Monday, October 18, 2010

How Minecraft Saved My Life

This was originally titled "How Minecraft Almost Ruined My Life." By the time I was done writing it, I felt differently. The title was accordingly changed.

One night, what I thought was a a double date ended up as a free for all for the only single girl in attendance. If you've seen the Discovery Channel in one of the rare moments when they're showing nature footage instead of Dirty Crab Boat Myths, it was like watching moose bang their stupid heads together during mating season. I finally gave up and went home, nothing to show for my troubles but a headache.

Faced with crushing disappointment, I retreated to a more comfortable emotional place. In this case I returned to my constant love, the one woman who had never betrayed me, Madame Video Games. I'd played all the video games I owned ad nauseam, and my netbook limits my selection. Thankfully, Penny Arcade recently did a two part comic about Minecraft.

"I don't have any of my own ideas," I thought. "I'll do what they tell me!"

Minecraft, which I got for free because all the Penny Arcade fans crashed the server, is like Dwarf Fortress, Legend of Zelda, and a Lego set made sloppy love and birthed a child. It's a sandbox game, which means you set your own goals and it's only over when you're bored.

You play a three block high avatar with ten heart containers and an inventory. You start off naked and penniless, a punch your only way to interact with the world; in other words, like Mike Tyson waking up on a Saturday night.

I decided I'd give Mincecraft a chance, see what there was to see. If I died - I laugh now at my naivete - I would start over as a new incarnation of the same person. What follows is my journey through sleeplessness, addiction, obsession, delusion, and the neverending quest to find some iron ore.

(Seriously, where the hell is all the iron ore?)

I woke up on the beach. The sun was bright above me, and the waves in no way lapped the shore. Right off I could tell there was something seriously wrong with the way water worked in this universe.

I punched the beach, the earth, a tree, even a pig that dared come near me. This was the first and simplest amusement, like running over pedestrians in GTA.

Growing tired of my endless punchery, I decided to get down to business with a great big fuck-all-Middle-Earth-a-wizard-lives-here tower. Night fell, however, and I couldn't work in the dark. While I was figuring out what to do next, I noticed a spider approaching me. Although the graphics are charmingly blocky, I could see the menace in the thing's glowing red eyes.

In real life, I catch spiders, identify them, and release them outside. But in Minecraft?

It was on like Donkey Kong.

I should note that, at the start of most games, you stand a decent chance of killing a monster. Ever barehanded, it's not a steep difficulty curve. Game developers ease you into replaying the same level twelve times, cursing and banging your head on the keyboard as you go. Minecraft bucks this trend.

Punching the spider with my cubed fist of fury only made it angry. It leapt at my face, and my heart containers rapidly emptied. I panicked and tried to run, but it was much faster. So much faster. In the space of a few seconds, the spider had done a murder on me.

My first incarnation taught me a hard lesson, and that lesson was that everything could kill me.

the last thing I ever saw

The mainland was clearly not for me, so I set out for a remote island at the start of my second incarnation. I spent some time building up sand walls, and added cacti on top for je ne sais quoi. I should have made my walls out of stone, but I was shaky on the stone gathering process - every stone block I punched to death yielded naught but frustration.

Nevertheless, these sand walls were a mighty bulwark against the spider invasion fleet which I feared would come for me in the night.

Speaking of, night in Minecraft is dark; it's not movie dark, lit by a strange blue glow, but real life dark.

like this

I knew I needed coal for torches, but couldn't find a seam. As a result, I fell into holes in the sand I dug in the light, simply because I couldn't see them. You can suffocate if you're buried by enough sand, and I'm amazed that I didn't.

I kept working, though - Cacti Castle needed to be ready for the arachnid advent. Each morning I'd swim to the mainland, punching trees and animals till I had lumber and leather a-plenty; each sunset I'd frantically swim back, terrified the spiders were already on their way.

One day I found a cave under my island. Previous games had taught me caves were full of treasure and wonders without cease. Could there be coal inside, such that my endless nights of hiding in sand holes would be over? Without another thought I leapt into the darkness.

I landed, taking damage. I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, then my other hearts were drained four at a time. I don't know what killed me, but it was good at it. In the end, I wasn't surprised that I built Cacti Catle atop the Cave of Nasty Death.

looks fine to me, let's start building!

As neither the mainland or the islands proved a suitable habitation, my remaining options were to live in the air or the water. Gameplay mechanics prevented me from doing either, so in my third incarnation I went back to the dream of a tower.

Fortunately I had done some reading up on Minecraft in the bleary day that followed lives one and two. I yielded no workable stone because I wasn't using a pickaxe, and trees weren't supposed to take so long to be felled. Turns out there were specialty tools for all the jobs. In short, I was trying to make breakfast by punching a waffle maker and some eggs.

"Armed with this new knowledge, I will win!" I declared. "You might have endless monsters and treacherous physics, Minecraft, but I'm a man! I walk on my own two feet! Wait, do I have feet?" 


they're just little stub things
With my new implements I dug earth, worked stone, chopped trees, and made wondrous items. Soon I had a respectable house with a crafting bench, a furnace, and a chest to store my sundries.

I built level after level on the house till it was an impressive tower stretching to the sky. Rich seams of coal had given me fuel for torches, and my nights were no longer a bleak nightscape. I saw the enemy mobs in the distance - skeletons, zombies, the hated spiders - but knew they couldn't harm me.

I was invincible!

...and that's when my computer crashed.

When I do anything graphically intensive (like watching movies, or saying "Photoshop" in a loud voice) with my netbook, there's a chance it will shit itself and completely lock up. The only way to get it to restart is to pull the power cable and the battery. I know it's my own fault for treating it like a desktop replacement, but it's never been a problem before.
One battery removal later, the true horror of my situation hit me.

If a PC shuts down due to power loss - say, from an outage, or a system crash - the game world disappears. There are some devil tricks on the interwebs for bringing it back, but they're iffy at best.

I'd really like to show you my tower, but I can't; all the hours I spent planning, crafting, building, and mining are gone.

Something happened after the crash.

Maybe a transfer took place when I slipped the battery from its housing; maybe the electric current that passed through me resulted in a metaphysical exchange, and Minecraft became aware of me as I was aware of it.

Then again, maybe it was the sleep deprivation. I was playing Minecraft until the single digits of the AM, working my first shift job, and subsisting mainly on E.L. Fudge striped cookies and junk food from the gas station. Notes I took in a meeting were peppered with obscure references to Minecraft, like "5x5, 2 deep no sand" and "moat/bridge - possible?"

Regardless of the why, the subsequent incarnations of my blockmen seemed alive all on their own. I watched their lives as an observer, rather than a director, and what I saw disturbed me.

Four was a wild eyed thing, alternating between bursts of energy and a sullen torpor.

It was understandable, considering how his previous life ended; I imagine it was like the sky opening up, issuing forth strange music and new colors, and then it all going black with a rent like a demon's scream.

Brooding and cheerless, Four decided he would enact revenge on the world that had scourged him with dissolution. He set to work with a crazed gleam in his eye, frantically tearing into the landscape with his fists; all our hard earned knowledge of tools was discarded in favor of rapid progress.

Four placed a block of dirt and jumped on top of it. Jumping again, he placed another on top of that. He did this with block after block. At last, he could go no further up; he stood atop a tower of dirt, erected like a middle finger pointed at all creation.

Four rested briefly at the ceiling of his world. He had never tasted this before, the air above the clouds. Below, the ground was a hazy dimness.

The view was breathtaking, but he hadn't built his tower for sight seeing. With one last glare at the horizon, he jumped. He fell like a meteor of solid fury, three blocks high, fist furiously punching the ever nearing ground like it was the face of the God who despised him.

The fall resonated in Five's mind. He immediately began a determined descent with a crude wooden pickaxe, his face as stony as the blocks he hewed from the earth.

Because of the way physics works (or doesn't) in Minecraft, each block removed was a gamble; it was entirely possible he would tunnel through a magic, floating block and fall once more to his death. Undaunted by this prospect, Five dug. He paused only to set torches in the walls and replace the tools he shattered in his quest.

When the light of day was no more than a distant gleam above, and eclipsed by that of far nearer torches, he hit a vein of strange rocks.

It was black and white and grey, like veined marble, and would yield to none of his tools, even those of iron. He had heard of this rock referred to in legends as "adminium." He knew it marked the furthest depths of the world as sure as the invisible wall of force marked the apex.

"No!" he cried. Five's one goal, his impetus, his single passion, was rudely checked. This was unacceptable. His roar of frustrated rage echoed in the small cavern. Like an animal rooting in the ground, he dug around the adminium this way and that, crossways and contrariwise. He ignored diamonds and gold, discarding them like dross.

Finally, he found something new: a hole in the world.

He gazed into the absence in the floor; beyond was nothing he could comprehend, an out of context problem. "Here be dragons," he thought. Selecting a worn pick axe, he walked to the edge of the abyss.

He jumped.

Whatever waited beyond the hole in the world must have been horrifying. This incarnation awoke, turned his face towards the endless blue of the ocean, and walked without hesitation into the waves.

Water wasn't enough to wash away the nightmares, however, and Seven was clearly still affected by it all. More than anything else, he loved the animals. He especially loved the sheeps, and petted them over and over again.

The coming of the night spooked Seven. When his screams couldn't bring the sun back, he dug a hidey hole in the ground. In the course of digging he fell into a natural cave, landing painfully on the cavern's floor. After he had finished crying over his empty heart containers, he began to explore.

Seven paused to listen every few steps, eyes wide. When he noticed the cave was mysteriously lighter ahead, he gave a happy hoot of surprise - he had found where the Sun was hiding!

He cautiously turned a corner and found a wall of light, falling from a crack in the ceiling.

Seven clapped his hands and jumped up and down; he had never seen solid light before, not even in the fuzzy memories he sometimes had of falling and dark water.

He crept closer to the light, feeling the immense heat on his face, the cave pulsing red and bright orange. He thought he saw something under the surface, if only he could grab it...

Having climbed the highest heights, plumbed the deepest depths, and fallen like Gandalf through fire and water, there was little for Eight to do but walk the world. When darkness fell he wandered still, empty handed yet unafraid.

It wasn't until the first spider appeared that he snapped.

Recalling some dim memory, a scream poured from his mouth. He charged the black bulk of the thing, punching three blocks of sand from the beach on his way. He jumped, erecting a crude tower two blocks high, and began to swing with the third block. Within a minute the confrontation was finished, a flawless victory over the spider.

A grim smile on his face, he threw the sand down and jumped from his murder tower to claim a trophy of string. No sooner had he done so, than he saw a green thing coming for him, crawling around on four stubby legs. He tore the ground up in his fury, roaring defiance at it. Up went the tower and down came the blows.

The creeper began to flash white, and he heard the tell tale hiss of a rapidly burning fuse. He knew what was coming but didn't flinch. "Do it! I want you to do it!" he screamed. The creeper's next jump brought it to eye level, and it exploded with the force of TNT right in his face.

The detonation left a crater, a crater he observed with three and a half remaining hearts. "I'm...I'm still here," he said in quavering voice. "I'm still here!" he shouted, laughing.

"I'm still here!" I said, with a mouth ringed by cookie crumbs in the silence one expects at 3AM.

Something about surviving that explosion had brought me back to myself; I realized I was playing a game, not the other way around. That week I'd spent more time in the world of Minecraft than I had sleeping, and even in my scarce dreams I'd seen a world of cubes.

Even so, for the first time since that awful, awful not-date, I felt like a person.

I had learned that life, like Minecraft, wasn't about winning, but about resilency in the face of repeat failure; about being comfortable that you could never shape the world to look like how you imagined it; it was about getting up and doing the next thing when all you wanted was to lay in the dirt until the monsters came to put you out of your misery.

Taking my cue from the square sun, I rose. I headed into the nearby forest, stared solemnly at a tree, and felt a smile on my face. I punched it for all I was worth.

Life never stops; we shouldn't either.


  1. your char is only TWO blocks high. thats why i did in 2x2 tunnels.

    3 would be a major PITA.

    But a good read anyway. i Lol'd at the saying photoshop thing.

  2. Nice story, really grabs the reader.

  3. That was enlightening. I've decided to play some more Minecraft. Thank you for this inspiration to build and run away from skeletons.

    I shall end the renewal of my life now.

  4. TWO blocks high, I should have known! I fit through tunnels that were two blocks high, but I thought, "Head, torso, legs - that's three blocks, right? Right?"

    Skeletons...the game would almost be easy if not for the damned skeletons and their eerie accuracy.

    Thanks for the positive comments! Remember - all forward motion counts, even if it's forward motion into a cave system you're building.

  5. your char is only TWO blocks high. thats why i did in 2x2 tunnels. He's actually around 1.7 blocks high.

  6. Which netbook do you own and able to play Minecraft on? Been trying to find one for a while.

  7. My netbook is an MSI Wind to which I've added 1GB of RAM. It runs Minecraft with minimal settings but I can always tell when the day/night transition is happening because the framerate drops.

    I'd bet it'd run even better if I replaced the hard drive with a solid state drive.

  8. I found that water helps with Skeletons. They have a hard time hitting you when their arrows are slowed to a standstill by the much denser water.

    Also, your netbook would probably run better, but I doubt you'd get a serious boost out of just that. Minecraft, to my knowledge, does most of its work in RAM, so the only boosts you'd get there are initial loading and saving.

    What you really need is a proper graphics card.

  9. Your advice will not only prove useful in Minecraft, but also in forestalling the siege of my house by the Skull Legion.

    Someday I'd like to build myself a proper desktop; on the day of money from the sky, I will.

  10. So ... I was googling skull island (The 8th picture on this page) as inspiration as what my next monecraft base would look like. Total coincidence. I saw the picture, clicked on it which led me to this blog. I enjoyed it :D. You have a .. interesting writing style which I wish to have !

    Anyways thanks and bye, i may check back tommorow or in a few days for a reply :)

  11. Thanks for visiting, and thanks for the compliment!

    Wish I was cool enough to *build* Skull Island instead of just discovering the secret of the messy death that laid at its center!

  12. You are right .
    all the things you said at the end .
    I know what you mean , strange , how a sandbox game can pull so many words from your mind.