It’s sundown in Minecraft and I’m digging a hole. Literally and figuratively, both in-game and out. In-game, I am literally digging a hole from which I am pulling rocks to assemble into an obelisk. Out of game, every swipe of my digital shovel increases my addiction to this mighty, independent game industry force. I literally can’t stop thinking about it, and figuratively can’t stop playing it. Minecraft consumes my waking thoughts and my dreamy slumber. It is what I look forward to at the end of the day, and what compels me to extend each day’s reach into night.
For me, Minecraft has become an obsession so severe that it both terrifies and enchants me. It has brought me a joy so intense that I can’t recall the last game that inspired such bliss. Which is fitting, perhaps, because Minecraft is unlike any other game I’ve ever played, and what enchants me about it so is not its game-like elements, really, but rather what it amplifies about the truths of life itself.
Take this hole I’m digging, for example. I’m so deep in it that I fail to notice the movement of the sun across the sky. I’m so absorbed in the joy of toil and the minutia of digging out each single chunk of rock, that I am completely oblivious to the fact that night is falling until it is well nigh upon me. I’d finished building my dream castle a day or two before (and renovating the mine underneath) and decided, on a whim, to turn the heap of rock in my front yard into an obelisk. For what purpose? None. I just liked the idea of having a stone obelisk in my front yard, and since there was already plenty of stone there – in the form of a hill – all I needed to do was, as Michelangelo phrased it “free the form from the surrounding stone.” That was how I passed a day playing Minecraft.
Now it’s night, however, and all thoughts of obelisks have fled from my mind. Night is not a time to be tending the stone garden in the front lawn. Not unless you’ve first build a sturdy wall, which I haven’t. Not yet. See, the wall was to complement the obelisk and I needed the form of the obelisk in place in order to measure the angles of light to create the perfect … never mind. It doesn’t matter. It’s nighttime, and I’m alone in the dark and afraid for my life. Night is when the zombies come.
Some games give you everything for free. Your weapons drop from the sky. Your tasks are handed to you. You arrive in the world as capable as you will ever be and your survival is a foregone conclusion. Not so in Minecraft. In Minecraft there is no official tutorial, no instructions, and no mission. What you do with your time, how you literally play the game, is up to you, and the list of what you could do is nearly limitless. The basic building blocks of almost anything you can imagine are all there, either as part of the landscape around you or buried deep underground. Assembling them into the creation of your dreams is as easy as imagining it. It is, for all intents and purposes, a world created just for you. All you have to do – your only meaningful challenge – is to survive, but in Minecraft, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
By day, the world of Minecraft is cheerful and bright, populated with hopping cows, snorting piglets and clucking chickens. Tall, leafy trees await your axe for chopping and mountain upon mountain of stone and mineral ore await your mining pleasure. It is as a world created as if from the notebook of a child, and similar to that world, you can shape it however you wish. The world belongs to you. By day at least. The zombies own the night. The zombies and the creepers and the skeletons and the spiders. Unlike other games, you cannot win in a fight with many of these monsters. A few swipes from a zombie and you’re dead. Get too close to a creeper and he’ll explode, blowing you to bits. Spiders climb your walls, dropping down on you from above. Skeletons shoot arrows over your fences. And the zombies … they just keep coming. Over rock, through the trees, across the water. To the tops of mountains, above the clouds. At night you’re not safe anywhere unless it has four walls and a roof made of something strong, and the sooner you learn that the longer you’ll survive. Only then will you ensure that each morning, as the rosy fingers of dawn reach above the hills of candy-color green, you will be there to greet it – and resume your toil.
Surviving Minecraft‘s night is much more than a part of the game, it is the game. You can fashion a sword from wood, or armor from the hide of cow, but even then you are not invincible. Even then, you may not survive even one encounter with a monster. Even then, your best course of action, your most survivable strategy, is to hide.
As I play Minecraft, a game ostensibly and rabidly about nothing whatsoever, I find that I’m rediscovering truths humanity may have lost on its journey to mechanized, electronicized, harmonious cohabitation with our wants. A world in which we are able to enjoy entertaining pursuits (like, for example, playing Minecraft) without concern that come the fall of darkness we may be eaten. Are we so far removed from such a world? Have we, as humans, so irrevocably lost ourselves to the care and feeding of our always-on, just-in-time, wash-and-wear civilization that the pure, primal terror of the night no longer holds sway?
I know I haven’t. Aside from playing videogames, one of my favorite pastimes is walking into the deep woods where I’ll camp beside a rushing stream, make a fire, perhaps, and settle in for an evening in the wilderness. I’ll prop a tent into a nook made by two trees and zip myself into a succession of nylon barricades, then settle in and attempt to sleep, willing my mind to forget that there are other things than me in the woods. The sun will rise as surely as it set and when then light comes, I will once again have the woods for my own use, but until then, just as in Minecraft, the land belongs to the creatures who call it home.
Through playing Minecraft, I remember what I have learned from spending time in the wilderness. I recall that roads are more than smoother places upon which to drive our cars. I remember that lighthouses, streetlights, sign posts, and other signs of civilization are more than merely fortuitously-placed objects d’art. These things exist because without them we’d be lost. And I know from having done it that getting lost in the dark is as lost as you can be.
Once upon a time we locked our doors, not out of habit or to protect our big-screen TVs, but to keep away the monsters. In this day and age of domesticated everything, such fears seem bygone and strange. Yet still we hear of hikers going missing in the wild spaces. Of young families taking a detour down an un-used mountain road and simply vanishing. Of sharks and bears and sometimes even the land itself eating men whole, or robbing them of more than a comfortable night’s sleep. And even more rarely still, we hear tales of hikers being killed by bears. It happens every year. It almost happened to me.
It was near-dark on a rainy fall evening and I was stumbling along a trail in the mountainous woods of North Carolina. I rounded a bend on the trail and there he was: The Bear. He was over six feet tall, 300lbs and standing less than 10 yards away, staring right at me.
The Bear and I took stock of each other. Calmly, carefully, attempting to control my breathing and steady my pulse, I removed my hat and held both arms out to my side, attempting to look larger than I am. What most wilderness and survival experts agree upon is that if an encounter with a bear is unavoidable, that is, if you are unable to avoid him or tactfully remove yourself from the situation, then attempting to intimidate the animal is your best course of action. What you are supposed to do is convince the bear that you are large and powerful, even if that’s a lie. The Bear, however, did not heed the experts. He didn’t run, or even walk away. He took a step closer.
In that moment, I faced the fear of knowing my own end. I knew that, should all else fail, my only chance at survival might be to fall to the ground, curl into a ball and hope the bear tired of mauling at me before he wounded something vital. But I still had one more card to play: I yelled. It was a yell pulled from the depths of my DNA. It was, as they say, a barbaric yawp. Teeth bared, face contorted into a furious canvas of rage and adrenaline and fear. It was my war cry. It was my challenge to The Bear that he may be bigger and stronger, but I would not go down without a fight.
The Bear, to my surprise, stopped in his tracks, turned on one plate-sized paw and fled into the underbrush. I could hear the crackling of branches and grunting puffs of breath as he sped away from the strange, short, yelling creature in the woods. What fear he knew, I cannot say, but it could not have equaled my own.
From that day forward, every minor accomplishment has felt like a great, hard-won victory. Every day I’ve lived after having not been eaten by The Bear is a paean to that one potentially life-ending encounter and my victorious emergence. I would not have enjoyed the following day alone in the calm, daylit, and bear-less wood had I not known the fear of the evening before. Just as, in Minecraft, I cannot truly absorb the joy of spending a day constructing a stone obelisk in the front yard of my dream castle were it were not for the nightly harrowing of the deadly zombies.
Playing Minecraft, one may wonder why one can’t simply keep building at night. Why, if it’s a sandbox game, a world created for your own amusement, you can’t simply will away the terrors of the night. What purpose, zombies? For my answer, I look to The Bear.
In its spare, pixilated sterility, devoid of overt rationalization, Minecraft represents no more or no less than a model of our world in miniature, with many of the real world’s barriers between us and our dreams demolished. Yet in a world where you can literally create anything your mind can imagine, the single thing you cannot reshape is yourself. You are and will forever be a part of your own world. Learning to live in it is your only mission.
Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.