Ridealong is our monthly feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This week, he dives into the most notorious and offensive server Minecraft has to offer to meet an archivist who is trying to save as many creations as possible.
"New players are generally welcomed by being killed," a voice says to me. "Or by being told to die."
I'm standing in a wasteland. For thousands of metres in any direction there is nothing but a jagged causeway of stone blocks. Huge monoliths of stone pierce the sky here and there, like the buttes of Monument Valley. There are no trees and no grass in sight. No sheep, no cows, no life at all. If I was to pick a direction and run in a straight line, I would only make it about 1500 blocks before I collapsed and died of starvation. As if things weren't bad enough, there is an endless stream of voices telling me to kill myself. Welcome to 2b2t. In every sense of the phrase, it is a "hostile environment."
The voice belongs to James Rustles, a three-year veteran of 2b2t who makes maps and writes about life on the server. We're talking over Skype but I can't yet see him amid the gray blocks. I clamber up a small pillar for a better look. He must still be on his way.
2b2t has been going since 2010. The name stands for "2 builders 2 tools" and it is a server without rules. There's minimal oversight by the admin and what passes for 'griefing' on other servers is just a form of weather here. Life begins (and often ends) right here at 'spawn'. It is a rocky deathtrap in constant upheaval, like the surface of another planet. Those huge monoliths are created by players who pour lava down a rock staircase and then pour water on the lava, forming "lava casts". In places, the casting process has gone wrong and only the lava remains, huge mountains of the stuff, left to burn forever. Simply getting out of this nightmarish landscape is a challenge. A new player will have a hard time, says James.
"On the off chance somebody might give them some food and some armour and general directions on how to get out of spawn. And then once you're out you're kind of on your own. It's the ultimate survival experience.
"Most people generally quit after a few attempts. If it's the first time you've played, it could take 10 or 20 goes to get out of spawn. That's if you don't get killed by someone."
I ask whether you could recruit somebody's help. Somebody who seems decent.
"That's probably the worst thing you could do. The only rule of 2b2t is not to trust anyone - don't listen to anyone, don't click on ANY links in chat. If you click on a link in chat it's probably going to be some kind of animal porn or just something you really don't want to see. That's probably the best thing, to never click links in chat."
James can hop around spawn and navigate the area thanks to three years of practice and the supernatural ability to leave his body, like a ghost, viewing the land from afar. He is playing with a hacked version of the game. Something that also grants him x-ray vision and radar. On top of all this, he can see blocks placed by players, which lets him follow a trail to people's bases, where they stash their goodies. But even he can be thrown off by the constant shifting and churning of the land close to spawn.
"Spawn changes daily, it changes weekly. What spawn looks like now, I don't recognise it all."
I keep scanning the horizon for him. If he has trouble recognising the place, I stand no chance by myself. I look out to the blocky wasteland and see someone hopping their way toward me. He has iron armour and boots. He jumps from one spot to another with the lag, a motion that would be sinister if it wasn't so videogamey. The name above the rubberbanding body says: RealStruggle. It's James.
"A lot of the regular players have multiple accounts... Nobody actually knows RealStruggle is me, apart from maybe one or two players that I base with."
When I point out that my article will likely unveil his secret identity, he gives me the audio equivalent of a shrug.
"That's fine," he says. "It'll be quite funny actually. Because I've given a lot of people shit on this account. Some of them are even people I base with, I've said terrible things, done terrible things to them with this account."
He says this laughing, like long-term duplicity is all part and parcel of 2b2t.
"It'll be quite fun actually."
But James wasn't always so blasé about the attention of his friends and enemies.
"I played on the server probably for about a year before I actually said anything on chat. There's like a handful of players who don't actually say anything and they get taunted. Often. And that was me for about a year."
He begins throwing things down at my feet, supplies to keep me alive long enough to see the sights.
"This account is very poor, so I don't have much," he says, throwing down 192 carrots. He also gives me a chestplate and a sword.
2b2t attracts technologically minded people, says James. Some of these people once convinced the administrator (a man called Hausemaster) to install some extra plugins to the server. Unfortunately, this also granted the tech-heads full admin access. They proceeded to generate any item or thing they could fathom - huge structures, infinite blocks of diamond. One of the hackers conjured up a sword of impossible strength. What would happen if you were struck by this sword?
"You're dead before you know it, basically."
I inspect my borrowed weapon (plain, iron) and think about the hackers on the server, with x-ray vision and diamond-plated helmets. My sword, I suspect, is of ceremonial significance. James hands me a map which I briefly think will be come in handy, but on closer inspection this turns out to be a depiction of a character from My Little Pony.
We are ready to start our journey. James leads me out of the rocks and it isn't long before we find ourselves in a system of tunnels. We head through long halls and narrow caverns, James disappears round corners and reappears so I can catch up. I do not know how he is navigating the landscape, which looks to me like nothing but a random labyrinth of catacombs. The chat fills briefly with Swastikas and N-words, then dissolves away like a hateful echo. One of the most constant chatters is a robot account called 'Biblebot', who can be commanded to recite verse and scripture. James demonstrates. He types a command, forcing it to recite the first few lines of Genesis. "In the beginning..."
It makes me wonder how 2b2t itself began. Where did this infamous server first spring up? Whose idea was it?
"It used to be a Garry's Mod server," says James. "The basic story is that this guy who ran the Garry's Mod server started a Minecraft server with the same premise - that you can do anything you want - and this was then given to one of his friends, who we know as Hausemaster. But 2b2t began --
James abruptly stops his story. He has fallen into a ravine. He expels a long, breathy swearword and tells me he is dead. I carefully approach the last place I saw him, the bright exit of a tunnel we have been scuttling through. Straight down there is a 40 metre drop, where some of his items glow in a pile.
2b2t is known for its offensiveness. It has been called "the worst place in Minecraft". A place where the most common words in chat are "n****r", "f****t", "rape" and "heil Hitler". Where you will get killed and trolled without respite.
Yet despite the murder, the hacking and the constant and extreme verbal abuse, James says there are moments when a sense of community does take over. Every 1st of April, for instance, the server completely changes. For two or three days, this April Fool's map brings everyone together.
"You kind of gain friendships, you gain trust with some more people. At the end you say: 'hey, we should make a base together.'"
Last year, this rare expression of co-operation between 2b2t members reached record levels, with 28 people all working together to create a single base. At this point all the good will in the air must have been suffocating them, because they soon organised some chaos.
"It's called a spawn incursion," says James, "this is when a lot of old players come back to spawn and they kind of take over. They come in their god gear, their fully enchanted gear, and they build a massive base, they kill a bunch of people, they destroy lots of bases people are making in spawn. It's really a lottery depending on who they kill and who they entrust."
James has respawned and after arranging to meet at our destination (he gives me some co-ordinates I can head towards), he spies me again with his x-ray vision.
"I actually see you. I've got you on my map... Um, and there's a guy on my left who's coming toward you quite fast."
I freeze. I take out my sword instinctively but I suspect this will be of little use. What is the etiquette of meeting someone on this server, especially when you can't see them but they can see you?
"It looks like he's seen me and he's running away," says James. "He's running away and he's jumping up and down. It looks like he's just trying to say hello by jumping up and down. I don't recognise his name, so he's probably a new guy. He's just as scared of us as we would be of him."
Of course, I can see none of this with the regular vision of a Minecraft peasant. Conflict averted, James joins me and I return some carrots to him. He tells me about his hidden carrot farm, which has been keeping this alias, RealStruggle, alive in the wastes.
I think about the player we just avoided. Do encounters with other players happen often? If someone with more violent intentions spots you, will they kill you straight away?
"Yeah. There's a group of people who I actually base with and am quite good friends with, I guess. They go around spawn killing anything that moves, destroying any farm they can find. And if they saw us, we'd be dead. Because they have the hacks that make them run faster than us, they'll be able to walk on water, you just won't be able to outrun them. And not knowing who I am on this account, we'd definitely be dead."
He stops and tells me to look around. The whole area we are standing in used to be a 'spawn base', somewhere people could find refuge and food to eat.
"There was grass, water, crops," he says. "This was quite a big farm."
I look around. Now there is only rock and sand and dirt. The only vestiges of life are a few short pillars and the ruins of a blocky sign floating in the air, saying "EDEN".
"As you can see, it just blends in with spawn... it's gone. It just got destroyed. Anything within a couple thousand blocks from spawn, you're probably not going to get any more than maybe a week out of it."
James himself once set up a refuge a mere 300 meters from the center of spawn, offering food and weapons to the newcomers he invited. He expected it to last a single day. It stayed intact for an incredible two weeks.
We continue to head away from the centre of spawn. After a while, the land starts to look more civilised. We start to see ruins that are still in good shape. There are still no trees or animals but there are columns of obsidian blocks, stoney roads - the remnants of life on the edge of spawn. James points at a long set of steps and tells of a battle between two players that lasted a full hour. The ancient history of the server.
We stand at the foot of a huge obsidian structure. It is the 'spawn incursion' base James told me about earlier, where the elder gods of 2b2t returned and rampaged through spawn, destroying everything they saw. He points out a symbol, an eagle made of black blocks, the emblem of the legendary Valkyries, a mythical group of respected and feared players, to hear James talk about them.
James is looking for something amid the ruins. Soon, he finds it. It is a portal to the Nether, Minecraft's vision of hell, where every step is the equivalent of eight steps in the 'Overworld'. This is the only way, says James, to get out of spawn and reach the distant pastures where life is possible. We enter the portal and materialise in a dark, red world. We begin to climb, avoiding fires and pits of lava. Above us a long road awaits - the Nether Highways.
"I think these break all the records in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest tunnels," says James. "Because the four main tunnels go a million [blocks] out, and I think one of them goes to about 2 million. It definitely is quite long."
This excavation was handled by the players. In the summer of last year, James says, he was part of a team who heard a legend about a gargantuan base somewhere far from spawn. They went hunting for it. They dug to 3 million blocks and emerged to find that the legends were true. The huge base housed castles, underground spas, log cabins, floating islands, coliseums, monuments to fallen players and a huge replica of Christ the Redeemer. On Christmas Day, the base was destroyed by another player, someone had got their hands on the co-ordinates. It was one of the most famous bases in 2b2t's history. The pity of the server is that many impressive bases like this now lie in ruins. But James isn't worried about this. He has The Vault.
On page two, what is The Vault?
The Vault is a hidden server he and some friends are putting together to preserve the bases and structures they find or create in 2b2t, before they are summarily destroyed. They download entire areas of the server and copy them to the Vault, fulfilling the role of archivists - a role you wouldn't normally expect on such a notorious server. He has also made a map of the server's wastelands to "share the history of spawn" and provide some basic help to new players, to help them escape spawn and "join the rest of us." By the end of our trip together I would come to think of James as an archaeologist of sorts. One of a small group of players who fights to save the creations of 2b2t, not destroy them. Although he admits he has done plenty of marauding in his time.
"I suppose when I joined I may have 'rekt' two or three [bases]. But I don't really get any satisfaction from doing it. I'd rather build something with people, something big and impressive. I'm not really a fan of just going around destroying things. Oh! Here's a sight."
James has spotted something as we are running along the Nether Highway. On the wall to one side there is an ISIS flag.
"There's a tunnel here somewhere we have to take and for the life of me I can't figure out where."
He peers around at the wall, he looks at the ISIS banner.
"Oh," he says, "it's behind the flag."
We burrow our way into the hidden tunnel with our bare hands. The tunnel is claustrophobic and jagged. It starts to move diagonally. Holes appear at our feet, with lava far below, and we have to plug the gaps with stone. Eventually we find another portal, leading back to the Overworld.
"All right," says James, stepping into the purple light. "We are either going to come out and see a base. Or we're going to come out and someone has put lava all over the portal."
He disappears. I wait to see what he says.
"No, it's good," he reports. "No death today."
I pop out at the other side and hear myself exclaim: "Trees!" We walk for a while and see a huge castle looming in the background, on the shore of a lake. Watermelon and pumpkin is growing in fields next to some buildings. Compared to where we have been, this place is paradise.
There are some signs of wreckage, however. The domes of the castle are demolished. But the walls are still there and there's even glass in some of the windows. It's been a year since James was last here, he says. He came to download it, part of his preservation efforts.
"It's fairly intact," he says. "I'm quite surprised really"
He shows me a huge monument, in the shape of a flame. He asks me if I notice anything strange about it.
"Is it... gravel?"
I blink. In Minecraft, bedrock can't be mined or placed. It is the one solid and immovable thing I understand about the world. But even this law of physics is shown no respect by the citizens of 2b2t. James tells me about a hacker called 'popbob', famous among the server's regulars, who is responsible for much of the wackiness perpetrated in the land. He is the one who comes up with the exploits, scouring Minecraft's code for oddities. Some of these exploits are bizarre.
"There's a way to find people in Minecraft based on the sound of thunder," says James. "Because thunder is only played near a player. So if you can determine by 'listening' to the server where thunder is being played, you know where people are. He [popbob] devised a way to actually capture these packets of information coming from a server... so if you can decipher this information, you'll be able to know where everyone is. I'm just going to get some melons, because somebody hasn't touched my melons."
He wades into the melon patch, telling me more about popbob and offering me fruit. Later we will see a small bolthole, completely gutted, with a sign outside reading: "ruined by acid aka popbob". Given that a major pastime of the players of 2b2t is making alternate accounts and posing as other players, there is no way of verifying this claim.
We head over to a sandstone pyramid. It is small but majestic in its own way, and notable for being almost entirely untouched.
"I can't show you from here," says James, "but below where we are there is nothing but anvils."
"Someone has put, underground, about 600 anvils. Don't ask me why."
We find our way to a small passage, flooded with water. We go below and emerge in the tomb beneath the pyramid. James is right. The chamber is full of anvils. Hundreds of anvils. I feel like an Egyptologist being trolled by Tutankhamun.
"This hallway down here," says James, pointing to a multicoloured corridor, "you can see where they used to keep the sheep. And they've coloured the whole wall based on the colour of each sheep."
The animals themselves are long gone. The ruin is empty. It looks like nobody has been here in months. We climb out of the tomb and head back into the Nether. We start back towards the Highway. On the chat, some players are berating each other, issuing unimaginable bile about children and minorities. The server's dark side is starting to reveal itself.
"I think that's one of the things about 2b2t," says James. "You tend to get desensitized to things that maybe would shock a 'normal' person, dare I say."
Racist slurs are not the only thing earning the server its reputation, which James admits is deserved. Being killed by another player or coming home to a destroyed cabin is nothing compared to some of the abuse that can happen.
"Doxing is a real problem on 2b2t," he says. "That's one of the main reasons a lot of people don't talk. Because if you've used your name anywhere on the internet they'll find you, they'll find your address, they'll find your parent's address. It's not good. There's only a select few people that do that, some of the old regulars, but at the minute they haven't been on for a little while so that's not much to worry about."
Why does he think the server attracts that kind of person?
"I think because you can really let out your dark side on 2b2t. And if you're smart and you log into an account that hasn't been used and doesn't link back to you in real life, you can get away with anything. There are some people on 2b2t that are infamous for abusing people. They'll tell you to kill yourself, they'll tell you to kill your family, to shoot up your school and all sorts. The stuff that's said can really offend people. It's essentially the /b/ board of 4chan if it was a videogame."
We are approaching the Hub, the centre of the Nether Highway, where all roads spoke out. If we were going to die anywhere, says James, this would be it. Ahead of us a player is scrambling around. He sees us and scurries away like a cockroach, leaving behind some trashed blocks, part of a structure he was in the middle of destroying. A sign left in the Hub reads: "2b2t is a muslim server."
"These kinds of signs are very normal."
We continue on the road. There is another sign up ahead.
"wank stain," it says.
"I think the funniest sign that I've ever seen," says James, "I was probably about 20,000 blocks away from spawn. There was no sign of life, it was all untouched, natural terrain. I was pretty sure I was generating fresh terrain, I was that far out. And I find a sign and it says: 'Nothing you ever do means anything'. Just... in the middle of nowhere."
Along the Highway, James stops at some holes and fixes them up, so other players using the Highway won't fall. It is a moment of community spirit I didn't really expect.
"A lot of us are, though, community-minded," he says. "2b2t got its name because you'll find two opposite sides of the spectrum. You'll find the people who want you dead and then you'll have people like the guys that you base with."
After a short run along the Highway, we find another portal and step through, back to the green and pleasant Overworld. This time I shout: "SNOW!"
We have come up in a winter biome. We cross the ice and cut through frozen woods until night falls. Finally, we see some lights ahead. On the crest of a hill I look down and see field after field of wheat.
"I found this maybe a year and a half ago," says James.
It's a big base and, despite the beautiful fields of wheat, it is in a state of severe disrepair. Partly, this is James' fault. After all, he is the one who 'rekt' it, setting the wooden ceiling on fire and flooding the storage room - an act of vandalism he says he was manipulated into committing.
"When I found this farm, I thought it was one of my enemies, because he told me it was. So I destroyed the hell out of this farm, thinking that it was. Then he told me it wasn't his, and the owner came on and was less than happy."
Now, instead of destroying bases, James is engaged in trying to save them, relocating them to The Vault. An archive of 2b2t's architectural history, restored and unaltered, right down to the dickbutts and Swastikas. One of the most common images we've seen on our trip is the flag of ISIS, a group known for destroying museums and historical sites. I can't help but see a parallel. Except wrecking things appears to be part of 2b2t's culture of anarchy. It hasn't got the calculation of Daesh.
In the farm's old storage room water flows through the ruined ceiling. There's a noticeboard on the wall, full of signs, expressing thanks and gratitude. They all have datestamps, another small record of life on the server. One celebrates finally getting reeds, another says "got food :)" Above these decent messages of isolation and kinship, there's a single sign that simply reads: "aids".
"The community is its own worst enemy," says James. "The history of 2b2t is also in bases that are destroyed. But they're really nice, so we try and save some."
You don't think you're fighting a losing battle?
"Not really. We've saved over 50 bases, over 50 bases we've got listed now."
We amble around, looking into rooms and across the fields. The trickling of the flooded chamber almost makes it sound peaceful.
"It's a lovely ruin," I say.
"Thank you," says James.
He laughs. We begin making our way out.
And then he adds: "Not that I'm proud."