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Punch Wood

25 Jan

Imagine you find yourself awakening on an unfamiliar beach, blinking your bleary eyes at the glare of a rapidly rising sun. Before you is a seemingly endless ocean of clear blue water. Turning around, you see a strange and beautiful landscape of snowy pine forests, towering mountain ranges, rolling green hills, and expansive deserts, all adjacent to one another like a patchwork quilt. There are no obvious, immediate signs of civilization, no visible inhabitants save for a few bleating sheep and a couple of pigs meandering lazily along the terrain. You are lost, quite possibly stranded, and find yourself in a survival situation. Eventually, you’ll signal for help or find a way back to humanity, but for now you’ve got to worry about satisfying your most basic needs. What do you do first?

Well, if you’re playing Minecraft, you walk up to a tree and punch it with your bare fist until it coughs up a log.

Created independently by Markus “Notch” Persson in 2009, Minecraft is a game that is about playing. It’s simple enough for first-timers to quickly get the hang of, but complex enough to entertain and engross gaming veterans. The gameplay is basically as described above: you are deposited in a randomly-generated, nearly infinite world where you must survive. You begin by making rudimentary tools of wood, then use those tools to gather stone for an arsenal upgrade. After a little while, night will fall, and then it’s time to make a shelter because things come out in the dark.

Bad things.

Unspeakable things.

Namely, creatures that will be hostile and try to kill you. Should you be caught outside after the sun goes down, you’ll contend with lumbering zombies, precise skeleton archers, and exploding sneak artists known as Creepers. If you make it through that first night, then you’ll be in a good position to establish yourself and bolster your position in the coming days: expanding and securing your abode, gathering resources and mining precious ores, perhaps starting a farm with those two pigs you spotted when you first…arrived. With industriousness and a little luck, you can build your mud hut into an impenetrable kingdom, well-stocked with food and materials fit for a king. And you’ve done it. You’ve won the game.

Or perhaps you grow bored with living alone in your respectable but uninhabited kingdom and decide to strike out into the world. You explore your surroundings and find a land carved by winding rivers and impossibly deep ravines, where minerals are so abundant that great veins glint in the noonday sun. You must have them, so carefully you descend into the cavern and begin extracting precious metals while angry monsters swarm around you. Deftly, you murder them all, gaining experience points in the process which you then use to enchant your weapons for improved effectiveness. You are now this world’s mightiest warrior. Creatures tremble at your approach and the very land before you succumbs to your every desire. You are at the apex, having achieved as much power as reasonably possible, and now you have finally won the game.

Or perhaps you are bored with the reality as presented before you, and you decide to see what other dimensions have to offer. Carefully arranging the proper materials, you are able to build a portal to a fiery hell world known as the Nether, a world of eternal night, lit largely by treacherous seas of lava that fill nearly every available space. You’re beset by new species of monster: zombie Pig-Men that wander aimlessly with their golden swords unsheathed, gigantic floating Ghasts that emit sickening whines and shoot fireballs in your general direction. You discover a pitch black fortress made of unfamiliar materials, and from it you’re able to gather unusual resources that bestow new abilities when taken back to the normal Minecraft world. Using your newly-found resources, you craft new items and, eventually, potions that impart incredible powers. You are now a superhero, limited only by the number of buffs you can create. Without a weapon, you are the most formidable being in existence, and after repeated trips to the Nether, you’re able to dominate that dimension as well. You are now a denizen of two distinct worlds, master of both, lord of all you survey. Surely, nothing more can be accomplished. You must have won the game.

But there is yet more gameplay, including dominating stronghold fortresses buried beneath the ground, the discovery of a weird fungal landmass where cows grow mushrooms on their backs and give mushroom stew instead of milk, and yet another dimension to reach where you will have to slay a constantly regenerating dragon. And even then, you aren’t really done. You can continue to mine and build and fight to your heart’s content, alone or with friends on shared servers, either with the original “vanilla” game, or using any one of dozens of modifications that affect the game in a variety of ways. You can even create your own custom maps utilizing the same simple tools needed for regular play. As a result, the modding and custom map community for Minecraft is an entity all its own, propelling the simply complicated oxymoron that is Minecraft into ever-expanding–and possibly endless–territories. Much like the randomly-generated Minecraft world in which you spawn, every game is different, and every person plays in their own way.

It sounds like I’m gushing over the game, and truthfully, I am. There’s so much more that I could say about the Minecraft, but there’s no point when you can go and experience it for yourself right now. Go ahead. There’s a Java version right on the website you can tool around to get a feel for the game. It’s the merest glimpse of what Minecraft has to offer, so beware: it may whet your appetite for conquering dungeons and killing dragons. However, many before have fallen to lesser pursuits. Punch some wood.

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