Why Minecraft Makes Me Feel Like a Kid Again
Two weeks ago, I finally caved and gave in to the Minecraft craze. I’d resisted at first, since it didn’t seem to offer much more than a giant Lego simulator; but a fortnight on, and it’s hard to believe how much my doubts have been effortlessly pushed aside. Minecraft is a fantastic game, and one that certainly deserves its giant, loyal fanbase, its own Las Vegas conventions and romanticisation of Notch’s success story. However, I still feel that my reasons for loving Minecraft are different to most. Instead of simply being a game that acts as a platform to build ‘anything’ or overcoming the dangers of the wilderness, to me Minecraft is a reminder of a time in my life when games weren’t simply about winning, or even getting invested in storylines and characters. It’s reminiscent of when I was young enough for game worlds to feel as fantastical yet believable as a bedtime story.
Search around the web and you can hear plenty of people’s tales about how Minecraft encapsulated their fears of scary things in the night, or the safety of the homes they live in, but I can’t say I shared these experiences. In fact, I play on Peaceful difficulty; there is no danger at all. For me, I lose myself endlessly in Minecraft’s glorious pointlessness – the fact that unless you really go for the tacked-on ‘defeating the Ender Dragon’ mission, there is no over-arching objective. When I play, I don’t see any allegory to my current life, and I’m glad for it.
If anything, it’s like being a child again, playing in the woods. I remember building tree forts as a kid, and believing with enough time and effort (neither of which there ever seemed to be enough of) I could build anything. I would start with a basic wigwam of logs and twigs, and after that I would usually give in to laziness, but there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that had I really, really wanted to, I’d build great bastions and towers and keeps and live there forever. Minecraft doesn’t just emulate this in its concept of ‘collect blocks, build stuff’, it appears to echo innocent playfulness in every inch of it, from its innocent, tinkering piano soundtrack to its adorable farmyard animals scattered across its green land, almost always under blue, sunny skies. Even when I can’t think of anything to build, this is the world I want to come back to.
A week ago on Minecraft, I finished that castle I wanted to build in the woods at six years of age. My friend Mikey and I spent a cumulative 25 hours building, from the ground up, a leviathan of stone and wood and glass and earth. With three stories full of banquet halls, libraries, art rooms, a keep that can be seen from miles around, a roof garden and a forge, I look up at it now and think, ‘What was the point in building that?’ It’s a valid question. It could probably stave off a whole army if it needed to, being a giant castle, but it doesn’t need to. We built it because we wanted to, and because it felt good.
This feeling of finding clarity in an aimless environment takes me back to the late nineties – specifically, playing the first two Tomb Raiders on the Playstation. I’m not an old gamer, and as such I was still that forest-playing child at the time, and my level of choice was usually the Lara’s Home tutorial level. In fact, hour-for-hour, I’m certain I spent more time in the mansion than all of the other stages put together. Croft Manor was Tomb Raider’s unique training mission, where you could learn the controls in a totally safe environment that’d only kill you if you went out of your way to swan dive twenty feet off a balcony. It was so much more than just a female Indiana Jones’ house in which you could lock the butler in the meat freezer – like my little Minecraft world, it was a home. I knew it so well I’d often spend my time searching, in vain, for any small details I might not have seen, details that couldn’t possibly have existed due to the graphical limitations of the time. I remember trying to reach the highest point possible so I could look over the Manor’s gate to try and see as much of the outside world as possible; a world that wasn’t there, but I can’t describe how much I wished it was.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that for the most part, I’ve grown out of this. I can still be attached to games and drawn into their worlds, but only in the sense of an observer or a critic’s point of view – ‘oh, I can see how this world is well designed’, or ‘the writers have done a great job creating these characters’. I still get hints of my childish gamer though, often in the case of Mirror’s Edge, a game I have a huge affection for where most do not. Its art style ticks a certain, unknown box for me, an unplaceable X factor which makes me feel like a part of its fiction. It’s as if I’ve been fooled into believing the lies of the very antagonists of the game: a police state hegemony that has created a ‘perfect’ city, always gleaming white and clean, and with the art style’s brilliant pathetic fallacy, always under a cloudless vast blue sky. Many a time have I stopped trying to ‘run’ as the game would instruct me, and given in to just standing down on the edge of a tower block and looking down at my feet and the street below, and then up at the sublime cityscape before me. I’ve even failed time trials due to the irresistible lure of cloud-watching. My aim stops being to ‘win’ or beat my record; I am content simply ‘being’, in harmony with a created world which, for a moment, seems utterly perfect.
I think the reason this resonates with what’s left of the child in me is that – and this might just be me – when I try to think back that far, being only five or six years old and only having to worry about grazing my knee, everything did seem a little more idyllic. It’s undoubtedly pure nostalgia, but I can only remember the sunniest days of the year, and that amazing ‘world is my oyster’ feeling; and that is how Mirror’s Edge makes me feel when I stop doing it what it tells me to. It’s not just visually stunning, but the way Faith effortlessly traverses any obstacles in her path is almost exactly what I would be doing in my imagination as a kid. The city is spotless and doesn’t show the strife and hostility hidden beneath, just like a child’s outlook on the world, not yet tarnished by learning the harsher truths of the society we live in.
If I were to pin down a reason for why it has only been a couple of recent games that have brought up this kind of sentiment for me, I think it would be that too many modern games have a tendency to lean too much on the gritty side. Bright colours and an upbeat soundtrack have become the stuff of retro; and it’s only because Minecraft mirrors that retro vibe that it has the atmosphere that I find so profound. Mirror’s Edge might not be retro styled, but it’s a diamond in the rough when it comes to visuals, in my opinion. Perhaps in a move for video games to be taken more seriously in or culture, the tone of games has darkened dramatically, and frankly I’m not hugely interested in getting head-and-shoulders into a bleak and moody world. Tomb Raider didn’t need to be a massively deep game with plenty of lore to be fascinating, it simply presented a universe that was truly desirable to live in, and maybe that’s the real key to immersion.