LEGOs and Lincoln Logs. Back when I was a kid—oh, a hundred years or so ago—those were the building blocks of dreams. With a big ol' bucket full of interconnecting blocks or notched miniature logs, you could pretty much build whatever your imagination might dictate. Of course, the building joy isn't limited to just kids. I've known adults who love building elaborate LEGO constructs and spend months on Lincoln Log cities.
All of that, of course, is now the low-tech stuff of yesteryear. If you really want unlimited inventive building in the 2010s, there's a hip virtual place to go where no bucket of blocks is required. It's a video game called Minecraft (a title designed originally just for your PC, but can also now be purchased through Xbox Live Arcade). But be forewarned: Once this game latches on to your imagination, it grips tight.
Getting started in the Minecraft world is relatively easy. Single-player gamers are plopped down in a randomly generated 3-D panorama of forests, mountain ranges, deserts, vast golden plains or ice fields. It's a different-every-time biome that's pretty … and pretty primitive-looking since it's all made out of blocks. Even your little avatar guy looks like he stepped out of a blocky 8-bit game from long ago.
As soon as you slide into your avatar's cube-like shoes you realize there's a problem, though. There's no instructions. There's no one in this land to talk to, no printed how-to guide, no series of quests set up by cutscenes, no plot, no signs, no nothing. Just you and a lot of squarish trees and rocks. But then you start to realize that your little guy has lots of power at his fingertips. Indeed, he can mold and shape this world in pretty much any way he desires.
With a bit of experimentation you find that the blocky bits of the world can be broken down and turned into raw materials that you can use to build things. Chopping down a tree or digging up a chunk of ground will give you dirt, stone and wood that you can use to … form rudimentary tools which then help you more quickly break down and build things back up.
That sounds awfully basic, doesn't it? But as you discover new resources, you also discover that the game's crafting mechanic is a very complex system incorporating hundreds of different "recipes." The right discovered combinations can allow you to construct incredible structures and mechanisms—from magic armor to intricate puzzle mazes to enormous castles with a moat and drawbridge.
Day and Night, Night and Day
Creative mode lets gamers get into the rhythm of digging down to richer resources, exploring caves, excavating mountainsides and developing the whole mix-and-match process of crafting. In this gaming segment, you fly about and discover that certain rare minerals can help you shape more elaborate items like powered carts or enchanted books that can give your tools and weapons some harder-to-break staying power. But truthfully, it's Survival mode that's the segment of the game where things start feeling like a—well, like a game. And this is the area where most players will gravitate.
Playing solo or with a friend, you learn that building is still key, but now there's a bit more challenge tossed into the mix. A day/night cycle exposes builders to varying stimulus, some of it good, some bad. Along with the regular critters that might be roaming the woods—such as sheep that can offer wool, chickens sporting feathers, or pigs that can be brought down for meat—there are predators afoot. Giant blocky spiders, growling zombies, exploding creepers and arrow-flinging skeletons are the sorts who generally stick to their dark caves during the day, but at night they wander the world freely.
You must begin thinking, then, about creating a shelter. You'll need to craft a pickax and seek out some coal for a fire that'll keep the beasties at bay. You'll need to think about a sword or a bow with some arrows. A door might be a good thing. And how about mixing sand and fire for glass windows so you can see what's outside it? A hard-to-shamble-up stairway, maybe? Or how about stocking some regenerative food in the storage chest?
What to Do When the Sun Goes Down
The baddies aren't that scary, of course. They're made of blocks too, after all. But there is some bloodless battling if they catch you unawares in the dark. Smack them just the right way and they disappear in a blink of smoke. But if they land enough repeated blows, the monsters can take you down to the point of death—where you lose all the crafting loot you may be carrying as you're regenerated back at your home base.
Those who stick with the block-building long enough will eventually discover that Minecraft holds other secret dimensions to explore. Once gamers find the enchanted bits to build special transporting portals (pieced-together contraptions that'll definitely require some online other-user clues) they can shoot through them to gather unique ores and supplies. One place you can go is called The Nether; it's an underground dark land filled with rivers of flowing lava, magma monsters and zombie pigmen. It's not quite a full-on representation of hell, but it'll make you think about that kind of otherworldly locale, boasting, as it does, blocky witches and even a big boss Ender Dragon.
More than merely being a content concern, though, these dark-loving creatures serve something of a higher purpose here: spurring players to lend a little enhanced creativity to their crafting. To put a little figurative muscle to their building as the day turns to night. Of course that doesn't completely erase them from the downside column, but it does smudge them up a bit.
It also helps point us away from the dark side, as it were, and toward the rampant creativity and unfettered imagination that rule this land. Rule it so rigorously that once you start poking around Minecraft's secret nooks and crannies, build your first lava-spurting mega-fortress or figure out how to stage your favorite Star Wars scene in 3-D block form, you may find that the months it takes to build a Lincoln Log city is … child's play.