For all that's been written about Minecraft over the past few years, you'd think it was one of the greatest video games ever created. A liberating experience that's showing big-budget game developers what the public really wants and helping revolutionise the way games are developed and sold.
In some ways, it totally is. In others? Eh...
Minecraft is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is just a game. It never was when it launched and it's still not now that it's...launched. It's always been about more than the thing you click on and click on and click on again. It's been about the way it encourages community, gets people talking, sharing and co-operating.
Minecraft has also long been about the scene around the game as much, if not more, than the game itself. About identifying yourself as a Minecraft fan. There are millions of gamers left cold by the increasing trend of publishers to "dumb down" their offerings, to drive them at light speed towards the lowest common denominator. Many of those cling to Minecraft like a drowning man to a plank. And they hang on tight.
I mean, how many single games or franchises get their own conventions? Call of Duty, the world's biggest video game franchise, has one. And Minecraft has one. And...that's about it. How many games have I ever had fans call me at my home to complain I'd used a YouTube video for a story that didn't show the game in the best possible light? There's Minecraft, and Minecraft alone.
All of this makes separating the game from the culture somewhat difficult. Especially since the game is still so crude and so poorly presented it requires you to be part of both.
If I was playing Minecraft by myself, no friends and no help, I'd hate it. For all sorts of reasons. Let's start with how it's almost hostile to the new player. There are no tutorials, no in-game help messages, no prompts offering advice, nothing. You're dropped into the one of the most immense games ever made with absolutely no assistance whatsoever. Where do I start? What do I do? What can I do? I've got no idea, because the game's not telling me.
I don't like how it plays, either. I get that concessions must be made to both keep the game flexible and maintain its simplistic style, but the handling, combat and movement of Minecraft all feel either too floaty, too slippery or both at once. Killing things sucks. Jumping sucks. Swimming, something people in the real world do for fun, is particularly laborious.
Finally, I loathe the new "game" structure that's been added to Minecraft. I know it's optional, but it's partly why the game is so much more expensive now than it used to be, so it's got to be taken into account. Where once the game was about little but wandering around exploring and building stuff - or wandering around with other people building stuff - in recent months updates have added more of a traditional game to Minecraft, including a final "boss".
The amount of work it takes to get to this stage - literally breaking rocks for days, something normally reserved for those who have committed crimes - is mind-boggling, and the payoff negligible. It's totally at odds with the world Minecraft built for itself over its initial, more "open" phase, and it's something that it could have done without.
If all Minecraft involved was downloading a game, booting it up and playing solo, it would be a mind-crushingly empty waste of time. A crude game that did little but spit in your face and laugh at you for not understanding its arcane language while it forced you into virtual manual labour. Lucky for Minecraft, then, that it involves so much more.
The community around Minecraft is half the game and all the fun. By community, I mean not just the people you play with, but those who have devoted their time to filling in the sizeable gaps left by the game's creators in terms of documentation, tips and advice.
In many ways Minecraft's community is like family. You can't choose your family, you're stuck with them, and have to make do and love them for what they are. Minecraft is the same. Because it forces you to get involved with the community, either to get into multiplayer (which usually involves playing by other people's rules) or just to take advantage of crowd-sourced advice, you have to seek them out.
Sure, there are crazies. And assholes. Just like in real families. But there are also, and this is rare on the internet, lots of people with a genuine desire to help out newcomers by telling them how how the game can actually be played, or help them build things (instead of just destroying them), or even just hang out and experiment with...whatever the game allows you to experiment with. Which in many cases is whatever your imagination can come up with.
The first time you enter a multiplayer server and see what people have built, what they've wrought with their bare video game hands out of earth and stone and glass, it almost leaves you speechless. There's a sense of enterprise and teamwork that you just don't find in other games, and it almost entirely wipes away any misgivings you had about the game from your time playing it solo. I mean, what does it matter if swimming feels sticky if you're helping some guys build a replica Death Star out of thin air while wearing Ninja Turtle costumes?
This sense of grand collaboration continues the first time you march off to Google to find out how to craft something or where to find something to craft with. Which normally is within the first five minutes of experiencing the game. The way both the game's wiki (you may as well bookmark it now) and hordes of raspy YouTube tutorials are packed with friendly advice on how to do anything in the game take what would have been hours of wasted blind clicking and turn it into a good old-fashioned learning experience.
Which should suck. Tell me that any other game needs such extra-curricular dedication and I'll tell you it's a game not worth playing, but there's just something disarming about the way Minecraft does it that makes it all OK. Normally looking up a wiki or a FAQ constitutes as a spoiler at best and cheating at worst, but Minecraft feels, intentionally or not, designed to get around this.
Its online support is an enabler. And this is crucial to your enjoyment with the game. When you first boot up the game, you think, shit, I can run around, I can punch trees, then when it gets dark, I die. A lot. But you can tell by the variety of the terrain, the crafting squares sitting empty and the size of your inventory there's so much more to it. So you go consult a beginner's guide, and suddenly realise that what looked like a fun little survival sim is actually an incredibly complex world-building life simulation, in which you can carve the very fabric of the planet into whatever the hell you want it to be. Finding this out isn't a spoiler, or cheating, because there's no story to spoil and no structure to ruin. It's just part of the process, because it doesn't matter if the internet is telling you how to make iron, as once its made you can do whatever the hell you want with it.
And when you realise this, and use those words as tools to build more tools, whoah. The world of Minecraft stops being a blocky landmass hell-bent on your destruction and turns into the biggest LEGO set you've ever had in your life. LEGO, if you remember, is not perfect either. It's lost easily, frustrates often and everything you build ends up blocky and terribly unrealistic. But it seems to do OK regardless.
In fact, it does better than OK, it's one of the most successful toys of all time, and it's the same reason Minecraft has become so wildly popular. Like LEGO it has its problems and limitations, but the flexibility and scale of what's possible with it mean you don't care. You enjoy the promise of what's possible as much as the thing itself.
Not many games get away with the kind of contradiction Minecraft presents. Playing terrible on the one hand but feeling awesome on the other. But not many games are like Minecraft. It does something that's very important to a lot of people, so important that they're willing to put up with its flaws and quirks. And that something is allow freedom. Expression. Creativity. Minecraft gives you the means to truly play a game, to bend it to your whims, and not just press buttons to advance someone else's story.
That freedom is important to me. As much as the game frustrates me with its difficulty, inaccessibility and occasional cruelty, I keep playing it, because the game I'm playing on my own little world is mine and mine alone, and the games I play with other people can be mine, theirs or even entirely and completely ours. In the world of video games in 2011 that's a rare enough thing to persist with, warts and all.