This post isn’t about writing, my books, fantasy books, or books at all. It’s a little about me, but mostly not. It is semi-historical, perhaps a bit informative, but mostly it is a review…but not of a book. In short, this post is something out of left-field. There are two reasons I am writing this post. The first is that it’s the Christmas season and often that means toys, and this post is about a game. The second reason I’m writing this, is that my wife asked me to. Robin feels that if I admit to playing games, it will make me appear more human. Robin is obviously under the impression you all think I’m an alien.
I can guess that many of you are wondering what this is all about, while quite a few others have been nodding at the computer screen since reading the title. Let me explain and to do that we need to go back in time to the era when MTV was as big as Twitter, HBO was brand new, and no one knew if VHS or Beta would win the war.
I got my first computer in 1983. It was a Compaq (because the Apple Macintosh wasn’t invented yet, and thus I was trapped into using Windows machines for the rest of my life) with a floppy drive, separate monitor, and a ruby monochrome screen that ran DOS. I wrote novels on this using SAMNA a now forgotten program that was ahead of its time and so much better than a typewritter. I also played a few computer games, but I cannot stress enough how different computer gaming was back then.
In the early days there weren’t even graphics. Everything was just text. Glowing green or, in my case, orangish text on a black screen. It took years before the most rudimentary images appeared. At first they were flat monochrome. Later they developed color. If you’ve seen the Tom Hanks movie Big, you have an idea what they were like. The game in the movie isn’t real but mimicked games like Ultima and Wizardry. This was the silent movie era of computer gaming. But starting in the 1990s, gaming shifted into high gear and took off. The 1990s became the golden age of computer video games and gave birth to a large number of game developers and publishers such as Activision, EA, Blizzard, and ID.
SimCity was released in 1989. Kings Quest V (with VGA graphics) hit shelves in 1990 ensuring graphic adventures would continue in the golden age. In 1991 came Civilization (perhaps the best game ever invented) and Lemmings. Alone in the Dark was released in 1992 a forefather of survival horror games. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were released in 1993, which while they did not invent the first-person shooter, if you lived back then, you might have thought so. Also in 1993 X-Wing, one of the greatest space combat simulators ever, was released. 1994 saw Warcraft one of the first real-time strategy games, and System Shock. In 1995 came Command and Conquer, and Half-life arrived 1997.
|Game from the movie Big|
What made this the golden age was the speed of technical advancements coupled with game desgin innovations that worked in tandem to drive each other to greater, more creative heights. There were no rules and it was as if there was this primordial soup back then where anything was possible. Every year game designers came out with something totally different. Some were crazy, some silly, some awful, but some were utter genius. God games were breed with real-time strategy to make things like Dungeon Keeper where you got to be the bad guy while a band of heroes tried to invade your dungeon and steal your treasure. And action games mixed with adventure games to create games like Outcast, a mystery, graphic adventure captured in an action strategy environment.
Over time however, the possibilities began to coalesce. Like planets in a new solar system, genres were born. The Puzzle game, the Simulator, the Shooter, the Turn-Based-Strategy game, the Dungeon Crawl, Graphic Adventure, the Real-Time Strategy game, the Role Playing game, and finally the Massive Multiplayer Online game, and the Squad game. Real-time strategy, and shooters dominated in the late nineties, but then the persistent world games like Everquest and later World of Warcraft appeared and a sort of balance was finally reached. Over the course of the next decade, games got prettier as technology continued to allow for better graphics and smoother game play, but the frothy maelstrom of inventiveness cooled.
I think part of this is that in the old days, graphics didn’t matter much. Games were simple. As time moved forward, players expected better graphics and this required artists, time, and lots of capital. One guy in his bedroom couldn’t put out a lush game like what we see today in the form of Skyrim, and simple-looking games could not hope to compete. Games became the territory of corporations, and businesses need to pay the bills. They can’t try crazy stuff because they think it could be really cool. They need to focus on putting out what is proven, and then just incrementally polish that.
This is why I stopped playing computer games back near the end of the 1990s early 2000’s. It was all just the same thing. Either it was a shooter, a RTS, or a treadmill online game, and while they all looked a little better and felt a little tighter, it was the same game I played a hundred times before. Only now they were designed for the largest audience which meant they were, in a sense, dumbed-down—slick, but lifeless.
My favorite games had been Civilization, Half-life (1-2,) Age of Empires, System Shock 2, Outcast, and Everquest. And for more than a decade I never saw anything as good, nothing new that could capture my interest…until now.
When I first played DOOM, it was revolutionary. I was amazed at the game play, and yet it always felt like only part of a game, like a chase scene is part of a movie. Sure it was exciting, but it needed context. And even as I played it, I imagined how it could be great if only they added a story, a goal beyond survival, one that was integrated into the game rather than revealed in cut scenes. Id came out with DOOM II and later Quake, but they never did what I wanted. Then Valve came along and made Half-life. It was a huge hit and exactly what I’d hoped for.
I had the same thoughts when playing Everquest. I wanted to get rid of the treadmill, and be able to permanently change that world. I wanted to be able to cut down a tree, use its wood to make planks and then build a house of my own design. Strip back the grass and plant crops, raise farm animals. Build a wall to defend my land, create my own roads, bridges. I wanted eating and drinking to be required to survive. I wanted to suffer from the elements and freeze if I didn’t have warm clothes, or couldn’t start a fire in winter. I wanted to die of thirst in a desert if I did not have enough to drink, or was stupid enough to wear steel armor. That never happened in the MMOs. And as they advanced they offered less rather than more—less freedom.
That was always the problem. From the very start most all of these games were long corridors that you, as the player, were forced to walk down. There was no turning from the path set before you. Occasionally a game like Elder Scrolls pretended to provide freedom by including tons of repetitive villages and repetitive side-quests that let you deviate from the main storyline. And some allowed for multiple endings, two or three if you were lucky. But the games still locked you in, a prisoner forced to play how they wanted.
With multi-play games that problem was helped as the games became merely settings where live opponents came to compete, but that did nothing to benefit those who weren’t onto competing, those who enjoyed exploring, creating, and more contemplative games. Each year offerings sported slicker, more photo-realistic graphics like in this year’s Skyrim, (which looks beautiful) but it is still the same old game.( I have to admit I have not yet tried Skyrim, though I have watched my son play it.)
I had all but given up, believing that since corporations were in charge nothing revolutionary would happen. Then a year ago my son was in the car with me. We were driving a friend of his home and on the way they were talking.
“I went to sleep in my own house and I was killed,” my son’s friend said. That right there will catch your attention.
“You had a door right? And it was closed?” My son asked.
“Did you have torches? You have to make a small room and put your bed in it then circle it in torches or they find you.”
They? I thought. This wasn’t the typical teenage conversation and it caught my attention. When I inquired what the heck they were talking about, my son explained it was a new game he had downloaded called Minecraft. When we got home my son showed it to me.
I think I might have actually laughed at the pathetic graphics. It was all blocky and crude. There was no detail, and it had none of the lovely atmosphere and realism of the newer games. It looked like a children’s cartoon where people had square heads and dots for eyes. Then he showed me how it was played and I stopped laughing.
This was it. This was something different.
It wasn’t made by a corporation, which explained the graphics. Minecraft is an indie computer game originally written in java by its single creator, Markus Persson, or “Notch” as he is known. It is what’s called a sandbox game, in that there is no point to it—no goal, no finish line, no levels to achieve, no classes, skills or races, no opponent to beat—anymore than there is a point to playing in a sandbox. For the most part you make your own fun, which might seem a cop-out on the part of the game designer...until you try it.
|Player made castle in Minecraft|
The thing with Minecraft is that you exist in a world that is completely transfigurable . You can dig a hole in the ground and use that dirt to build a wall. You can cut down a tree, turn the wood into lumber to make a house, or tools like a hoe that you can use to clear land and plant seeds. You can divert rivers, set trees on fire, create stoves. You can kill pigs then cook pork chops in that stove you made or smelt iron ingots from iron ore and use that to make armor or tools. You can even create rudimentary electrical circuits to power devices. You can, in fact, virtually do anything you want and the world works in a very logical manner. Put sand in a hot stove and you will get glass. Jump off a cliff and you will die. And you have to eat, or you will also likely die. It is good that things are sensible because the game has no directions—no manual. You have to figure everything out, or go online to do research, which surprisingly, is part of the fun. Although, honestly, it is best to watch an introduction video or better yet, have someone show you the game as this is not WoW, and Notch doesn’t hold your hand at all.
|Nature in Minecraft|
This is gaming the way it used to be when people of vision and little money took crazy chances to make things that made you forget the crappy graphics because you were having too much fun playing the game. And actually, after just a little while, you imagine the graphics as being oddly beautiful. Minecraft is a throwback to the golden age of gaming, an Indian summer popping up in the 2010s.
There is one more thing, and this is where the spice comes in. In this world of Minecraft, there are days and nights. This cycle works just like it does in the real world except that a day lasts only ten minutes, thankfully so does the night, because at night, monsters come out. They come in a variety of types. Zombies, skeletons (who use bows and arrows,) spiders that can climb walls, Creepers that have a nasty tendency to sneak up behind people and explode. Most monsters catch fire in sunlight like a Buffy vampire, but not all, and the challenge of the game is to create a defense against the night. So as the game begins you are Charleston Heston in Omega Man and have ten minutes to build yourself an adequate shelter before night falls. After that you’ll be left blind and defenseless in the darkness as monsters roam the world. This is no easy feat for the newbie, as just learning how to gather resources, make simple tools, and construct a hut can take more than ten minutes.
|Award Winner player made building|
The best materials like iron, red stone and diamond are found by digging down into the earth, but underground it is dark, and in the dark, the monsters live. Sometimes you stumble on monster’s lairs where if you kill them you can take their horde for your own. There are also abandoned mine shafts alternate dimensions like the Nether and the End, and special hidden strongholds which can be found by creating Eyes of Ender, letting them fly and following them.
|Player built mine?|
So adventuring and exploring are important parts of the game, but an equal, and perhaps greater part is creating—building homes, farms, towers, villages even whole cities. It is as if you were dropped on a new planet all alone and had to learn how to survive. The game is at its most entertaining when you are trying to do a simple thing. You want to add something to your house, you need a to make a tool to do it, to make the tool you need to get a mineral that is found underground.
You dig and find an abandoned mine. You’re curious so you explore—just a little, then you fall. You plummet four stories. You’re still alive, but you’re in the dark and only have a couple torches. You only have a stone sword and not much food because you never expected to be trapped in a mineshaft. The adventure you go through just trying to get home is epic. You have to fight through nests of posion spiders, figure out how to build a stairway up. You get lost but discover a random chest with some food to keep you alive and steel to make a better sword. You fight zombies and skeleton, and it is a heartpounding thrill ride, but perhaps the best part is that you know this isn’t scripted. This isn’t some preordained plot. This is all just the result of an accident—your own foolishness, and that makes the game more real than the most photorealistic graphics ever could.
The game can be played singularly, or on a server with others. I visited one where the players had created an entire working city with skyscrapers, paved streets with signs, banks and libraries. Others have wars where people create armor and swords (or in some cases guns,) and attack each other. And as the game has an endless supply of randomly generated worlds, and as each world is infinite (you can just keep walking and it will just keep getting bigger,) so there is plenty of replay value.
|The kind of city people make on multiplayer servers|
I started playing a year ago when the game was in beta. This past November the game was officially released. So besides distracting me from writing, and proving, as my wife wanted, that I am human with other interests, why mention this here? There’s a certain kinship factor. Minecraft is an indie produced game—self published if you will. Persson made it himself and it caught on. With no publisher and no commercial advertising or backing, he sold the alpha and beta versions of his game by word-of-mouth and (at this time) he’s sold around 4 million copies. This has allowed him to start his own gaming company while he continues to refine and add to the feature set of Minecraft.
So, in return for providing me with something new that I can talk with my teenage son about, I felt Notch deserved a plug, even though his audience is way bigger than mine.
At present, my son, his friends, Robin and I all play together on my own server. At least I know where my son is on a Saturday night, and exactly the kind of monsters he’s likely to meet. He also has dreams of being an architect and I can think of no better past time for that.
So if you’re looking for that last minute Christmas gift that someone will smirk at, roll their eyes and say, “Are you kidding?” and then disappear playing for years to come. You can buy a gift code for Minecraft for $27, and they can download the game Christmas morning (which usually takes five minutes.) Setting up your own server so you can play together can be a herculean odyssey, but that too is part of what the golden age of gaming was all about.