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Minecraft – the gamey parts

Minecraft (the paid-for, survival, proper game version) has several borrowed mechanisms at its core. There’s the resource gathering and management, which is in every game ever (although the implementation is probably closest to RTS games like Command & Conquer, Dune II, Warcraft 1 & 2 etc). Construction is taken from Lego (I’m sure there’s other games that let you build in this way, but I can’t think of any that I know). Crafting items is taken from RPGs from way back when to MMORPGS like WoW. There’s first person melee combat, and shooting with a bow and arrow, which a billion FPS games do. The day and night cycle has an element of RTS as well – prepare for attack in the day, fight the zombies at night. There’s the RPG staples of exploration; both for the overworld and the dungeons. There’s even an element of platforming when making huge structures, or navigating some of the trickier tunnels.

The “greater than the sum of its parts” cliche is usually trotted out right about now, but I don’t necessarily agree. There’s some games which are awesome purely because they do mix genres. Games like Bishi Bashi Special, a PS1 compendium of minigames with mental themes. Bishi Bashi Special was a classic because it added character; the graphics and sound effects were utterly charming, and hugely enlivened the sometimes boring minigames. For a more recent example, Rayman Raving Rabbids and its sequel on the Wii pulled off the same trick; simple and tedious minigames with awesome characters and humour.

Minecraft isn’t good because it steals from the best (another cliche). It isn’t good because of the breadth of theft from other games. It does have a character of its own, but it’s not as flamboyant as Bishi Bashi Special or Rayman Raving Rabbids, or any other game where you remember the sight of a bodybuilder trying to jump a pogo stick up to a kebab over the gameplay. Minecraft is good because it blends the systems and concepts it has stolen so throroughly. They’re all tied to one another; resources can be turned into tools to gather more resources, or used to construct defensive buildings, which can then be made aesthetically pleasing by using other resources, but then you get the zombies, so you use resources to craft offensive items like swords and bows, but these things break over time, so you spend more resources making items that let you get more resources…. It’s rare that a game features so many integral systems and integrates them with each other with such finesse.

And the stunning thing about all this is that it is very, very simple. The interface is kept to a minimum. Other than the usual W, A, S, D and space keys, you use I to open your inventory. Right click to create, left click to destroy. That’s it. The onscreen HUD displays two things – your health and your item slots. The graphics look like they were made by a 5 year old using MS Paint 3D Edition. The sound is sparse; effects for the wildlife and zombies, and the occasional fade in and out of some lovely incidental music. (Another note on the sound effects – they play a pivotal role when you realise that there may be good things in the dungeons. You quickly switch from turning away at the sound of zombies to digging straight for them. One of the few games that I play without putting my MP3s on, and most of the time the game is silent, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

Yet another cliche – sometimes, less is more. If the game had “realistic” 3D graphics, it’d be boring. It’d be Populous recreated in Second Life; utterly charmless. If it had a full on combat system, with blocks and combos and headshots, it would betray the easy-going nature of the day time game. You’d just hole up all night and wait for morning. If it turned the construction into a Ramparts-like puzzle mode, or specified rules for construction (“dirt blocks have to be placed adjacent to a stone block” etc), then the stress would take the sheer fun away from the freedom to do whatever the fuck you want.

I was going to add one last cliche – “Minecraft is what it is”, but that wouldn’t be true either, because it’s still at the alpha stage. Things are still being added, and changed, and removed. It’s still growing and evolving, and yet it’s still got the same feel. Christ, Notch has added minecarts, AKA rollercoasters, and the game is still kinda spooky and semi-serious when nighttime falls and you have to defend your creation.

Ultimately, Minecraft is Marmite (last cliche, I promise). You either love it or you hate it. You either love the fact that it doesn’t hold your hand, and rise to the challenge, and then get stuck into creation, and love learning how to build things properly; or you hate it because you can’t work out how to get some wood, or you can’t make a pickaxe, or you keep cocking up your house, or THEM FUCKING BASTARD ZOMBIE CUNTS WILL DIE!

Get past the computer game tropes (get resources, upgrade them, destroy things) and you get to the gameplay of the more traditional variety – making things. You know, like you used to with Lego. Everyone loves Lego.

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