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Minecraft: Me and My Identity Crisis


If there’s one thing I consistently do well, it’s get into trends years after their introduction. By the time I made a Facebook page, I was a sophomore in college. My cell phone is still as much as two generations behind. TV shows? Pffft. Don’t even bother; if you asked me what I thought about Hershel and his farm or Don Draper’s latest escapades, I’d only be able to give a nod and a derpy, five-word answer.

Such was the case with Minecraft. I’d heard about the game, of course, but never looked into it in any grave detail. I was a console gamer, and to this day my laptop’s little more than a typewriter with a screen duct-taped to it. I didn’t think ill of it; quite the opposite, as I spotted a few videos here and there that made me laugh. But I never thought too much about it. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d never get around to playing it, and I’d be no worse off for it.

And then my brother Rich downloaded the Xbox demo. I played it. And it made me question just what it meant for me to be a gamer.

Actually, scratch that. It was Starhawk, which I’d played days earlier, that set the stage; Minecraft only drew the curtains.

Rich had played the beta extensively; he reveled in the chaos and explosions, being able to build a base at his leisure, and even engaging in the occasional dogfight. “I’m so getting Starhawk when it comes out,” he declared weeks later, puffing out his chest and breaking into his customary jig. “Can’t wait to grab my jetpack!”

And I can’t wait for you to trade it in three weeks later, I thought. Still, I nodded politely. “Hope you have fun with it.”

“You’ll play with me, right?” It’s got split-screen multiplayer.”

I turned back to my laptop, hoping he didn’t catch a look at my uneasy face. He knew as well as I did that I was awful at shooters. I’d respawn only to get shot in the back in some endless loop; when I played cautiously, it only delayed the inevitable. When I finally started moving, it was usually into a hail of bullets. By the time I whittled an approaching enemy down to a sliver of health, he’d gotten in range to punch me in the face. “Sure, I’ll give it a try,” I told him. Maybe things will be different this time. Maybe I’ll actually be useful.

They weren’t. And I wasn’t.

In three separate instances of play, I got one kill between them. I got stomped on by robots, blown out of the sky, and an ally managed to drop some heavy machinery on my head. And building in the base? No chance. My brother wanted me to play at his pace, meaning I was just his patsy in a regularly-futile attempt to start a new outpost. When he cut the strings, I hardly had any idea of what to do. What do I build? Where do I build it? What if we reach the building limit? I can’t break down that guy’s creation, what if he gets mad at me?

I was a n00b in every sense of the word. I still am. I recognize that if I just played more, I’d get the hang of things (as Rich probably did). And I'm not so brazen as to say it's a bad game; far from it. But as it stands, I have no interest in ever playing Starhawk again. I’ll play if propositioned, but I don’t see that happening too often. I just don’t see the point.

I’ve actually been wondering that a lot recently when it comes to games. What’s the point? Just as he was with Starhawk, dear old big bro was excited for, preordered and picked up Max Payne 3, and is doing all he can to savor the game. I have a chance to play it right now, but instead I’m sitting at a computer tapping away. (Gotta put that semester of eighth grade spent playing learn-to-type games to good use.) I could -- and should -- be putting in some time in the combo lab so when we play Street Fighter X Tekken again, I won’t just humiliate myself. Bear in mind that I’m the guy who wrote poetry about fighting games, and I’m listening to a song from a fighting game right now, but can’t be arsed to boot it up.

At first I was worried that my tastes were changing -- that all of a sudden, I suddenly didn’t like combat in games any more. You may remember how I was talking about something like that with Mass Effect 3 -- how I wondered what it would be like if games didn’t have to rely so heavily on combat, and even proposed an alternate game starring a harmless researcher. That’s a possible theory, and a possible threat…buuuuuuuuuut on the other hand, I’m enjoying the hell out of games like Xenoblade Chronicles and Tales of Graces f. I even started up new playthroughs of the PS2 Kingdom Hearts games, and having a time (and a half) with it. So it’s not necessarily a matter of “story good, combat bad” -- though it certainly helps.

On the other hand, I’ve got this strange, blooming appreciation for games that take time out to be quiet. Peaceful. Chill. Going back to Tales, Rich and I did a co-op playthrough of the game. It starts off with a lengthy childhood sequence that sets up the characters and events to come. He hated it; I loved it. It was like a locomotive; slow to start, but once it got started it was pretty potent. I’m not saying it was perfect, but seeing characters change so much over seven years, and the actions they take as a result, had more of an impact BECAUSE of that slow opening. Meanwhile, with Xenoblade, there have been times where I just stop for a minute and stare at the surroundings. Say what you will about the Wii’s graphics, but I’m consistently wowed by these worlds. No, more than that; just the title screen, with the Monado in a grassy field with a gentle piece playing, made me stop. When I first booted up the game, I didn’t press a button. I just sat there, staring, listening, enjoying the simple sights and serene sounds.

So here I am, the Friday after Max Payne 3’s release. Will I play that again? Yes, probably; a quirk about my poor shooting skills is that I’m curiously good at scoring crotch shots. Will I finish it? I’m actually hoping I do; if reports of a good story are to be believed, it’d be an injustice if I didn’t. But even so, I’m in no rush.

What I AM in a rush to play again is Minecraft. So much so that I’m hoping my brother decides to download the full game ASAP.

I had an idea of what to expect from the game, but never did I expect…well, that. Much like Starhawk, I was thrown in without too much of an understanding of what to do. “Build stuff,” the game whispered into my ear. “Okay, what?” I’d ask. But outside of the tutorial, I was on my own. I was locked in the sandbox, and I’d have to imagine my way out.

I looked around for a bit, delighting in the simple visuals. It was a blocky but tranquil world, with music that wouldn’t make too bad of a lullaby. And there were animals, too. Cows and pigs and sheep and chickens, the latter of which I decided to provoke Zelda-style. There was sand and water and trees, and blocks that beckoned the touch of my right trigger. So I did what anybody would do in my situation: start bashing things like a caveman.

I made a few wisecracks here and there, managing to get a laugh out of Rich as he glanced away from his computer every now and then. Maybe it was a defense mechanism; maybe I just needed something to fill the openness, the loneliness of that virtual world. “I’ll build a castle,” I declared, taking note of the blocks I’d gained by bashing the earth. After some fumbling with the controller, I managed to put together a quartet of boxes. Hardly befitting a king.

So I wandered around, gathering resources. Wood from here, wood from there, a few dirt blocks from the ground…it was simple, but meaningful work. Soon enough, I’d managed to build a sizable structure, nodding in delight at my creation.

“That sure is a small castle.”

I rubbed my head in exasperation. “Okay, so it’s more of a rampart,” I admitted.

He nodded, and turned back to his computer. “You know, monsters come out at night and you have to protect yourself. I don’t think it turns to night in the demo, though.”

“I’ve heard about that.” I’d already gotten started digging my moat. All I needed was some water, and…my plans hit a snag. How was I supposed to carry that water? Bashing it just bashed the sand below it. No good. Maybe if I could dig a channel for the water to flow through…

Wait a minute. Would that even work? I shrugged. Well, time to put this game to the test. So I started digging a channel. Sure enough, the water spread through the groove I’d carved out. So I dug again. Still it spread -- but at a price. The water level…did it just lower? I thought. Damn. There’s only a finite amount of water, so it’s only natural that it wouldn’t reach. But I kept digging anyway, hoping to see just how far it would go. The answer? Not very.

Bucket. I need a bucket, I thought. Wait. Can I make a bucket? Will the game allow it? I looked to the right side of the screen. The tutorial I’d barely touched beckoned to me, giving me hints on how to crack the game’s code. A crafting table…a furnace…the ability to create tools that would speed up the process…more possibilities opened up in front of me.

Rich looked away from the computer. “Whoa! What is that?” he asked. He pointed ahead to the clear, yet pixellated cube taking up eighty percent of the screen.

“It’s glass,” I answered as I slid it into place in my bastion, forming a makeshift window. “There’s a furnace over there that you can use to make new materials. You put in an ingredient and use fuel, and you can make stuff like this.” I said it with almost tired nonchalance, as if it came naturally to me. It didn’t at first, but suddenly it made perfect sense. Everything started making sense. I had an axe, and a shovel -- and I would have made more, if my dogs hadn’t suddenly decided to go into a barking fit.

“I’ll take them out,” I said with a sigh. So we went outside, and I watched them spend five minutes barking at air and searching every inch of grass for a place to pee. And when I came back in, I found that the demo had locked me out. I’d have to get the full game if I wanted to experience the rest.

Not since the end of the Red Faction Guerilla demo have I ever been so bummed out by being taken back to the dashboard. After months of being locked out of the loop, I finally understood -- even just a tiny bit -- why Minecraft was…IS so popular.

Minecraft, I think, isn’t a game. It’s an experience. You’re essentially living through the dawn of man; you start out as a caveman, alone, confused, and largely helpless. You don’t know what to do, or where to go. But suddenly, your primal instincts kick in. You need shelter. Food. Safety from enemies. So you start going to work, gathering resources all around you so you can survive. At first you’re unsure of what to do with them, or in what capacity they can be used -- almost as if you’re a caveman trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. But eventually, after trial and error, things start to click. “I can put this here,” you say. “I can catch that,” you say. “I can use this to make that,” you say. You’re discovering new applications for items, and new configurations to ensure your survival -- maybe even before your closest allies. And while you manage to let prehistoric know-how guide you, your evolved reason is kicking in. “If I can build this with such meager tools, imagine what I can do with better tools!” you think, unable to hold back a devious smile. “I can make bigger buildings! Maybe a tower to protect myself! A haven for the treasure I’m bound to find! Maybe something to play with while I pass the time! There’s not a single monster that can pierce through my walls!” You start off as this confused, ignorant clump of digital flesh, but within you lays untapped potential and ingenuity. Given the chance, you can do more than just stay alive. You can remake the world as you see fit.

That, in a nutshell, is the impression I got from Minecraft. A mere demo played days, and my mind is still buzzing. And I know there’s more out there. Rich seems excited by the prospect of digging to the center of the earth (though of course, it isn’t quite that simple), and the details on some of the item descriptions suggest even greater existential adventures lie in wait. That’s something that I want to experience. More than fighting in an arena. More than a linear, A to B plot. More than anything else, I want to discover more.

I want to find out who I am as a gamer. I like combat, and I like stories. I like exploring new areas, and I like creating. I like games that make me get emotional. I like games where I can dragon kick some asses into the Milky Way. I like carving up monsters with my sword, enduring corny jokes from party members, and I’ve even taken to ceremoniously declaring “Crotch shot” every time I land the fabled hit. But what is it that I really enjoy? What is my ultimate be-all and end-all experience? If I had to pick one final game to play before swearing off the medium forever, what would it be -- what would be the last meal before I make my way to the electric chair?

There are a lot of questions that I need answering. Maybe Minecraft will answer them. Maybe it won’t. But at the very least -- at the end of the day, when I become all too aware of my shifting, divergent tastes -- I can say I got a glimpse of something special.

Also, I punched a sheep in the face.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
My Facebook page
My Twitter thingamajig

I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe