Digging for Victory: Minecraft Explored

A look at the indie game phenomenon.

There are two stories to be told about Minecraft. One of them is the tale of a man working alone to create something truly extraordinary from humble beginnings, working piece by piece to painstakingly construct an original masterwork. The other story? The other story is, at heart, the same.

The parallels between what players do in Minecraft and the tale of the game's own development are striking. On both levels, this is a game which revels in the joy of creation. It's a game made by a man motivated to work in his free time and eventually give up his job in order to pursue the dream of developing independent games.

It's a game made for people who aren't intimidated by starting off in a world with no real objectives other than to survive, to progress, to explore and - most of all - to build, your construction efforts guided by your own creative urges rather than any blueprint from the developer.

The game is, of course, something of an online sensation already. Unless you're somehow isolated from Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the internet - the modern day equivalent of digging a hole in the ground and dragging a big rock over the top - you've probably heard of the game. Yet for many, the appeal may not be immediately apparent.

After all, a player's first experience with Minecraft isn't exactly mind-blowing. Dropped into a sprawling pastoral world made up entirely of blocks, you are simply left to your own devices to roam around.

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Completing your first structure brings with it a genuine sense of achievement.

You'll find grassy blocks making up fields and hills, sandy blocks making up beaches, blocks of wood and of leaves making up rough trees. There are some pigs, sheep and cows roaming around and you'll quickly find some dark, ominous-looking caves in the ground which burrow down long past the point where the light gives out.

It's oddly pretty, in a simplistic, primary coloured sort of way, but it's far from apparent what you're actually meant to do. You can punch the tree trunks and they eventually break into little logs which you can pick up. Pop a log into your crafting interface - one of the most important screens in the game - and it turns into four smaller pieces of wood.

You can also dig in the ground, excavating holes and retrieving squares of earth which you can place back down as you please. If you're a raw newcomer, however, the purpose of all of this is probably lost on you.

But things become clearer once night falls. Minecraft's curious, blocky world is subject to a day-night cycle which will come to rule your actions with an iron fist. By day, sheep bounce happily around their sunny cuboid pastures.

By night, you can barely see your blocky fist in front of your equally blocky face. The darkened landscape sprouts a rich crop of zombies, skeletal archers, spiders and insanely nasty exploding cactus-men, all of whom are driven by a powerful desire to smash you into a fine paste.

If Minecraft doesn't have objectives as such, it certainly has stimuli, and you've just found the main one. If you're going to survive the night you'll need a weapon. You'll need a source of light. You'll need somewhere to hide.

It might require a sneaky look at a Wiki page somewhere, but you'll quickly find out that you can craft a makeshift pickaxe, shovel and sword from the wood you've been punching out of the trees.

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Until you see what others have already built.

With the pickaxe, you can mine coal from seams in some areas of rock. Affixing lumps of coal to the top of sticks allows you to make flaming torches which drive back the night. By lighting up a small cave and then throwing up earthen walls in front of it, you'll survive your first night.

After that experience, your second day in Minecraft will be a much more focused one. No more aimless wandering - you have until nightfall to build somewhere safer and better than last night.

Stone fortifications will rise, while more poking around online will reveal the possibility of building a workbench for creating more complex objects. Then you can construct a furnace which can smelt metals found underground or craft cubes of transparent glass from sand dug up from beaches.

By day you'll build upwards, constructing an epic castle far beyond your actual requirements for safety, and forage the land around you for raw materials. By night the game will live up to its name as you delve deep into the ground below, exploring the honeycomb of caverns and underground rivers which lie under the land, dealing with the spiders and zombies trapped down there as you progress and returning to the surface with increasingly heavy loads of stone and metals.

As your castle walls rise, as you flatten hilltops to create foundations for incredible, soaring towers and clad yourself in increasingly damage resistant armour and powerful tools - perhaps even experimenting with some of the game's more outlandish options, such as railway tracks and mine-carts, or electrical systems designed to create booby traps and so on - it's easy to forget you started out naked, afraid and punching trees.

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