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The Games Of Christmas ’10: Day 24

You've already caught a glimpse of what lies behind the final window, haven't you? You are so naughty. But then again, there was no hiding that particularly cubic outline, was there?

It's... Minecraft!

Jim: Pedantically speaking, this isn't a game that came out in 2010. It's only just gone into beta. But then again, whatever label software wizards might put on their projects, if you are paying money to play it, then it's out. And there's no doubt that Minecraft has dominated this year. Here's my list of Why Minecraft:

1) It's an amazing demonstration of what can be done by a small team (essentially just Mr Notch) if the ideas are a good. It's both the power of procedural generation and the beauty that can be found in lo-fi presentation. This is very much What We Were Hoping For when this indie revolution started to spool up for real.

2) It's absolutely, fundamentally The PC. Digitally distributed, patched constantly - a rolling project supported by its community and the open-ended power of the internet. It's about user-generated content at its core, and it's a brilliant platform for modding.

3) This, in stark contrast to - say - Lego Universe, demonstrates just how much we like building and tinkering, and how valuable that can be if we're allowed real scope to experiment. It's not just about being given the tools for building, it's being given the game design context to have real freedom to use the tools as we see fit. Minecraft is freedom to build.

4) Related to 3) It's an awesome platform for crazy people to do insane stuff. There's nothing better than that. (See the Minecraft CPU map, etc.)

5) Because there's a real choice between playing single-player and multiplayer. So many games go the multiplayer route when they don't need to, or don't offer multiplayer when they clearly should. Minecraft has, albeit incompletely, supported both. When survival mode is a little more mature and totally supportive of online play then this will just be scintillating.

6) Survival mode. I've lost count of the number of times over the years I've read people say something along the lines of "Yeah, I wish there was just some sandboxy game where I could wander about, build my base, do a bit of a exploring, at my own pace." And here it is.

It's not over yet. There are potentially years of development left to go. There's a real danger, I think, that Notch will evolve Minecraft into a place where it loses what makes it magical. Maybe not, perhaps he'll avoid the shiny lures and pitfalls that take down so many other projects, but even if this game does stray down the wrong path, we can say for sure that in 2010, it was peerless. Good work, Notch. And here's to digging straight down without a plan in 2011.

John: It's been a while since I've had time to play Minecraft. In fact, I've not had a chance to return since the introduction of the biomes, portals, and all the accompanying extras. But for the last couple of days it's pretty much all I've done, and I'm interested to discover that despite all the changes, despite ticking over from alpha to beta, I'm still playing it in the exact same way as I always have.

Wherever I appear, that's home. If the starting area is some barren desert, I ditch it and start a new one. All I want is a mountain and a large patch of sea. I start off by building a tall tower so I can find my way back. Then pootle about, hopefully finding some coal along the way. I make sure I've got some basic stone tools. As dusk appears, I dig a hole, wall it up, and begin mining. (Except, coo, look at that! Dusk is so much prettier now!)

In what will be my home I build a storage crate, an oven, and a crafting table. And other than armour and a boat, it never gets more complicated than that.

I'm not sure what I'm mining for - why I care so much about finding gold, diamond, or especially redstone. But those are my goals - finding those rarer minerals. I've no intention of building minecart rails, elaborate mechanisms, nor super-computers. I don't need any of them for anything I hope to do. All I want is to find the stuff, put it in a box, and maybe make a shirt out of it. Then get in my boat, aim for a different island, and start digging there too.

And it keeps me so happy. It's such perfect fodder, entertaining me while I watch a TV show on the other screen (yesterday it accompanied Dr Katz, today The Trip), enticing me to find a path down to the glint of blue ore.

For me it's about those moments when I'm just digging a staircase down into the rock and my pick goes through into a cave. The thrill of it, working out if it's an indefensible cavern, a single room, or a network of caves leading to an all-important lava stream. There I'll build a waypoint, a chest and a crafting table. I'll put in all the stuff I don't want to lose, then go exploring further.

And then, returning with pockets bulging, I'll bring everything back to my main home with the plan to return there to continue my conquest. After lighting the correct route with many torches to make sure I ever find it again, I'll process whatever I've found into gorgeous armour, take a handful of excellent equipment with me, get back to where I'd left off, and then immediately get pushed in the lava by a surprise zombie, lose everything, and never want to return to that world again.

It happens every single time. It's literally just happened. I'm writing this now because it's too upsetting to go back there. And this time I spent the first few hours making sure I'd definitely not lose my home base while exploring elsewhere. I can't let this much effort go to waste:

Or I'll just start again, like I always do. This is unquestionably my game of the year. Not just in terms of time spent, but contentment received. It taps directly into a part of me that's always wanted a game. It lets me potter, aimlessly, with no pressure. That's such a huge gift. It lets you do something completely different. And that's why it's magical.

Alec: The bloke who fixed my boiler plays it with his kid.

At least one PR with a complicated London haircut plays it.

One of the Apple-worshipping, PC-loathing designers in the office plays it.

Any games journalist with a genuine interest in gaming plays it.

Millions and millions of people are playing it, and I'm pretty sure quite a few of them wouldn't call themselves 'gamers.'

They're out there. They're everywhere. They'd never get along, but they think as one.

Minecraft isn't such a surprise. It was always going to happen, because there needed to be a new Sims. We've often remarked on RPS how strange it is that so few games sought to challenge The Sims' crown, but then along comes Minecraft, doing it by mistake. That universal appeal of self-expression, self-indulgence and construction is at its very core, and neatly proving that all those expensive action games don't really understand the human urge to explore a digital fantasyscape.

FarmVille, which very, very broadly explores similar concepts of collection and construction, is all that really holds it back from unassailable world domination, but then the best may well be yet to come.

I could name a dozen tiny things Minecraft does which meant it was always destined to be so much more than an obscure indie building game - the way some blocks hover magically when their surroundings are carved away, spying a cow from miles away and haring off across the world to hunt it for its hide, the effect of the day/night cycle on enemies, the transformative texture packs... The key for me, though, is that it's a game about recycling. Almost nothing is destroyed in Minecraft - instead, it's turned to new purpose, or flat-packed down into blocks awaiting new purpose. The world doesn't reduce, it doesn't even grow - like energy, it simply transforms. That's the real key to creation. Epic-scale plasticine, forever permitting as much as you can imagine.

Minecraft itself, on the other hand, is only going to get bigger. Like Jim, I worry one change too many will bring this good-natured Jenga tower crashing down, but I also suspect that we'll see some sort of update that really, truly makes this a game for everybody.

Kieron: As Alec says, it really was a phenomenon. And I'm going to use a really cynical metric to prove this.

Minecraft was absolutely RPS' game of the year. Not just because we loved it - and we all did - but because how much it contributed to the material existence of the site. In terms of sheer number of page impressions, nothing we covered managed to get as many people reading. And so, via the wonders of advertising, giving us money. Second biggest link of the year was Quinns' Mine The Gap series. Taken as a whole, it was bigger than everything.

(The first was the revealing of the online-only Ubisoft DRM, for those who are interested.)

(And doing an article on the Top 50 stories at RPS of the year does appeal. They're not quite what you'd expect.)

And the wonderful thing about this? For a good couple of months, we were the only fuckers covering it. Well, us and the other place. It felt a little the days before the mid-nineties, where you only really got music coverage in the music press, and the NME was selling something like 500K because it was the only place you could find out about the Smiths. How on earth could everyone else be so stupid? How could they be missing covering this enormous, generational, life-affirming THING?

Well, because to paraphrase the immortal words of Huggy Bear, it was happening without their permission. It didn't come with a press release. It didn't come on a corporate-approved console-DRM-box. It just existed, was inspired, allowed people to prove their own inspiration, and everyone who got it profited from the experience. It broke every single rule, and showed how nonsense those rules were. William Goldman's line about Hollywood applies as much to games: NO-ONE KNOWS ANYTHING. It burns down civilization and revealed what an untamed landscape gaming really is.

We can build anything from here. And with luck, we will.

Quinns: Kieron already mentioned Mine The Gap, and through those articles I’ve already spoken and shouted and whimpered my piece about Minecraft, but there is one thing I have left to say. It’s this: Not an hour goes past where I don’t give thanks for whatever dark zap of imagination led to Notch putting Creepers in this game.

I love Creepers. I love the phenomenon they’ve become (nsfw). On the off chance you haven’t played Minecraft yet (you eventually will, by the way), Creepers are one of the few wandering monsters in the game. They do one thing, and one thing only. They get close to you, start hissing, and then detonate, taking their surroundings with them. More often than not you fail to notice their approach because you're so engrossed in what you're building, and by the time you hear the hiss you don't have enough time left to do anything about it.

Creepers are the simplest of monsters, but it’s amazing how they work to make Minecraft so much more than a sandbox game. Everybody who plays Minecraft will have their own Creeper story, and their own pocketful of emotions towards the things, despite their lack of animations and single sound effect. They give me hope about what Notch plans to do with Minecraft in the long term. If Notch can implement his world and story as elegantly as the Creepers, it’s going to be a beautiful finished piece.

Of course, it's already beautiful. Contrary to what Frightened Rabbit may believe, you will find love in a hole. There’s a lot to love down there- rock formations and lava flows, diamonds and monsters.

You’ll find love in a tree, too. You’ll find love at the top of a mountain. You’ll find love in a pitiful dugout, constructed in 15 seconds to escape from angry spiders that slide around the world like Segways. You’ll find love in your painstakingly constructed new cabin, built over 15 hours for no purpose whatsoever. You’ll find love behind a waterfall. You’ll find love crossing a river in a tiny boat. You’ll find love at sunrise, and sunset. You’ll find love in a snowstorm. But mostly, you’ll find love in a hole.

Thanks for reading, everybody! And Merry Christmas.

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