river. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”

Minecraft is also, I remember now, beautiful. You don’t need to build a 1:1 scale model of Rivendell to unlock that beauty. I like to stand atop the mountain where I’ve built my small home and listen to the rain. Sometimes at night I emerge from the mines to find the world white from snow. At the bottom of my mountain is flatland, and a forest of tall trees stretches beyond sheer cliff faces towards an ocean in the east. I go wandering and come home with pockets full of flowers and eggs and spider strings. I plant the flowers in my garden and store the others in the house.

As my friends and I craft anvils and grow crops and construct libraries and tame wolves, I’m reminded of how precious it is to play a videogame and never need to compete. None of us are members of the talking tribe. We’ve gone into Minecraft with no intention but to be with it.

Nan Shepherd wrote three novels, published in 1928, 1930 and 1933, and one collection of poetry published in 1934. The Living Mountain, her only work of non-fiction, was written the mid-1940s but not published until 1977. If you’re playing or have played Minecraft – or Proteus, or Skyrim, or any game about the natural world – it does a far better job of communicating their appeal than I can.

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  1. Urthman says:

    In my first real Minecraft world, I had various scattered homes and buildings and farms, often next to water with ports for the boats, or even underground rivers leading into a base.

    Then one day (after a biomes update) the climate changed and the snow came. It covered everything. The lakes and rivers froze. Boats were stranded at the ports, unable to navigate the frozen waters. Secret underwater entrances (using sugar cane as a passable barrier into the water) became impractical as entrances and potentially-deadly trapped-beneath-the-ice-and-drowning hazards as exits. Routes and entrances meant to be traveled quickly by boat were now icy-paths for me to trudge along.

    I was forced to abandon my homes and move on.

    Sometimes I go back to see my first, primitive attempts at houses, towers, castles. The green landscapes and everything I built on them are now white, home only to wolves.
  1. bangalores says:

    It’s funny you guys just posted this. I bought minecraft last night and have played all day today for the first time since 2011. It truly is a beautiful game. And that music, I can’t get enough of it!

    • Faxmachinen says:

      Same here, a colleague from work set up a server with many weird and wonderful mods just two weeks ago.

      I have a story from yesterday:
      This time, I had forgotten to equip my jetpack. As I soared like a brick off the sheer cliff that was my lair, I was certain I’d hit the ice below and break all my bones. But the gruesome cracking noise never came, and when I opened my eyes again, everything was blue and quiet.
      Had I died? I looked up and saw the giant silhouette of a manta above me, blotting out the sun. I didn’t even know those existed in this blocky world before now. A fish swam past as I looked at the giant creature, and for just a moment, I felt only bliss.
      Then I remembered why oxygen is part of a healthy lifestyle, and paddled desperately back to the surface. I left the underwater world behind and got on with my gardening, but with a renewed interest in finishing my glass tunnel project some day soon.

  2. Tei says:

    My most fond memories are of the permanent winter map I had. My network of tunnles where build on a cliff near some lavafalls into a frozen ocean. I remember of the wind, the cold, and the large wallks to get sand to craft crystal to build more windows. I liked the place because was like part of the my skin, a external skin that I would inhabit inside.
    Playing Minecraft feels somewhat like how I suppose would feel to live next to the north pole.

    • Niko says:

      Well, not quite, when you live close to the North Pole, you get long and dark winters, and short summers when Sun is always above the horizon. Also a lot of seagulls.

  3. Joe Galway says:

    I enjoy reading pieces like this on RPS

    • Chuckleluck says:

      RPS really has a way of putting the magic back in gaming.

      • Bart Stewart says:

        Indeed. It was the early Rock Paper Shotgun description of Minecraft as a different kind of game, and that that was OK, that sold me on both Minecraft and RPS.

        Despite playing more gamey-games than Minecraft, and despite the occasional political soapboxing from RPS, I keep coming back to both Minecraft and RPS. Nobody else so frequently gets what makes PC gaming great, or says it — as in this article — so effectively.

      • zentropy says:

        Wholeheartedly agree :)

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      This is indeed the kind of thing that got me into reading this site, not two day old game news already covered everywhere else.

  4. pilouuuu says:

    Why aren’t there any articles about the uproar about The Sims 4 having no pools and no toddlers yet?

    • rexx.sabotage says:

      because everyone knows EA is saving them for the Babies and Pools expansion

      ominous juxtaposition that is

    • mechabuddha says:

      I DEMAND TODDLERS IN POOLS!

      • Synesthesia says:

        AFTERWARDS REMOVE ALL LADDER ENTRANCES TO THE AFFOREMENTIONED

  5. Dinger says:

    Of course, she was upset about the funicular being built up Cairngorm. I built my own railway up my Minecraft mountains. I don’t go back there very often, but once every year or so, I load it up. My old PC lies in darkness, and the game has long had new biomes and new practices. But the railway’s there yet.

    • Dinger says:

      and I will add, it’s charming to see RPS, which covered such classics as Left4kDead (or just L4kD), have what amounts to a retrospective on Minecraft, while it still breaks sales records. It’s always been about what matters (although the occasional “this game, as a game sucks, but I have to give the publisher props” review will no doubt occasion a lively afternoon at the pub in the future).

  6. Premium User Badge

    HKEY_LOVECRAFT says:

    As someone who’s played Minecraft incessantly since alpha, this moved me. A brilliant piece, evocative and genuine. Placing your game experiences and observations alongside excerpts from Shepherd’s book was inspired.

    Thank you for this.

  7. Chuckleluck says:

    It’s all too easy to lose sight of what Graham details. Too often it becomes about winning on the Hunger Games server or building a fantastic structure or your faction being the best. Minecraft is a great platform to make minigames, but the base survival mode is so much fun as well.

  8. Niko says:

    I’m playing on a small server with a few friends as well, and we haven’t created a new map in about four years. After a major update we usually migrate and build a new settlement. Like, there’s the first base, built in a cave atop a mountain, and then an island fort made of cobblestone, because it was the most advanced stone block available and the time, and then the first stone brick building and a sky-high tower with some farms atop it, built after the height limit was increased, and so on. Naturally, there’s a number of old bases now, and the feeling I get when visiting them is really special, like visiting your old house, except it’s not decrepit and nobody has moved in there. Haven’t experienced that in other games.

    • Scuzzball says:

      I actually used to be in charge of a server. We tried to do this, but instead of moving locations, we made new worlds, and just left the old worlds in.

      Sadly, there were a few times we lost everything, and now someone else runs the server, and different people are on it.
      Still has my domain, oddly enough.

      But yeah, wandering through the old stuff, sometimes seeing new stuff among the old, that some other person put there in your absence. It was quite fascinating.
      Still kinda miss the obsidian road, and the sponge forest. Things of our first world, when everything was still limitless.

  9. Ravenholme says:

    Interesting to see Nan Shepherd’s book juxtaposed with Minecraft. Like her, I have been hiking the Cairngorms my entire life, and know them intimately (but not as much as she did), and have always connected with her writing for describing why I love those hills so much, and yes, parts of what she writes are what bring me back to Minecraft every now and then, to explore and find these great places,

  10. Premium User Badge

    Gap Gen says:

    One of my favourite things about Minecraft is just being somewhere. In one of our servers I built a Japanese-style castle with gardens connected to the main town by a winding mountain passage, and it was nice just to go there, watch the sun go down, walk to the coast, etc.

  11. Urthman says:

    In my first real Minecraft world, I had various scattered homes and buildings and farms, often next to water with ports for the boats, or even underground rivers leading into a base.

    Then one day (after a biomes update) the climate changed and the snow came. It covered everything. The lakes and rivers froze. Boats were stranded at the ports, unable to navigate the frozen waters. Secret underwater entrances (using sugar cane as a passable barrier into the water) became impractical as entrances and potentially-deadly trapped-beneath-the-ice-and-drowning hazards as exits. Routes and entrances meant to be traveled quickly by boat were now icy-paths for me to trudge along.

    I was forced to abandon my homes and move on.

    Sometimes I go back to see my first, primitive attempts at houses, towers, castles. The green landscapes and everything I built on them are now white, home only to wolves.

    • Premium User Badge

      Napalm Sushi says:

      …And now I really, really want the devs to hurry up and add seasons already.

    • P.Funk says:

      How funny that I was just recollecting my first true Minecraft complex, complete with underground waterways with an entrance feeding off the ocean. I built a lighthouse on the tip of a peninsula so that it would always lead me home when I went ranging on my boat to explore.

      I think my reluctance to go back to Minecraft is borne of these memories. I will never match my first greatest creation. Or my second. the second was a cool little house on a sheltered ledge going up the side of a mountain. It had a lovely walkway leading up to it, with white trees, and in it I built my minecraft elevator that brought me from the bedrock to 150 levels above sea level in about 5 seconds.

      To me going back to play Minecraft again feels like trying to play with the Legos I had when I was a child. How can my clumsy adult mind possibly turn that mismatched melange of plastic blocks into anything as inspired as what I did with my imagination then?

    • Premium User Badge

      corinoco says:

      I read that in David Attenburough’s voice & cadence, and it was BLOODY AWESOME.

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  13. Liamcal says:

    Someone’s jealous that they could never find diamonds :3