in orbit

I mostly talk about video games and the world wide web


Three Stories

You are alone. Or at least it seems that way at first glance. In front of you are grassy hills spattered with trees, and behind them lie some larger mountains and some odd looking stone structures. You turn around and see sand and a vast body of water. Is it an ocean or just a large lake? Difficult to say. You can see some islands off in the distance but not much else. You take in your surroundings and gradually realize that you're not actually alone. Up on the hills appear to be a few cows and a pig. They don't seem to be doing much, but it's nice to know living things inhabit this place.

Okay, now what? Better look around, right? Seems logical. You head towards the hills and mountains. You discover hidden alcoves and shallow caves. You meet more cows and pigs and even some sheep and ducks. What exactly is this place? You keep wandering and eventually stumble onto a much deeper cave. It's dark and scary inside. You can't even venture too far in before it becomes impossible to navigate in the dark. You turn around and head back to the outside. The sun is setting. That makes you nervous, though you're not sure why. Maybe you should take up refuge in this cave? That thought doesn't sit well with you, plus the cave is too dark anyway. Instead you dig up some dirt with your bare hands, just enough to make a small makeshift house in the side of a mountain. You leave only an opening big enough to walk out of. It's night now, and everything seems quiet, but then you hear it. Groans. Slurps. Strange, unfamiliar noises. A lot of them. You peer out of your cave and see them. Not the inhabitants you met earlier; no, these are monsters. Actual monsters. Zombies and walking skeletons and giant spiders. This is actually happening.

One of them sees you. You know because he was wandering aimlessly before and now he's headed your way. You're fairly certain this is an encounter you will regret so you do the only thing you can think of: barricade yourself in. You're now hidden in a small man-made cave in complete darkness. The monsters outside continue to make noise but don't appear to understand how to get in. You take some comfort in that, but you're really going to have to think of a better plan for tomorrow night.

This is the world of Minecraft, the solo work of Markus 'Notch' Persson. Or rather this is Minecraft's survival mode and a relatively accurate retelling of my first time playing it. Minecraft is exceptional at a number of things. There's the impending sense of doom that overcomes you every time you see the sun set, even if you're well armored and armed. Knowing that you don't want to be caught outside of your safe-house during the night is something impressed upon you from your very first night in the game.

The world you play in is procedurally generated, so every time you start a new game you are presented with a new set of stuff to play around in. They all share some basic similarities, but each has its own distinct differences. The world is also huge, and you are placed in a random part of it. All this adds up to a consistent but fresh game experience each time you start a new world, or even when you wander great distances in an existing one.


During one of my many exploration missions I decided to stray much further from my home base than normally would. I wanted to check out some odd looking rock structures nearby and see what they had to offer. I wandered towards them for a while and eventually went even further when I found some coal (a valuable but fairly plentiful resource in the game). By now I was very far from home and I the sun was already beginning to set so I made the executive decision to build a secondary home at my present location. I quickly cobbled together a modest dirt home at the foot of a mountain and set up for the night, crafting and smelting things as monsters wandered outside, waiting for me.

The next morning I stepped out into the sunlight and began the long trek back to my first, and much more impressive house. Or at least I thought I was doing that. Eventually I realized that I had been going the wrong way (though how wrong I had no idea) and attempted to orient myself by some landmarks that I thought I recognized. As you can imagine this didn't work and I ended up unsuccessful in finding my original home. Night eventually came and I had to set up another temporary house. This continued for three more in-game days with the exact same results; attempting to orient myself, never finding my original house and building a new one before nightfall. I refused to believe that I couldn't find my original house but all the while I knew it was hopeless. I was lost. Completely lost.

Being lost is probably a completely terrifying feel. I'm not talking lost like you take a wrong turn on the highway and don't realize it or accidentally get on the wrong bus. It's a feeling I suspect most people have never truly had, myself included. The closest I can claim is the time I wandered away from my parents at Disney World when I was six or seven. Minecraft, I found, is able to give you a pretty good approximation of that feeling. There is no in-game map to check. No recognizable landmarks. The only wait to orient yourself is with the rising and setting of the sun and the fact that clouds always travel north. Otherwise you're completely on your own.

The funny thing about that whole situation was that my original house was within the line of sight of my spawn point. I could have simply cut my losses and hurled myself off of a tall cliff. I would have lost my inventory, but my goal would have been accomplished. Somehow that didn't seem very fair. Dieing in Minecraft ranges from being an annoyance to being completely devastating, but suicide never really seems like an option. It felt like I was giving up and admitting that I was actually lost. Pride is a strange thing I suppose.


Speaking of death in Minecraft, I have one final story I'd like to share. I tend to start a new map every few days because I inevitably enjoy the first few frantic days of survival mode more than the grind the game produces when you get comfortable. I had built a small house and was doing decently well but nothing was really grabbing me in that area. I emptied a lot of my inventory into a chest, built a boat and sailed randomly into the distance. I eventually came to a large landmass which was relatively flat and contained a large number of trees. I decided that I would build a very large, extravagant house. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

So I found a flat area that was clear of trees and I dug a very large foundation and laid most of the stonework for the base of the house (this isn't necessary in the game, but it does look quite dashing). Once that was out of the way I began to build the rest of the house, all four floors of it, out of wood. On one side of the house was an exposed cave opening. It was literally a hole in the ground and I could see down into it pretty far and beyond that there was darkness. It was practically begging me to explore. After I ran out of wood and built a temporary safe-house in the basement of my unfinished mansion, I crafted a ton of torches and headed in.

This cave was like nothing I had ever seen before. It went on forever. Every time I dug through the end of a corridor I found another section of it. It was huge, deep and very elaborate. There were a number of beautiful waterfalls all pouring into each other. Things I had never seen om the game but had heard about numerous times. It was also filled with treasures! I had never seen diamond, gold or redstone until this cave, and here I found them in droves. I spent a number of in-game days down there just exploring without ever surfacing. I would only exit the cave when I ran out of wood (a necessity to build more tools). I even set up a number of crafting and smelting stations around the cave as to cut down the number of trips to the surface.

This was all well and good but as I discovered more and more of this massive cave it became very confusing to navigate. There would be multiple forks and large caverns with a number of offshoots into other caverns or paths leading to other things. On at least two occasions I dig a tunnel upwards until I found the surface because I was unable to figure out how to get out of the cave from one of its (I had discovered) two natural openings.

Yet I kept going back. There was stuff down there. There was a ton of iron and coal and a good amount of other minerals. Eventually I dug deep enough that I found lava. A whole huge river of it. This was exciting because I had never seen lava before. I knew it was dangerous but I also knew it could be useful because it could be dumped on enemies and it provided light. Around the lava a found a lot more coal and iron and there was a good amount of redstone as well.

At this point I was spending all of my time down in the cave. I hadn't been back to my unfinished house in probably weeks, though it could have been a shorter period since I had no way to keep track of the time of day. I had plans on the surface and there was so much left in the world to discover, but I was compelled to keep mining here until everything was gone. In my head I knew this task was impossible because of how massive the cave system was, but I kept at it anyway.

Eventually I started getting sloppy. Where at first I would harvest a bunch of things and dump them off to be smelted or stored in a chest, now I kept them in my inventory and explored the cave more. I was carrying around valuable ores that hadn't been smelted, and instead of being smart I would just dump things I didn't need into some lava to get rid of them. I kept finding more parts of the cave, grabbing more and more stuff and at some point I realized I was actually stressing myself out. I had inadvertently given myself a goal and I was completely overwhelmed by it. Minecraft had stopped being a fun exploration game and had become work. I had become a greedy miner, motivated only by treasures.

Life has a funny way of working itself out though. At some point I was standing on a sloppily constructed path that was perilously hanging above a pool of lava. As I often did, I was dumping all my excess cobblestone and dirt and other things I deemed unimportant. At some point, I'm not exactly sure how, I moved myself too far forward and fell into the lava. I had a brief moment where I could see what I had done since lava does not kill you instantly and then the screen tinted red and all I saw was 'Game Over'. I frantically hit respawn and I was back on the beach in front of my very first house. It was midday, the sun was out, cows and pigs and sheep were wandering around aimlessly. I checked my inventory. Empty, as expected. I turned around and looked towards where I knew my huge house and cave were. There was no point in rushing back; everything had been lost to the lava. I smiled to myself, quit and deleted the world.

It's quite a difficult feeling to describe, especially when these feelings are evoked by a game, but I felt as if a burden had been lifted from me. I had been down in that mine for a very long time, frantically trying to excavate everything, searching for more riches, not really knowing how to get out. I wasn't truly being kept there by anything; even if I got lost I could always dig my way out. I could have just left at any time and sailed to a new island with a new cave and had new adventures. There was nothing obligating me to that place, but I still felt compelled to put a lot of time and effort into it. Now I was free. One silly mistake lead to death and I was done. I was free. It was a relief.

These are my stories about Minecraft. There are many like them, but these ones are mine. The beautiful simplicity of this game allows for endless scenarios to play out. Your Minecraft experience is what you make of it. You can explore, you can seek out treasure, you can build things. There is nothing holding you back and no limit to where you can go or what you can do. You may even learn something about yourself along the way.

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Golly, I wish these lands were more full of criminals and baanirrabs so I could fuck them up and take their shit. That's what I say a lot while playing Warband.

Dec. 25, 2015 (10:44am EST)