Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
Even now, well into the full release and with post-release content still coming on a regular basis, it has always been too easy to get lost in Minecraft.
The massive chasms, towering mountains, and path-bending forests all manage to obfuscate, misdirect, and ultimately tear apart any sense of direction, and ultimately undermine the peaceful sense of stability that comes with establishing a home base. Without ready access to enough sheep and wood to make a bed, and coal to keep a home sufficiently lit, the only thing that embodies the early experience of any survival game of Minecraft is an impending sense of dread as darkness falls, and doubly so when the opportunity for rain washes away even daytime’s fleeting sense of security.
However, with enough fortitude and patience — and a few more unintended trips to spawn that require trudging through forest, mountain, cave, and chasm again to trek back home — most players can establish a decently secure, defensible home in some quiet corner of the map. Near enough to highlights like rivers, lakes, and caverns for players curious in fishing, spelunking, or high-stakes games of chicken with an odd creeper or two, while allowing for a sense of unity and home for a player interested in settling down.
That said, in order to establish a working knowledge of how to secure a foothold in the harrowing and often unforgiving monstrous landscape of Minecraft, players are expected to give themselves a stronger sense of how to play. The combination of materials to build wooden planks are simple enough, and some basic experimentation can reveal the ability to make sticks. However, using those in conjunction with stone to make tools? Or understanding that wooden planks are required to build chests, crafting tables, and doors, but sticks to make tools and weapons, and even further both to make fences and gates becomes more arcane than not.
A player without the requisite knowledge, or a fair amount of patience to constantly alt-tab to the Minecraft Wiki during play, often find themselves floundering on how to start doing anything productive with themselves. Mojang would, and has, claimed that the feeling of discovery is what makes Minecraft feel like Minecraft – the argument being that obfuscation makes the eventual discovery even more satisfying, that all the community-driven guides out there and magazines and books and everything else are an example of the passion which the game engenders among its fans; But it feels like an excuse to play a game where a written guide isn’t cheating, they’re required; They wouldn’t exist in the first place if the game did a good job of explaining its central mechanics.
Making tools for stone, stone for ovens, stone tools for coal, coal for light, light for spelunking, spelunking for iron, iron for armor, armor for diamonds, diamonds for obsidian, obsidian for enchanting, and enchanting for tools – and on and on and on – is a really obscure sequence for a directionless new player to grasp, and foe a game well into release to still fully and utterly lack anything but a remote hint at player direction through achievements bar the most basic instructions, feels almost deliberately exclusive. And even those instructions that do exist are rarely updated, creating an endless uphill battle for what is supposed to be one of the most accessible games in the world. So for players new to Minecraft without peers to give them direction, it’s no wonder that it’s frustratingly easy to get lost.
Even after players have a good internal catalog of recipes and awareness for how to build tools, items, objects, and objectives, the game offers scant few senses of adventure. For as much content as is available between cows, chickens, hares, horses, squid, endermen, guardians, witches, skeletons, creepers, cats, wolves, and villagers, there really isn’t a great deal of direction to come from the actual mechanics. Players can build things for themselves, upgrade their tools and equipment to make survival, building, crafting, fishing, and taming easier, as well as make self-sustaining farms or monster generators, but it doesn’t really manage to endear itself in any long-term senses of direction. The Ender Dragon does give players an ultimate goal, of sorts, but one that feels really absent. Players are left to their own devices, to find fun their own way or not at all.
All sandbox games tend to suffer from this, to a degree. Without an enduring goal or way to enact stimulation from the mechanics themselves, the sandbox only becomes as robust and meaningful as the players themselves can make it. All of the toys, all of the potential mechanics, all of the NPCs and interlocking parts are only as good as the player can find the desire to twist, mold, and model them into something new and exciting. Without a strong-minded player, or the ability for other players to mod in purpose, a sandbox loses charm and leaves the players spinning in circles while they try to decipher meaning from otherwise disconnected experiences.
Part of that is that games are so inherently disconnected, in their own ways. Lego is a great toy for experimenting, building, and trying to assemble original pieces of personal creation as well as recreations of famous or meaningful pieces of fiction. However, simply re-imagining or remaking crafts like these aren’t the only purpose. They can be shared online to be discussed, or they can be used as displays in homes, or discussion pieces; or they can be used to test equivalent structures or design techniques for stress tests, or they can be made into homes for English television. They’re able to become all of these things, and often more, simply because their applications aren’t limited to the mechanics that a game engine says they can be. They can be anything that they can physically accomplish. From the smallest construction of a palm-sized catapult to a house-sized construction with a fully functional bathroom, Lego can accomplish all of these things. Games unfortunately can’t.
Games, even open world sandbox games, have limits based on how far their code and engine can be stretched. Beyond the threshold of built-in mechanics, some enterprising players can find glitches of interest, but even one step further, a game just can’t accommodate anything else a player can hope to accomplish. So, it’s inevitable that a player with a mind for accomplishing as much as they can in a game will ultimately find themselves without a strong goal, mechanic, or narrative to work toward.
For that reason alone, the fact that the industry is moving collectively toward more sandbox worlds, more open-ended mechanics, and less structured and scripted mechanics and narratives is very interesting. The chance that the games themselves could get lost in the sense of giving players a lot to do could instead retroactively give players games where players find themselves with nothing to do. Spinning in circles, trying to decipher meaning from an otherwise disconnected experience. Given what a financial and critical success Minecraft has been, it would be hard to imagine the industry thinking of going any other way.
However, it seems like it would be really easy to lose players in the face of such mechanics. Lose players to the joy and desire to play, lose players to the joy of figuring out and indulging in games for their mechanics as much as their content, and losing players metaphorically as well as geographically as the maps get larger while engagement gets smaller.
Which is tragic, and may end up with a wide and varied industry full of games in which it is way too easy to get lost.