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.

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Freedom Bridge

I must begin today with an apology- I’m going to go on about games today SORRY DON’T RUN AWAY IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME! Instead of looking into gaming as a whole today I want to focus on just one game.

Before I do, I should probably give you the rundown as to what I am getting at. The majority of the population, including (and quite possibly especially) the gaming population, generally views games as a pastime- a relaxation, a release, a chance to take out some of their surplus aggression and stress on an unassuming NPC. However, some people are willing to go further, and suggesting that games be considered something special on the mass-media scale- not just another tool for making money, but a tool of expression and delivery unmatched by even TV or film. In short, some people believe that games are a unique and special form of art.

This is the subject of quite some argument among both gamers, artists and (of course, since they are never ones to let a good contentious issue go to waste) journalists, but to explain both sides of the argument would be long, tedious and biased of me. So instead I thought I would present to you a case study, an example of just what the Games Are Art crowd are going on about. I give you Freedom Bridge.

Freedom Bridge is a free-to-play online Flash game (I’ll include a link to it at the bottom). It takes all of a minute or two to play (depending on how you play it), and it’s generally about as simple as games come. You play as a single black square on a white background, able to move up, down, left or right using the arrow keys. Your movement is somewhat restricted- you cannot move up or down beyond the dimensions of the playing screen you start with, and cannot move very far to your left either. Your only choice to progress involves moving right, towards a curly line that stretches across the screen in front of you. You cannot move to either side of it- your only choice is to go straight through. As you do so, your movement instantly slows- your block is struggling to move through, and when it finally does, it is leaving a thin, sparse trail of red spots behind it. The spots are blood, and that curly line is barbed wire.

Your direction is still limited to moving right, through a large expanse of white screen broken only by you and your trail. Stopping for a while causes the spots to build up into a bigger red mass- your blood piling up. As you continue to move right, another length of barbed wire appears in front of you, and you once again have no choice but to go through it. Once again, your motion becomes painfully slow, only this time, when you’re on the other side, some of your loss of speed remains, and the trail of blood is thicker and more obvious. You may turn back if you wish, but will not find anything new- your only real choice is to press on right. All the time the sound of rushing water, playing since the start, is getting slowly louder. Another length of barbed wire appears and, beyond it, the source of the sound is revealed- a fast-flowing river, with a bridge crossing it. Once again, your sole choice is to go through the wire, and once again you are slowed still further, and your bloody trail becomes still thicker. Your movement is laboured now- but the bridge awaits. You cannot travel up or down the river, so your only choice is to cross the bridge. As you do so, your movement now slow and bloody, a shot rings out, and you disappear into a splat of blood. That’s it. The game doesn’t even fade out (well, not for a while anyway). There’s just the sight of the blood, and the sound of the flowing water.

At first glance, this barely warrants its description as a game. This is a game that makes platforming look open-world, has no levels or sub-divisions- hell, there aren’t even any characters, or clearly defined plot for that matter. There are no options, no way to win. And that is the secret to its effectiveness.

The game does, in fact, have a plot, but it’s hidden amongst the detail. Think of the title, Freedom Bridge- that bridge is the embodied representative of freedom, of escape, of liberation, whilst the barbed wire and your side of the river in general is symbolic of restraint, or oppression. Think of the wire itself- used to guard borders by oppressive regimes who don’t want their citizens leaving. This bridge could be in Korea (where it is actually based on), cold war-era Germany, Zimbabwe, wherever- it represents them all. The white landscape itself is symbolic of the bleak emptiness of the borderlands, devoid of care and emotion. Think of the way it ends- the sound of the water very gently fades out to nothing, but for a long time the scene doesn’t change (and when it does, it’s onlt for some rather poignant context). Your death doesn’t change things, doesn’t make the world a different place. The world is uncaring, you appear immaterial, and all your sacrifice has done is coloured the earth red. And then, think of the game element itself. If you were to just hold down the right arrow key, you could replicate the experience almost exactly by watching a short video. But the effectiveness of that video? About zero. The important detail is that you have a choice of how to proceed. You can, if you want, go up, or left, or down, you can try to look for the thinnest points in the wire, you can try to see if there’s another way across the river- if you wanted to, you could draw pictures with your own bloodstained trail, or even (if you had rather too much time), turn every spot of white on the map red with it. The point is that you have all this choice, unavailable if this were simply a film, but it doesn’t make a scrap of difference. No matter what you do, the game is still going to end with you as a splat of blood on that bridge. This is a game about inevitability, and whatever you do in it, you are only delaying the inevitable. Death is inevitable. For the poor soul trying to escape their oppressive regime, there is no way out- only the icy grip of death awaits them.

Without the element of choice that the game offers, this message simply cannot be delivered with the same effectiveness. The experience of it cannot be replicated by a film, or even a piece of art- this is a an experience which, when thought about, can be immensely harrowing and poignant, and yet cannot be replicated in the same way by any classical art form- only the interactivity of games allows it to be quite so special. Some people argue that this kind of experience cannot really be called a game. But even so… if the experience that delivers isn’t art, then I don’t know what is.

To play Freedom Bridge, follow this link: http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/freedom-bridge/flash