Against the backdrop of multimillion dollar AAA games and fun-yet-bite-size downloadable titles, indie game Minecraft is an aberration. The product of lone developer Markkus "Notch" Persson, Minecraft has ancient-looking graphics, no plot, and generates massive, sandbox game worlds with seemingly infinite creative possibilities, but no clear instructions telling you what to do or how to get started.
Despite that seemingly user-unfriendly formula, Minecraft's buzz is so strong the server hosting its Web site crashed this weekend under the weight of the incoming traffic. Spend an hour with Minecraft (which can easily spiral into two or three) and you'll quickly understand the reason for the enthusiasm around this indie hit.
Minecraft puts you in the role of a nameless avatar. You begin the game in a randomly generated world of textured blocks that depict a gigantic, mountain-pocked environment bounded by water. You start with no inventory, and no clear concept of how to interact with the world. With a little experimentation you'll likely soon discover that you can gather resources from the vast blocky landscape.
Once you build up some resources, you may find that you can use them to create things like tools, weapons, and food, although you get no list of recipes, so again, experimentation is key (you can also check the Minepedia wiki for some suggestions). As you harvest sand, dirt, rocks, and wood, and create tools like shovels, hatchets, and pickaxes, the constructive joys of Minecraft quickly become apparent.
There are no artificial structures in Minecraft when the game starts. Eventually you might create a one, like a house or a castle. Or you might start simply digging down into the ground or the side of a mountain, whereupon you'll realize the enormity of the Minecraft's above-ground world is only half the story. One enterprising Minecraft player took it upon himself to dig to the core of his Minecraft map; 83 layers later, he hit bottom.
In this vast sandbox, Minecraft players have created some truly impressive structures and environments, with the accompanying YouTube library documenting their creations. This flood video, from a Minecraft multiplayer server, shows off the game's water dynamics (adult language warning in this and most other video links). We also liked this virtually gigantic model of planet Earth. Search "Minecraft" on YouTube and you'll turn up many more videos demonstrating the creative potential of Minecraft and its players.
In addition to the creative elements, Minecraft also offers surprisingly tense combat in its single-player mode. During the daytime in the Minecraft world, you're generally free to gather resources and build unmolested. When the sun goes down, your priorities shift to trying to survive the night.
There's nothing overly complicated about Minecraft's combat system. You simply click the left mouse button to attack the various spiders, zombies, and explosive, structure-destroying creepers that come out in the dark.
Imagine, though, that you've begun digging deep into the earth in search of some iron ore. You hack and hack away at the rock with your pickaxe, taking care to carve out steps as you go so you can climb back up to the surface. You bring candles you've made to light your way down the narrow passage. On your next click you break through to a giant underground cavern.
As you turn toward the wall to place a candle, a low moan rumbles through the silent darkness and your view of the screen is suddenly rocked. You catch only a glimpse of the zombie that shambled out of the cavern to attack you before you've been killed. Now you regenerate far away from the tunnel, leaving your hard-earned belongings scattered below ground. It's also still dark out, and you no longer have any weapons to wade through the monsters still roaming around. The sun will rise and burn off most of them before too long, but dawn is at least eight real-time minutes off, an eternity in-game.
Thus far at least, there's no plot assigning a greater purpose to your avatar or the monsters in the Minecraft world. This leaves Minecraft feeling like something between a game and an art program. Imagine a treatise on creative destruction played out through a 3D version of MS Paint.
However you describe it, by balancing exhilarating creative freedom against the fear of losing progress from zombie attacks, Persson has created an alarmingly engrossing experience. Your correspondent was up until 3 a.m. last night hacking the top off a virtual mountain (it was in the way).
Still in the alpha development stage, Minecraft costs 9.95 euro to order now (Persson is based in Sweden), and ensures you'll have access to all future updates. Wait until the game goes beta and you'll pay 20 euro, but you'll also potentially enjoy more save-game stability and better general reliability. Persson has regularly added content and in-game features, and you can read up on his progress on his blog. You can also order the game directly from the Minecraft Web site, although it's currently running in a stripped-down mode (and offering the game for free temporarily), due to this weekend's traffic influx. Happy mining.