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.