So I’ve discovered a game called Minecraft. It’s fairly new, compared to, say, Babylonia: it was released in 2011. It’s kind of addictive!

mc1

I’ve played a number of exploration/survival games– I’ve put hundreds of hours into Empyrion and Conan Exiles. I had long resisted Minecraft, not least because it looks stupid; I liked the realism of the later titles. But, as I say, Minecraft is surprisingly good.  I think it’s because of the very pure gameplay loop.

These games need to balance mining, building, and threats (combat, hunger, environmental damage). Too much mining quickly becomes tedious and prevents building magnificent structures. Too much threat is annoying, but too little makes the building seem pointless. Minecraft gets the balance just right.

  • The threat level is low, so you can spend most of your time doing other things. Yet monster-proofing your creations is still important.
  • Mining is generous: you can make a dirt shelter in seconds, stone is so plentiful that you’ll soon have chestloads of cobblestone, wood is easy.  So your “real house”, after making shelters, will be pretty satisfying.
  • You drop your items when you die, and they disappear in five minutes. This can range from no annoyance at all to a major catastrophe, especially if you don’t know exactly where you died. So you’re motivated to not be entirely careless.

At the same time, just building bases would only be good for a few nights of fun. There is a huge variety of other tasks you can discover and take on:

  • finding villages and trading with villagers
  • growing crops
  • raising and breeding animals\
  • exploring new biomes
  • building railroads
  • mining deep enough to find the good stuff (gold, diamonds, redstone)
  • building electrical (redstone) devices
  • making maps
  • fending off pillagers
  • enchantments
  • making monster traps
  • building a portal to the Nether (a hellish otherworld with new monsters)
  • co-op, if you still have friends who play

Or, of course, you can just build and rebuild. The picture above is not my house, it’s a railroad station. I’m sure it still looks noobish to Minecraft veterans, but at least it’s past the “make a big rectangle” stage.

A couple days in, I discovered a huge cave with a partial mine inside– that is, it had long passageways with rails and timber supports, which were themselves good resources. I moved my main base there to excavate fully.  I found a deep ravine nearby which turned out to be connected. I think the place is fully explored now, though I still find odd monsters wandering around.

I took a long wander around and found the ocean, about 1200 blocks to the east. A shipwreck suggested a new place to build a house, this one located right in a ravine, with glass blocks for a roof.

Then I built a railroad between my two houses.  This was a huge project that required mining large amounts of iron and making several base camps in between. It’s now a nice train ride, though I’ve also found how to make the trip using Nether portals.

In its own way, Minecraft can be rather pretty:

mc2

In the distance you can see one of my railway bridges. (I built like a 19th century engineer, bridging valleys and digging through mountains.)

I thought the fever had broken recently, but then I found a new ravine with a mine system, and I’m back to excavating. By this time I’m more scientific about it– marking the way to the exit, for instance.

On the whole I still like the relative realism in the other games.  Empyrion is still the best of these, not least because its wide array of building pieces allows you to build truly original and gothic spacecraft. The progression of building, then getting to space, then getting to other planets, is also more satisfying.

What still falls short, to my mind, is No Man’s Sky. The visuals are top-notch– you really feel that you’re deeply exploring a 1970s progressive rock album cover. But the base building is terrible: it takes huge investments of resources to build a single room, and with the latest update, it’s a further chore to keep it powered up.

I stumbled on some videos related to a mod called Skycraft, where you start on a tiny island in the sky. The first was just stupid; the player just kept knocking each other off. But this series is rather addictive: two dudes build an impressive installation with a good deal of automation. Plus the main dude has a really infectious laugh. (Also, they say “dude” a lot, like every five seconds.)

Just a couple of Minecraft cavils. One, making skins is pretty basic but isn’t in the main game– you have to use the game website, and mess with Paint or external character creators. They couldn’t have addressed this in eight years?

Two, there’s not much help in-game. You get recipes for crafting, but there’s no real guidance on doing most of the more advanced tactics. Fortunately there’s years of guides available by now.

I’d also say that they’re not generous with points of interest– e.g. I’ve explored a couple dozen chunks and found only one village. I assume this is optimized for co-op play, where you want a good deal of land for each player. But playing solo, it can feel like there’s little reward for exploring the world.