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Chockablock: Minecraft Revisited

Gadzooks, it's been over a year since I first ranted about Minecraft, the epic blocky building game by Markus "Notch" Persson. Clearly it's well overdue a revisit from us. And there's much to catch up on, too - including a Portal mod - so join me below decks, and we'll explore the niche this game is carving out for itself.

Minecraft is a building game based around worlds filled with millions of blocks. In the basic mode of the game you are a free-roaming chappie who can build or destroy blocks at will. As an objective-free sandbox building game it's pretty impressive: you can choose from a large range of blocks, each with their own properties, and place them together to create extraordinarily complex constructs: spacecraft, floating islands, volcanoes, vast inverted skulls, barely coherent pink squiggles and green splats that rise up from the ocean like Cthulhu's breakfast. Anything is possible, as long as it's anything made of blocks. What's more is that it's possible in multiplayer, in your browser. Seriously, go take a look. Seeing people build, or even the vast, chaotic remnants of their building and counter-building, is a wondrous thing. The activity of pixel-architects, building for the love of it. If you've not already have nose at this particular phenomenon then you are missing out, if just because of the extraordinary 3D doodles that people make in the public game spaces. And if you have seen it, you should probably have a refresher, a Minecraft safari. Anyway, that jotter pad of block magic was pretty much just the first step, and since then game has been ballooning with new ideas, new features, and an entirely more feature-heavy "survival" mode.

The survival mode, which can be played offline, is about this: surviving. The world is hostile, and you need to make use of the resources it supplies to stay alive. I didn't stay alive particularly long on my first adventure, dying in the first night, but my second was rather more fruitful, thanks to watching these video tutorials. The main thing to realise is that everything you need to survive is available in the world, but you will need to build and craft to get at it. Survival adds an inventory system and allows you to use the raw blocks you gather to create tools, which will enable you to gather other, previously inaccessible types of blocks. As you do this, you start to cement your stake on the world, and work toward your survival. It's a gentle kind of escalation, and in terms of visuals and interface it's rather... clunky.

But that's okay, because it's brimming with charm. From the occasional music to the sudden moments of vertiginous horror as you flee from death in the dark, it's filled with splendid activity. Survival is governed by its day-night cycle. When it gets dark, it gets dangerous. Unlike the original sandbox, it's not the griefing of other players you need to worry about, but the things which spawn in the world. You can kill these enemies, but only once you've made some weapons and armour. This means that the first few days of your game are spent gathering resources, while the nights are spent hiding in a cave, lit by torches you made during the day, crafting whatever else is in your inventory. Literally hiding in a niche. There's some kind of metaphor about PC gaming here, isn't there?

So yes, it's worth doing a bit of running about outside at night, because otherwise you get bored, but also because it's good to scare yourself. There will be a bunch of different monsters out there, and you might be able to kill them if you're suitably equipped. You will only be equipped if, as I mentioned, you have explored, gathered, and crafted things at length before your encounter. What is most beautiful about Minecraft's survival mode is this ability to explore a huge, cubic world. You'll be hungry for resources - including the actual hunger for meat to heal your injuries - and you'll find yourself roaming far and wide for deposits of interesting materials so that you can make more suitable equipment. A little experimentation comes in, too. Can I make armour out of what appears to be a cactus? The crafting system is a little opaque at the moment, but there's a decent guide to the possible formula of items here, should you need some pointers. As things gel you upgrade your tools to upgrade your weapons, and then begin to do more than brick yourself up in a hole: you'll survive battles with the most heinous of monsters which inhabit your randomly generated home. It's a kind of generative 8-bit Lego Stalker, and that means I love it.

If you want more help getting started with the survival mode you could do worse than heading over here for the comprehensive help that the community has generated and compiled. It's an extremely busy and helpful community, with a lot more inventiveness than I can easily chart in this brief post.

And there's yet more in the future, too. The game is in an alpha state right now, with a low price for pre-ordering access to the full thing. Beta is on the horizon, which will bring optimisations and new features. There are already a bunch of maps, textures and other add-ons being imagined and developed by various clever community folks, and Notch himself is busily working on both a more advanced build of the core game, and on an "adventure mode" in which you will be doing less building and excavating, and more exploring a dungeon or landscape that has previously been constructed for you. Survival mode is entertaining for a few hours just as it is now, and I am keen to see what Notch and his army of builders will come up with soon. Speaking of which...

Here's that Portal mod for Minecraft:

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So I suppose the question is: should we have an RPS Minecraft server? We probably should. Time to make some investigations.

God, I really had to resist posting a link to the Chockablock theme tune somewhere in this post. Gillen would have killed me.

I digress. Go play Minecraft.

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Jim Rossignol