Tag Archives: minecraft

Punch Wood: Mods and Rockers

16 Oct

There was a game for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System called Wizards and Warriors. It was a decent side-scrolling platforming game, where you played a knight (the titular warrior, I suppose) who jumped around slaying monsters and ultimately, perhaps–it’s been a long time since I played the game–a wizard. Along the way, you could gather power-ups to enhance your character, like a temporary high jump to get over obstacles, or the ability to fire bolts from your steely lance. There was one power-up, the Cloak of Invisibility, which was the most useless extra, to the detriment of gameplay. The problem was that the cloak didn’t merely make you invisible to enemies, but to your own eyes, so you’d invariably steer your sprite into a bottomless chasm or jutting spikes or some other hazard. Anyone who’s played the game will tell you they got this power-up a few times, then passed over it like poison for every subsequent playing. “Why did they put this shit in the game?” I remember thinking, “Someone should tweak the code to make it work.”

I had neither the experience or the gumption to do this myself, but eventually there would be a big community of people who modify video games, or “modders.” They make “mods,” which can be anything from extra levels in a classic Super Mario Bros. game to new items and types of gameplay for newer titles. Many video game developers release a tweakable version of their proprietary code, allowing independent fans to create new quests and textures, extending the shelf life of some games far beyond the fifty or so hours provided upon purchase. It’s happening with a lot of titles these days, but I don’t think it’s as ubiquitous and pervasive as with the game Minecraft. There are mods to adjust the basic performance of the game, and mods that completely change the entire gameplay. No longer can you necessarily mine and craft, instead you will survive and fight hordes of speedy zombies and other players while looting abandoned towns and military encampments. There are so many mods, from the ludicrous mods that add blocks made of shit, to amazingly complicated mods that allow you to set up entire rock quarries and create solar batteries for your jet pack.

It’s a curious business model, to create a framework and allow users to change their experience as they see fit. Imagine you went to see a movie in the theater, but were able to change the level of violence within to suit your tastes. Or picture yourself reading a mystery novel and you’re able to change the ending per your findings throughout the text. That’s sort of like what’s happening with Minecraft, though I suppose since it doesn’t offer a linear story with limited options, adding various “to do lists” to the mix makes good sense. Without any mods, what you’ll do for the most part in Minecraft is mine, smelt, and build, with a little hacking of archer skeletons and occasional forays into the Hell dimension for potion ingredients. The addition of a mod or two can increase the number and type of creatures that spawn around the land, or add new weapons, or change your avatar so that it looks like a character from the My Little Pony cartoon. Yes, I’m serious.

The Minecraft modding community is part of what makes the game’s fanbase so rabid and growing exponentially. By rights, popularity for a game which mostly entails wandering around empty spaces should have petered out a long time ago. But as long as people are still interested to mod this game as they see fit, interest will be generated among veterans and new players alike. With mods, the game that is all things to all people can truly have something for everyone, possibly even those who didn’t think they liked to play video games at all.

Get Minecraft and see for yourself at minecraft.net!

Punch Wood: It’s a Family Affair

16 Feb

My family never had a Game Night. We hung around with each other at times, and I certainly played games with my dad–Mille Bornes was one of his favorites–but we didn’t sit around as a family to roll dice against a piece of cardboard once a week. I think the main reason we didn’t do this is because board games suck. This fact can be applied to all board games, without exception, and any person who postulates otherwise is possibly suffering from a mild hysterical delusion. Board games are “fun” when pitted against “sitting in a room of uncomfortable silence;” if the latter is a likely option, only then does playing a board game seem like an attractive alternative. But anything else is better than playing a board game, down to arguing with loved ones about politics and scrapbooking. You might actually take away some memories, bad or good, from scrapbooking with your mother and Aunt Matilda. You’ll never remember a solitary thing you did while playing a stupid board game.

However it’s also true that I was not instilled with much familial “team spirit.”. We didn’t have a goofy sign with our surname outside the house, we took no yearly Christmas photos of us in a huddle dressed like a group of used car salespeople. I was given the option to join every manner of extracurricular activity: Cub Scouts, Little League, after school art programs–but unlike many of my peers, it was my option to do these things, they weren’t forced upon me as requisites. Given the choice, I opted out, and there was never any fighting or further discussion about it. I was happy to read and draw and concoct my version of the world within the angular walls of my attic bedroom. I don’t think it’s for me to say whether mine is an enviable or regrettable way to have grown up, but I don’t feel in the least bit angry or bitter about having missed the camaraderie of playing sports I don’t enjoy with kids I regarded suspiciously. My eschewing of team experiences were just some of the lustrous fibers that wove themselves into the wonderful, loveable tapestry that I am today. Don’t cry for me, Auburndale Soccer League.

I am aware that Family Game Night is an institution in many homes across America, one begrudgingly attended by teenagers who then turn around and foist it upon their own children, perpetuating a cycle that allows the board game industry to exist. One pitfall of playing these games is that the learning curves are so steep: games appropriate for all ages are often suitable only for infants and morons, while more adult fare like Pornographic Pictionary is too ribald for pre-pubescent family members to appreciate. Today, many Family Game Nights involve playing video games, often computer graphic-interpreted versions of popular board games which have the same inane pitfalls as their cardboard counterparts. Most other video games are either a non-stop bloody sex carnage, or involve repeatedly bouncing a pink bubble from one rainbow cloud to another while an anthropomorphized woodchuck cheers you on in Japanese. Enter Minecraft, a game that is simple and pleasant enough for small children to play, but also entices older players with action and challenges. And perhaps playing Minecraft is a better pursuit than racing your plastic token around a crummy picture against other members of your own family, because success in multi-player Minecraft involves teamwork.

I don’t mean to sugar-coat it and imply that playing Minecraft is primarily a team-based effort. You can certainly play it quite happily all on your own, and you can also spend time on servers slicing other players to ribbons with your pixelated sword (though you must then watch your back once your target respawns). I furthermore don’t intend to imply that Minecraft is the only or even best co-operative video game: many team-based first-person shooters require precise, military-style group maneuvers to effectively extract a maximum number of bloody deaths from the opposing team. But Minecraft seems to be an equalizer, a compromise between the many different wants and needs of a family unit. Watching families play Minecraft on YouTube, you see how easily each member falls into their supportive roles, depending on their proclivities: one person might spend tireless hours gathering resources (like the interminably boring job of chopping wood and replanting saplings) while another concentrates on constructing a sturdy home and establishing an animal farm. Even the hormone-addled teenager can satisfy his wanderlust and carouse the countryside defeating monsters, only to return and use his valuable experience points to enchant tools for the rest of his clan. Or, more than likely, get blown up by a Creeper and be respawned back at the family’s virtual stead anyway. Now there’s one way to make sure your kid is home on time.

One of my favorite things about families playing Minecraft is how variance in levels of immersion from each player can still result in a productive afternoon of playing games. When a family plays Monopoly, it’s usually one person who cares about playing and winning the game, and a bunch of other people who half-heartedly push their top hat or terrier around the board until the one person actually engaging with the game wins. In Minecraft, one member of the family can be very pro-active in killing zombies and collecting iron, while other members lazily tend to their wheat farms and home decoration, and at the end of a session everyone will have something to show for it. Most of all, they have the collective experience of having created something together, existing in an equalized playing field where the youngest member can defeat the meanest monsters. Mom and dad don’t have to worry about providing for the family in Minecraft, they can let the kids distill watermelon into life-giving potions while the adults go off on a journey to punch sheep. When the goals aren’t explicitly defined, the only thing left to do is have fun.

Or be bored out of your mind. I won’t pretend that Minecraft doesn’t have its limitations, but with a long list of potential activities and ever-expanding and updated software being provided by Mojang, Ltd., not to mention all the mods available for the game, you could play for a long time before it truly gets redundant. The virtual world is also a good place to commune over family issues that might be too touchy or painful to deal with in real life, as evidenced by the above video. Luclin at Minecraft Workbench produced this episode as a memorial to his son, Devlin, and it features the construction of a virtual remembrance while the family recalls memories of their lost member. Sure, that could–and almost certainly did–happen in the real world, where there would be real tears, real hugs, real warmth. But mourning on a Minecraft server carries different implications, a sharing of thoughts and words, the collective creation of something unique and wholly from one’s mind. A little easier on the old heartstrings, I think. For someone raised without a Family Game Night, and therefore is emotionally detached from everyone, it speaks to me as a good alternative to sobbing over a casket.

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.

The Joystick is Broken: Well Met On the Ethereal Battlefield

2 Jan

When I was young, I had an idea for a video game: rendered in first-person, three-dimensional perspective, the player controlled a character that was essentially me. You’d wake up in a computer-generated version of my bedroom, walk down some polygons rendered as stairs, and enter the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal. You’d be able to interact with everything; theoretically you could make yourself lobster thermidor, if the ingredients were to hand, but doing so might preclude you from performing other tasks that morning. Ultimately, you’d get dressed, leave the house, and attend a full day of school, just as I might on an average weekday. You could interact with every character in complex ways and the object would be simply to live in a virtual reality with no fantastical elements, except for the amazing and likely impossible amount of video game coding required. I think this says two things about me: for one thing, I would make a really shitty video game developer. But it also implies that I was open to living on a non-physical plane, to commune with the same friends, acquaintances, and strangers I regularly encountered without having to smell them. Somehow, even in the days of 8-bit Nintendo sprites and 14.4 baud modems, I knew that this dream of a mundane online existence was a distinct possibility–perhaps an inevitability, considering how much more I enjoyed playing Golgo 13 than I did cleaning my room. I’m sure if I could have just dragged and dropped all offensive bedroom articles into an iconic trash can where they would magically disappear, I’d have been more likely to perform the chore.

Every advance in communication has made the world more accessible, and perhaps perceived a little bit smaller. Telephones made it possible to speak to anyone in the world in real time, television made it possible to see each other. Interacting online is the most complete form of transferring information yet, a stopgap solution before pure teleportation. We can see and speak to each other simultaneously over the internet, collude on projects and build on collective ideas, even remotely control devices and actuated machinery to create objects from halfway around the globe. We receive breaking news from Libya while simultaneously communicating with our own elected representatives in immediate, electronic fashions. It seems like almost anything can be accomplished while navigating the world wide web, and the possibilities are rarely exemplified as well as when people play video games online.

I don’t have any extended personal experience in playing video games online, but I am fascinated by its implications. Hundreds and even thousands of people from every corner of the world play these games at once, against each other or co-operating towards a specific goal. There are lots of kinds of multi-player games to play online (board games like Chess and Scrabble, and casino games being the most obvious and accessible), but by and large, popular online video game play seems to split into three basic types: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), First-Person Shooters (FPSes), and open-world sandbox type games where the users largely dictate their own functions and goals. Any one game can have elements of the other types, and often contain minigames, games-within-games that a player must accomplish alone to progress his character. Playing these games becomes a set of experiences richer and more rewarding than those offered on the physical plane, many of which seem to involve waiting around and being forced to watch commercials. A given game will appeal to a type of player for a variety of reasons, but the core impetus is our innate desire to interact with other human intelligences.

In an MMORPG, the player designs a stalwart, brave character and outfits him with the best possible armaments so he can sally forth and massacre woodland creatures for a few hours in order to approach a respectable experience level. This process is known as “grinding,” and it’s the dirty secret of the MMORPG world. Ostensibly, games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online would prefer a player begin their tenure in the game by joining smaller quests, perhaps requiring everyone to band together and kill an iguana, then assuming more and more challenging quests until you have gained sufficient rank to attempt the take down of a dragon. However, it is much more common that someone will hole themselves up in some secluded forest and murder Thumper over and over again for the meager experience points that each kill provides, emerging from the wood days later with a level score in the triple digits. Here’s where the shared virtual experience breaks down: since in-game “learning” is represented as an additive integer; it’s a simple numbers game to tweak the system and have the cumulative level experience of an old-timer, but the actual game experience of a newbie. Still, the co-operative questing in these games works well, and no matter how they got there, when players of like experience levels band together to complete an objective, they share experiences that forge actual friendships. It’s easy to discount achievements in the video game world, being that they aren’t tangible, but the accord between players is very real.

FPSes are probably the most popular type of game play today, and the name describes the gameplay accurately: you move around some virtual arena in first person and shoot other characters and objects. There are dozens of these types of games: in the last quarter of 2011 alone, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, and Halo 4, the last one bucking the trend of that season’s trilogies but completely in line with the recycled scenery of FPS games. These games have very short lives when played alone, since repeatedly spending ammunition clips on the same fields of battle, against the same non-player characters with the same artificial intelligences, can quickly wear thin. It’s in the multi-player arena where these games shine, adding the challenge of other human brains that are constantly calculating the best ways to perforate your ass with soft-jacketed bullets while simultaneously protecting their own posteriors. It’s during these games that players speak to each other in order to coordinate strategies, and when you are most likely to be called a derogatory name by some acne-scarred kid with a voice like Minnie Mouse. FPS games leave me cold, for the most part: once the game play is mastered, the challenge–even in multi-player–can be facile. I also can never shake the sneaking feeling that these games are promoted and engineered with the help of various military agencies in order to recruit children. Whether they are turning our kids into Manchurian Candidates or slothful slug-a-beds, it’s difficult to deny that shooting the shit out of people with no legal or moral repercussions is a lot of fun, and when you can participate in this digital slaughter with like-minded friends, the fun increases exponentially.

The best-known line of sandbox-style video games is Rockstar Studio’s Grand Theft Auto series. The object in Grand Theft Auto, as it is in most sandbox games, is to move around a vast world, picking up quests by way of speaking to non-player characters (or NPCs) or simply being in the right place at the right time. The player then completes these quests to gain more experience, new and improved abilities, or just for the sheer fun of taking down a helicopter with a scoped 9mm handgun. The novelty of sandbox games is that while there often is an over-arching story, quests can often be completed in any order, and there’s lots of extraneous game play not related to the main storyline. An NPC can ask that you escort her kindly mother to church, you can agree to help out, and then spend the next ten hours on the complete other side of the map collecting golden flowerpots or jumping stolen motorcycles off of rooftops while granny theoretically waits patiently in her Sunday best. Theoretically, I say, because time never works normally in sandbox games. Plot points are triggered when certain combinations of quests are completed, so even though some super villain threatens to blow up the world in three hours at the outset of the game, he will actually hold off for as many hours of game play as you desire, until you decide to enjoin the final quest and face the main baddie.

Due to their open-world, multi-directional nature, most sandbox games don’t lend themselves to a similar type of online play. A sandbox game with true online play would behave more like an MMORPG, with players acting independently in different areas of the map. Because sandbox games have a narrative that is advanced by in-game triggers, you can’t rightly have someone moving the story right along at a rapid pace while you’re still at the starting gate figuring out how to open your inventory screen. For this reason, most co-operative game play for sandbox style games involve special matches of Capture the Flag or team-on-team assault. These matches can be fun and rewarding, but they are far from the open-world experience of a true sandbox experience. The only co-operative game I know of that offers such an experience is Minecraft, an independently-produced game of such depth and breadth that I will likely need to dedicate an entirely new essay in order to describe and define it.

Many people look down on co-operative online video gaming, as they probably do video games themselves, as being perpetual time-wasters with no redeeming real world value. However, when I remember my own childhood, I recall whiling away the hours watching television re-runs, or listening to the same album twenty times in a row, or doodling on every page of a notepad and then summarily discarding it in the trash. Most of our moments are not enriching life experiences, we spend a lot of time spacing out and standing in line. While it is true that slaying a video game dragon will result in no actual corpse, the shared experience of solving puzzles, discerning patterns, and gamers just bullshitting with each other is authentic and observable. Perhaps online social interaction pales in comparison with meeting in real life, but as the Information Age gains momentum, that might be less true going forward. The internet is a great equalizer, a point made obvious when you join a team of people from around the world, of nearly every age and background, and combine to annihilate a similar ragtag bunch on the same server. Then, some eleven year-old kid in Wheelies fires three bullets into your virtual cranium, in between contemplative bites of Lucky Charms cereal, and sends you to digital oblivion. And then, in his innocent, high-pitched voice, he calls your mother a slutty whore and suggests that you eat shit and expire.

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