Daily Archives: October 5, 2021

Immersion in the Blocks of Minecraft

This one should be fun.  I am back on the immersion hobby horse and I am going to dive into Minecraft next… survival mode… which I am sure is going to be a breaking point for somebody because… well… the game looks like this:

fountain time

Villagers congregate at the town center in a world made up of one meter cubes

That was kind of a random screen shot I had to hand, but there are plenty more on this site and the web in general, that will illustrate that nobody in their right mind is going to be fooled into thinking that is the real world or anything like it.

And yet… and yet… I have experience various physiological reactions to the game that indicates that my brain can indeed be fooled into reacting to a world made up of unconvincing one meter cubes.  That, for me, is the purest form of immersion.  My body taking the input from my eyes and reacting cannot be faked.

So when I feel a tinge of acrophobia when I unwittingly walk up to the edge of a high cliff and realize how far up I am or when I am digging around in the roof of the nether and find myself in a thin portion and break through to find myself many meters above a lake of lava and just shy of stepping into this air, that means my brain is somehow convinced at a base level that this might be real, even if at higher level my brain knows this is all just images rendered on a screen and isn’t a threat at all.

But what gets my brain there?

I am going to skip ahead a bit on this one and, rather than meandering through a half a dozen tales… most of which I have probably written about here already in any case if you’re interested… and jump straight on what has become the through line for this series, which is a sense of place.  I think that is what helps convince my brain that it should flutter up my guts a bit when I loom over a cliff.

Now, “sense of place” is its own can of worms.  I’m in my fourth post and I am going to spin that in a fourth way.  With LOTRO is was the familiarity of Middle-earth.  With EverQuest it was the sense of worldliness and danger.  With EVE Online it was the overlay of player events on locations in the game that gave then meaning and history… and danger.

So what is it with Minecraft?

Well, it certainly has worldliness going for it.  There is all the world you could care to find and more over the next hill or across the next ocean.  Procedural generation for the win.

And, naturally, there is a sense of danger at night, where the world presses back against you.  You don’t get it all your own way and eventually some creeper is going to slip in and you’ll just hear that dreaded “hissssss” sound before it blows up and wrecks something you’re been working on… or kills you.

But I think more than either of those, there is the mutability of the world, the fact that you can make it your own, shape it as you will… if you have the time and patience… to be what you want.  You can build a house, a castle, or an Italian city.

The work of Skronk and Enaldi

The fact that you have changed the world, created something within it, transforms it and gives it a sense of place that the bare wilderness lacked.  And the effort of gathering the resources and building something grand or complex only ads to that.

In that was Minecraft is different from LOTRO or EQ.  Those worlds are essentially immutable.  You must take them as they are and find the place that they offer.

And EVE Online, where you can own space, build structures, influence resources, and fight wars over territory, even that only lets you build essentially temporary little sand castles in the vastness of space.  I live in Delve now, and the system of 1DQ1-A, the capital of the Imperium, shows the influence and power of that coalition, with Keepstars and Fortizars strewn about a grid as a show of power.

But we haven’t always lived there and we won’t always live there.  The tides of diplomacy and war have washed over Delve many times, scouring clean any sign of past residents.  And someday we too will no doubt decline and be washed away.  So goes the history of New Eden.

So Minecraft has a more permanent state of change.  I mean sure, somebody can come by and undo what you have done.  Creepers can blow up your stuff.  But it takes a lot of time and even in destruction the land remains changed.  Your impact remains even in ruins or a hole in the ground.

But Minecraft has its downside as well.  Having built castles, fortified towns, thrown up towers, build water spanning bridges, and laid down many kilometers of minecart track to create a transportation network both in the nether and on the main world, in the end I always end up feeling a bit empty at the end of a project.  The joy and the purpose is in the creation, but when you build a huge structure you quickly find yourself with not much left to do when it is done.

You have changed the face of the world, but then what?  There just isn’t a lot to “do” in Minecraft once you’ve built all your structures, explored as far as you care to, made your way through the nether and the end.

I have often felt pride in what I have built and, at the same time, a sense of emptiness in being done.  You only need one room and a bed and a bit of storage, so I’ll have a multi-story castle and all my stuff in one room off the main door.  It feels like there should be more.  Mojang has tried to address that a bit.  We have the ravagers now wandering the world.  But that becomes more of a maintenance routine after a while.

And then there is the world itself.  While there is a variety of biomes and no two places are exactly the same, there remains a tiring sameness in the world all the same.  There are only so many types of trees and hills and mountains all have similar essential elements.

Finally, there is the day/night cycle, which gives you the sense of danger in the world, but also becomes quite oppressive over time.  When you’re working on a big project, especially a rail project where you are moving along the world, leveling terrain, digging tunnels, laying track, and carrying supplies forward from your most recent base, the daytime starts to feel very short.

You get up and start working and soon that big square sun is past its zenith and you have to start planning what you’re going to do when night comes.  Do you roll on back down to your last camp?  Do you start working on a new camp?  Do you dig a quick hole in the side of a hill and set up a bed and carry on?

It really cuts both ways.  I wouldn’t want to do away with the night cycle.  It is part of the game pushing back on you which makes your accomplishments fulfilling.  But even with the night quickly over when you hit your bed, I still find the day too short to the point that it hinders getting things done.

Pro immersion:

  • Feeling of place within the world
  • A wide world to explore with many biomes
  • New things being added regularly
  • Ability to change the world, to leave your mark
  • Able to share your creation with friends in a shared world
  • A sense of danger, or the world pushing back against your efforts
  • The fulfillment of effort in creation

Immersion breaking:

  • A world of sameness until you’ve made your mark
  • New things usually don’t apply to areas already generated
  • Few real “game like” things to do
  • Having created feels less fulfilling than it should
  • Lack of a sense of purpose
  • Resource management can become a grind
  • The world pushes back in a very “samey” way
  • The oppression of the day/night cycle

And some of those latter are not unique to Minecraft.  There isn’t a lot you can “do” with towns or towers or encampments in LOTRO or EQ.  But there is also a game with a story and advancement and other activity built into the mix.  I can admire the Bree or the run down Forsaken Inn out in the Lone Lands or Hobbiton, but I also have a series of tasks to take care of, levels to gain, monsters to slay who drop loot and coin and which earn me status and what not.

If I went and created Bree in Minecraft I’d just have a town where not much was happening.  It would be neat to look at, but once I was done it wouldn’t be useful for much and I’d go on to work on something else.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Minecraft, which reflect the way I have chosen to play it.  I prefer survival mode and haven’t done anything with mods.  I just explore and build and farm and mine in the randomly generated world and look for meaning.

So four posts and four variations on a feeling or sense of place.  I suppose, ideally, this series would end with me finding the ideal mix of ingredients when it comes to that.  I think that will be a long journey though as no such destination is anywhere on my map so far.

The immersion series so far: