It’s safe to say that Minecraft has become one of biggest gaming phenomenons ever, earning mass cultural significance and merchandising opportunities, all while solidifying Persson’s creative mastery and contributing to the indie game boom of the 2010s, but Minecraft has taught many gamers and developers alike that there are ways to approach game design from other angles and still provide a fulfilling experience. When it comes right down to it, gaming hasn’t had the kind of creative milestone Minecraft has shown in a long time. It uses the gaming medium in groundbreaking ways that no other medium can use; it is a work of art in every sense of the matter.
Minecraft is the brainchild of Markus “Notch” Persson, an independent game developer from Sweden. Persson’s interest in the building elements of games like Infiniminer led him to expand upon the construction pitch of the game and add in expansive exploratory and dungeon-crawling features as well. In 2009, Persson released an alpha version of Minecraft, with an overwhelmingly avid public flocking to see the game. Persson continued to develop the game into beta, with users being frequently updated with new modes, mods and abilities as it developed. Before the game even went gold in March 2012, Minecraft earned over 4 million purchases. It is currently the sixth bets selling PC game of all time with over 33 million copies sold across all platforms (over 12 million of those being on PC alone).
When you first play Minecraft, you’re dropped into a blocky world with barely any direction whatsoever. You can generate tools and gather resources, but you aren’t given any sort of ultimate goal or context as to why you should. You are given the skills, but for no explicit reason. Instinctively, gamers realize that they can create structures which are eventually required to protect themselves from the rampant enemies that appear at night. To build structures (or any item, really), you need resources and you’re driven to “mine” for items like stone, coal and even wood and flowers.
If you’re a gamer and you haven’t read Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal (you might have seen her on The Colbert Report), head on over to Amazon and check it out. It’s a fascinating look into how video games are making the world a better place, but also how we look at games overall. In the first chapter, she illustrates four main components of any game, one of which being the “goal”, that important drive that gives gamers incentive to continue. It’s essential to any kind of game because without it, the game doesn’t have a meaning. It’s generally pointless to play, and therefore, a gamer won’t play.
Now Minecraft has no overarching objective, so it instantly challenges McGonigal’s claim that a goal is required in a game. But actually, Minecraft’s main goal is composed of multiple smaller goals. It doesn’t have a “grand” objective, but it has smaller objectives, little bite-size incentives that replace each other over time and take the role of a larger objective. First you collect resources, then you build a house, then you survive the night, then you wake up and continue, but each with steadier and steadier increases in scope and scale. Even better, there’s no one direction to go. Being able to explore in multiple regions and build whatever you feel is satisfactory is open-ended. You are given tools and no direction, yet you are still creating. You’re making the direction. This is a massive undertaking, one that changes everything that anyone knew about videogames before, and it’s a bigger embodiment of the “sandbox” mentality than Grand Theft Auto has even been.
Think about when you were a youngster and you went to the sandbox at the park. You weren’t told “build a sand castle” by your parents. You had your shovel, bucket and action figures and you did what you wanted. Fundamentally, you had no real goal; the end result was completely secondary to what you were doing to reach it. That’s the idea of a “sandbox” game: you aren’t being told what to do and you can feel free to express yourself creatively. You can break the status quo and go to places that you couldn’t otherwise. It’s not based around how much is given for you to do; it’s based around giving you tools and letting you discover what to do yourself.
The expansive nature of Minecraft’s world is also what contributes to this fully realized sandbox vision. The worlds are virtually infinite (on PC) and provide ample opportunity to adapt and explore multiple biomes and topography. There’s no real reason to go to one area over the other, but players are frequently compelled to do so. It’s an embrace of wanderlust, one that has influenced many other games like the upcoming No Man’s Sky. You have no objective beyond the horizon and there might be seriously dangerous monsters out there. You might not be well-equipped or even supposed to go there at the current equipped state. But you keep going, just to see. Just to explore.
Finally, the construction element is there. Minecraft’s blocky aesthetic has constantly been compared to that of LEGO’s, and really that’s true. In fact, it’s likely that it was intended to be that way. As kids, many of us were fascinated with LEGO’s. Building castles and cars using fundamentally simple components was appealing. Even better, it breathed experimentation. It encouraged trying something new. It fed that feeling of individual creative freedom by allowing us to build something that we wanted. That idea is omnipresent in Minecraft; it’s the crux of the construction element in the game. Simple cubes of dirt, rock or sand can be used to build everything from houses to skyscrapers to sculptures. With a little hard work, you can make your “castle of dreams.” The Creative Mode, with its free movement and ample resources, is the pinnacle of this mentality; you can create what you want. And gamers have. There are hundreds of Minecraft videos online of people building enormous, monolithic structures with the game’s basic building pieces. Minecraft has proven that this idea can be made into something massive; gamers are guaranteed to create something when given the tools to do so.
No game has done what Minecraft has done. No game even remotely associated with the “sandbox” element has realized that truest sense of childlike wonder and exploration that Notch and his friends at Mojang have achieved. They’ve changed how you can approach the fundamental necessities of a game, while fueling a sense of personal freedom that no game has ever reached. It’s clear that Minecraft is a commercial success and a cultural milestone, but if as gamers you look into what Minecraft is and what it does, you realize that it’s not just about goofy blocks of sands, hissing Creepers or that square sun rising over the horizon. Minecraft is a landmark title in games as a whole; it does things that no game before it has achieved, at least not at this level. Making a game a work of art isn’t about flowering up the graphics or enlisting big-name voice talent; it’s about using what you can only do in a game and making something fresh and new. It’s about taking these distinctive qualities of the gaming medium and breaking free of convention. Minecraft does all that. In spades. If we’re to show the world that games can do amazing things, things that film or TV can never hope to ever achieve, Notch’s indie-game-that-could is our best weapon. Plainly and simply, Minecraft is a work of art.