Skinny Stone Tower of Babel

Everyone’s playing Minecraft these days, so here’s a scene that might be familiar. I’ve built my sweet cliff-side villa and I want to go exploring.  The thing is, getting lost is easy when the world is made of blocks.  I want to make a monument—an unnatural landmark—so that I can always find my way back home.  It’s time to build a skinny stone tower of Babel.

But first, I must undress. I’ll put this nice wooden chest down right here, and I’ll strip naked and fill it with my clothing, my materials, and my tools.  Two stacks of stone blocks should be all I need.  And now I build.

I’m a herculean builder. The ancient Greeks told stories of me—Kent, god of speedy architecture.  My building method involves jumping and block-dropping. I put a block on the ground and I stand on top of it. I then hop into the air, balancing a second block below my feet.  I hop again and drop a third block on top the second one. Fortunately, I can stuff my pockets with enough stone blocks to build 700 giant temples where my worshipers can admire my building prowess.

Up and up and up I go, laying the blocks as fast as I can jump, and the ground rushes away from me. Pretty soon the only limit to my range of sight is the clip distance. The blocky grass reminds me of rice terraces in Thailand and tea plantations in Darjeeling.

Whenever I show this game to someone new, particularly to people who don’t play many games, they say that the graphics are terrible. I guess that I can understand this. The omnipresent wielded tool or hand-stump is a constant reminder of just how grainy the textures are. Even at medium distances the textures don’t tile well.

The way to convert anyone is to climb the tallest thing you can find. Minecraft vistas are sublime.  They’re so unabashedly digital, and yet so organic.  Who can look at a scene like this and not be overcome with awe and wanderlust?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I haven’t come for the view. I’ve come to jump. I toe the edge of my impossible obelisk, and then I plummet awfully to the ground. Game over! Score: &e0.

Alright, so: Game Over screens. These are used to signal that the game has ended in an unfavorable way. Maybe you’ve run out of time, or you’ve run out of lives, or you’ve run out of hearts, but the game is over and you didn’t win it.

When I die in Spelunky or Rogue, I have to restart from the beginning. When I die in Dragon Age or Dead Space, I have to return to a save state, rewriting history as though I never died. But when I die in Minecraft, I return to the same world that I left. That tower I built is still there. The crater that the exploding creeper left in the mountainside is still there too.

Remember the nonsense score on the Game Over screen? It’s a holdover from an earlier version of survival mode, when you got points from killing monsters. But to me the broken score counter is emblematic of how Minecraft eschews traditional gaming impetuses and measures of success. Minecraft isn’t about getting a high score. It’s about exploring and building and destroying.

I’m easily exhausted by traipsing around a city in order to collect hundreds of assassin’s flags, but I love exploring in order to see what there is to see. I have a perpetual desire to crest the next hill, to see what’s at the top of that cliff. There’s something about hearing the low moan of a zombie while you’re entombed in a narrow tunnel of your own construction that strikes a wonderful harmony of fear and curiosity. It’s great to stand gazing into an abyssal cavern and be overwhelmed with the simple need to see what’s inside.

Minecraft is special because the main character isn’t you, it’s the world around you. You are only as important as the effect you have on the world. AND SUCH IS LIFE. Now join me and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Blame it on the sunshine

I’m excited about the future.

I mean, people who play a lot of games are usually excited about the future because, on one level, games are about the future, about the acceleration of technology and the impossible Peter-Molyneux-promises we all want to come true right now. Gamers are notoriously nostalgic, but, let’s face it: we’re really bad at holding onto that past. Systems come and go; consoles break; we don’t always have backwards-compatibility; we play so many new games that we lose the time and interest to play old ones. Gamers love the past so much simply because it’s something we can’t exactly touch anymore. We pine away. Whatever old games are, whatever part of our lives they may represent—childhood, happier times, old opportunities and regrets—they’re things we can’t see, have, change, or re-live. Nostalgia is always a kind of sadness, even if it’s only a faint kind.

But, honestly, who wants to be six anymore? The games I played were often dark and grey and kind of blurry when I was six, and things get darker the longer they live in my memory. Today, though, it’s sunny outside. I’m going to go into town and write a thing and maybe read a book, and tonight I’m going to stare at the BioShock: Infinite screens again. I’ve played an awful lot of grey-ass games, particularly recently– games grey in more ways than one. When I think about today’s games twenty years from now, I’m going to be remembering an awful lot of cement. I’m going to be nostalgic about it all, too, and I kind of dread that. It’ll all come down like a second layer of dark. See, it’s already got to the point where I will lose a lot of excitement for a title if the screens don’t turn up with enough green in them. Green and blue together, preferably. Maybe green and blue and white.

On a scale of 0 to rad, the future is pretty rad.