Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.

‘Before it was cool’

Hipsters are one of the few remaining groups it is generally considered OK to take the piss out of as a collective in modern culture, along with chavs and the kind of people who comment below YouTube videos. The main complaint against them as a group is their overly superior and rather arrogant attitude- the sense that they are inherently ‘better’ than those around them simply by virtue of dressing differently (or ‘individually’ as they would have it) and listening to music that nobody’s ever heard of before.

However, perhaps the single thing that hipster elitism is loathed for more than any other is the simple four-letter phrase ‘before it was cool’. Invariably prefaced with ‘I was into that…’, ‘I knew about them…’ or ‘They were all over my iTunes…’ (although any truly self-respecting hipster would surely not stoop so low as to use such ‘mainstream’ software), and often surrounded by ‘y’know’s, this small phrase conjures up a quite alarming barrage of hatred from even the calmest music fan. It symbolises every piece of petty elitism and self-superiority that hipster culture appears to stand for, every condescending smirk and patronising drawl directed at a sense of taste that does not match their own, and every piece of weird, idiosyncratic acoustic that they insist is distilled awesome

On the other hand, despite the hate they typically receive for their opinions, hipster reasoning is largely sound. The symbolism of their dress code and music taste marking them out from the crowd is an expression of individuality and separatism from the ‘mass-produced’ culture of the modern world, championing the idea that they are able to think beyond what is simply fed to them by the media and popular culture. It is also an undeniable truth that there is an awful lot of rubbish that gets churned out of said media machine, from all the various flavours of manufactured pop to the way huge tracts of modern music sound the same, all voices having been put through a machine umpteen times. Indeed, whilst it is not my place to pass judgement on Justin Beiber and company (especially given that I haven’t listened to any of his stuff), many a more ‘casual’ music fan is just as quick to pass judgement on fans of that particular brand of ‘manufactured’ pop music as a hipster may be towards him or her.

In fact, this is nothing more than a very human trait- we like what we like, and would like as many other people as possible to like it too. What we don’t like we have a natural tendency to bracket as universally ‘bad’ rather than just ‘not our thing’, and thus anyone who likes what we don’t tends to be subconsciously labelled either ‘wrong’ or ‘misguided’ rather than simply ‘different’. As such, we feel the need to redress this issue by offering our views on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which wouldn’t be a problem if other people didn’t happen to like what we see as bad, and perhaps not get on so well with (or not have heard of) stuff we think of as good. Basically, the problem boils down to the fact that all people are different, but our subconscious treats them as all being like us- an unfortunate state of affairs responsible for nearly all of the general confrontation & friction present in all walks of life today.

What about then that hated phrase of the hipster, ‘before it was cool’? Well, this too has some degree of logic behind it, as was best demonstrated in the early 1990s during the rise of Nirvana. When they first started out during the 1980’s they, along with other alternative rock bands of the time such as REM, represented a kind of rebellious undercurrent to the supposed good fortune of Reagan-era America, a country that was all well and good if you happened to be the kind of clean cut kid who went to school, did his exams, passed through college and got an office job. However, for those left out on a limb by the system, such as the young Kurt Cobain, life was far harsher and less forgiving- he faced a life of menial drudgery, even working as a janitor in his old high school. His music was a way to express himself, to stand out from a world where he didn’t fit in, and thus it really meant something. When ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ first made Nirvana big, it was a major victory for that counter-culture, and pretty much put grunge on the map both as a music genre and a cultural movement for the first time.

And with success came money, and here things began to unravel. Unfortunately where there is money, there are always people willing to make more of it, and the big corporations began to move in. Record labels started to sign every grunge band and Nirvana-clone that they could find in a desperate attempt to find ‘the next Nirvana’, and the odd, garish fashion sense of the grunge movement began to make itself felt in more mainstream culture, even finding its way onto the catwalk. The world began to get swamped with ‘grungy stuff’ without embracing what the movement really meant, and with that its whole meaning began to disappear altogether. This turning of his beloved underground scene into an emotionless mainstream culture broke Kurt Cobain’s heart, leaving him disillusioned with what he had unwittingly helped to create. He turned back to the drug abuse that had sprung from his poor health (both physical and mental) and traumatic childhood, and despite multiple attempts to try and pull him out of such a vicious cycle, he committed suicide in 1994.

This is an incredibly dramatic (and very depressing) example, but it illustrates a point- that when a band gets too big for its boots and, in effect, ‘becomes cool’, it can sometimes cause them to lose what made them special in the first place. And once that something has been lost, it may never be the same in the eyes who saw them with it.

Although having said that, there is a difference between being an indie rock fan and being a hipster- being a pretentious, arrogant moron about it. *$%#ing hipsters.