Minecraft invites players into a world without a story or purpose. When you start a game, your character is plopped in the middle of a randomly generated island. Then you go do things. The things you do are entirely up to you.
In single-player mode, the game is startlingly isolating. Running through Minecraft alone is a private, introspective experience. And because there isn’t a core story or purpose to the game, the central cause is only known — and invented — by the player. In the same way people naturally see images in clouds, the blank canvass of Minecraft allows players to jump into something they imagine themselves. You could build giant underground labyrinths, explore the world, or do nothing of the sort. And none of these paths lead to any character development, so there’s no sense of ever falling behind.
A number of freeform games have cropped up lately, particularly from indie developers, which signal a small but growing backlash against the hyper-linear, cinematic tales typical of larger game studios. Minecraft’s visual style further separates it from the mainstream; the gameworld and all its inhabitants are rendered in low-fi blocky graphics that provide little in the way of aesthetics, but suit the game’s harvesting-and-building gameplay perfectly.
Recent titles like Thatgamecompany’s flOw and Flower did away with distinct player objectives before Minecraft, but none of its precursors generated the same incredible amount of enthusiasm and sales. Minecraft was originally developed by one person, Marcus “Notch” Persson, and though the game is still in alpha it has already sold over 600,000 copies and has 2 million registered users. In the same way that Apple’s app store allows individuals to make huge profits from simple, cheap apps, Minecraft shows that the future of indie gaming is brighter — and more profitable — than ever.
And yet it’s still odd that Minecraft is so successful — in an age of MMORPGs and socially-focused community gaming, Minecraft encourages players to literally hide in a hole and produce gaming experiences that only belong to them.
I could have sat in my hidey-hole until the end of eternity. I wouldn’t be playing the game wrong if I did that.
My very first project was to develop a massive slip ’n slide cavern using the underground river I discovered. It took me a while to mine the stairs and platforms to the depth necessary for the task, but Minecraft can easily become one of those “just one more X” games that compels players to exhaust themselves physically in pursuit of a digital goal. It wasn’t until I found myself in a deep pit at the bottom of my cave, torches reaching up hundreds of feet above me, that I felt completely isolated in something I had created. It’s a computer game, of course, but no other has made me feel so comfortably alone.