I have made more progress on my cup of tea in the last five minutes than I have in clicking on the Tate Worlds download link for an André Derain Minecraft map. The map forms part of a Tate project which sees artworks from its collection inspire Minecraft worlds and experiences. The reason for my reluctance is that I’ve only just stopped crying over the one based around Christopher Nevinson’s The Soul Of The Soulless City. It wasn’t moved-by-art crying either. It was horrified, panicked sobbing – a visceral reaction to claustrophobia and lifelessness.
As Julie Andrews once advised, let’s start at the very beginning…
The game drops you in a regular-looking Minecraft world – trees mountains, a few pigs, a tiny Tate gallery… Wait. That last takes the form of a little white building labelled Tate and with a single painting hanging within. You go in and take your place in front of a replica of Nevinson’s work, setting up that traditional artwork/viewer dynamic, except the yellow square teleports you to the start of a minecart ride through 1920s New York City.
Nevinson (looking suspiciously like the Fat Controller) is there to greet you. He advises you to take the ride as he can’t, but the minecarts leave without me. I assumed that these were there so you get some of that sense of motion present in the original painting and am worried I’ll need to restart the experience.
Nevinson is gone so I figure I’ll try and sort the situation myself. I chase uphill after the carts, jaunty music ringing in my ears, except the soundtrack plays according to the minecart ride you should have been on. As I slowly round another corner the audio suggests things are on fire. Am I on fire? Did I break something?
In searching for a solution to the fire noises I discover a spare minecart in my inventory so I set it down on the track, climb in and speed off. It seems to just be a long rollercoaster ride. The city buildings rise up on all sides but there’s not much to really look at. One blocky high rise is much like another. I try to fiddle with the speed of the cart but it seems you can’t do that. It’s been years since I played Minecraft and I’ve forgotten everything beyond the most basic controls.
Eventually the cart stops near a set of gated enclosures, each of which contains a box of materials. “Collect the rivets (in those there boxes) within the time limit” is the gist of the task, the reasoning being that you want to keep up with the property boom. Do you? Did Nevinson? Neither of those questions seem to matter.
The minigame itself feels fiddly and dull. Fireworks keep going off and I can’t understand why. I collect nearly all the boxes but it’s not enough to please the game. I can restart or move along. I opt to move along and get on with the next bit of minecart track – successfully boarding this time. I glide along at a swift pace.
We pass the half-finished Chrysler Building. Construction didn’t begin on the Chrysler Building until 1928. The game actually says “Look over there, they’ve started building the Chrysler Building, it must be 1928 already!” As stated on Tate’s own website Nevinson’s Soul Of The Soulless City is a work from 1920. It had felt like perhaps the map was just trying to offer up a general moodboard of things Nevinson might have seen during his visit to New York but with the addition of the Chrysler Building even that isn’t right. I don’t understand why it’s there.
But never mind that. It’s time for another minigame. This time you must collect a lunchbox from a construction site foreman (I accidentally punched him a few times) and take it to someone called Tony via a girder jumping puzzle. I’ve forgotten the key for sprinting and thus keep missing jumps.
I think it’s fair to assume the target demographic is kids who are into Minecraft so they probably won’t have this problem. It’s incredibly frustrating, though and I end up cheating with the checkpoint system, sending myself to the final point instead of dealing with the remainder of the puzzle. There’s still a final leap to make so I pause to double check the controls. Left ctrl? Man, that feels counterintuitive to my fingers.
I meet up with Tony – he’s at the far end of a girder poking out over the sheer drop of the side of the skyscraper – and deposit his lunch. The whole thing is, I’m guessing, a reference to that famous black and white photo of men eating their lunch perched precariously on a crossbeam during the construction of 30 Rockefeller Plaza? That photo is from 1932.
Teleporting back to the street I’m faced with another minecart ride. It’s a long one. The sun actually sets as I’m riding along. That’s the nicest moment I have in the whole thing. A sort of calm as the sun disappears behind the blocky skyscrapers and my minecart skims a track far above ground level. The moment evaporates as we return to street level. Piano music is playing over constant construction noise. The whole thing is both a pastiche and a caricature.
The wrongness and the deadness of the map start to feel overwhelming. Nevinson’s painting has this rhythmic serenity to it. The swoop of the track and the rise of the architecture express an optimism and a lightness which offsets the potentially oppressive geometric repetition and anonymity of the cityscape. Translating it to Minecraft, the cityscape is forced back onto a rigid grid structure and the gentle optimistic flow vanishes.
A sign looms at the end of this piece of track. it reads “FIN”.
That’s when I ran.
I’d been increasingly discomfited by the level to which the map had stripped the vitality of the original work and reduced it to a series of pop culture reference points, not even from the period in which the work was created. The ‘FIN’ sign – a literal The End – in an experience relating to this uplifting work was a jarring moment bobbing atop a sea of jarring moments. I felt trapped inside a dead thing. Claustrophobia set in. I exited the cart and sprinted away from the track, down alleyways and streets and through the husks of these skyscrapers.
The chipper music was still playing, following the timings in the reality where I was presumed to be enjoying the ride. It was nightmarish, horrible. I was lost in a dark and dead place and I finally burst into tears. At that point the soundtrack triggered rapturous applause and cheering. Hooray for completing the art experience, sobbing and alone in a dead end I’d mistaken for a cut through.
It’s why I don’t have any screenshots from this part of the map.
I’m not going to pretend for a second that many people will share that experience. They won’t. I happen to have strong visceral reactions when it comes to artworks. I’m also aware I’m probably not the target demographic – a 30-year-old art history graduate.
But discussing it later with friends I’m not sure what a younger demographic will get out of it exactly. The rollercoaster bits feel like they go on too long but there’s nothing in the city which rewards you for stopping the ride and exploring. There are the two minigames but neither seemed particularly compelling. That said, it’s not a million miles away from tasks I remember being set as part of primary school gallery trips. “Write a story inspired by this painting” or “Find out what other stuff was going on in the country at the time”. But I guess this time around, Tate have got a grownup to do that part and the kids would just play?
Then there’s the problem of how it relates to the painting. From Tate Worlds’ webpage it feels like you’re supposed to be seeing what Nevinson would have seen and been inspired by. But then why the anachronisms like the Chrysler Building? Why is the artwork only really present at the beginning for a few seconds and then never really invoked again? I checked with a friend what happens if you reach the end – you get back to the gallery building but with that jetpacky setting enabled. I assume that’s to stop you instantly standing in front of the painting again and being teleported, but it also means the experience actively resists considering the art a second time. Would any of this make you better equipped to relate to or comprehend Nevinson’s artwork?
I get that Minecraft is an attractive proposition for an organisation looking to get kids’ attention. The install base is formidable. But I really feel like exclusively using Minecraft, with it’s blocky aesthetic and rigid grid-based construction system, limits so much of what could actually be accomplished in the project. The anachronisms and the pastiche/caricature tone just add to the problems. There might be some artworks where a Minecraft map is a brilliant way to explore them or play with the concepts but this isn’t one of them.