Chances are good that you've heard of "Minecraft," and not because you're a gamer. Few indie titles have had the success or, perhaps more importantly, the viral, word-of-mouth marketing that "Minecraft" enjoys, and rightly so. It's an incredible game and it's being run on a revolutionary business model, at least as far as games are concerned. That's not really where my interest lies, though. As I see it, "Minecraft"'s success to this point has almost nothing to do with the business model. "Minecraft" hit a million sales last week because "Minecraft" flouts the narrative-driven, big budget development model and instead gives the player a chance to just play. "Minecraft" is nothing but a glorified Lego set, and that's what makes it brilliant.
"Minecraft" is a sandbox game in its purest form. There have been pretenders in the past – "Grand Theft Auto," "Oblivion," the new "Fallout" titles – but these games are all limited by an overarching narrative. The point of a sandbox game is that you can 'do anything,' that you aren't constricted by the game world. If you've played any of the titles I've just mentioned, though, you know that you are most certainly restricted, and if you really want to see the meat-and-potatoes of the game, you'll have to engage the primary narrative at some point. With "Minecraft", there is no narrative. In fact, there isn't really a point.
That's right, there is no point to this game, and again, that's what makes it brilliant. "Minecraft" is essentially a randomly generated world of blocks, which can be harvested and then used to build anything you can think up. Want a log cabin? Cut down some trees. Want a brick mansion? You'll need to find some clay, but that clay needs to be fired into bricks somehow. How? You'll need to build a workbench, followed by a furnace, and you better find some fuel (I'd recommend coal, if you can find a place to mine it). By combining different resources, you're able to make tools, craft doors and buckets, even build a minecart track to travel underground for ever more precious materials.
Once you're underground, the game really opens up. You could be digging for iron only to stumble into a massive cave network that extends further than you can see in any direction. There are lava pits, dungeons with zombies, and again, the potential to build anything you can think up. The developer has even coded in a material that allows you to build a logical circuit system, complete with switches and delays. The system is complex enough that one player built a functional 8-bit CPU. Another player is building a 1:1 scale model of the Star Trek Enterprise. All of that from a simple world made of blocks.
For all of the fun and magic that makes "Minecraft" great, the thing that makes "Minecraft" important is its design. The game's original developer, a guy named Markus Persson that the "Minecraft" community knows as Notch, did something a lot of AAA developers would laugh at. Instead of trying to immerse the player in a world by using narrative, he chose to focus on gameplay. By simplifying the controls, the world, even the graphics, Persson created a game world that players can call their own, a world they want to shape and be a part of in ways that other games don't allow. My own first experience with "Minecraft" was so overwhelming I actually sat and giggled as I played. There is so much potential – truly unbounded creative potential – that I was immediately transported back to childhood, sitting in front of an upturned bucket of Legos, wondering what I should build next.
I've talked to a lot of people who thought the game couldn't be immersive because the graphics are so simple. Outdated was the word uninitiated gamers used to describe the blocky world. But "Minecraft" is as immersive as any media I've seen. The first time I broke into an underground cavern, I felt at once giddy and petrified with fear. I ran off in search of a rare resource and got lost, unable to find my way back to my home base. I was surrounded by nothing more terrifying than what are essentially giant, multi-colored pixels, but I felt truly lost, looking out across an ocean without a landmark to guide me. I was adrift in a completely foreign land.
The beauty of "Minecraft"'s design is that it lets your brain do the imaginative work necessary to make the world real. So much of today's development is about spoon-feeding the player a world the developer has taken years, sometimes more than a decade to create. While that's good for telling a story, it has almost nothing to do with the point of a game, which is to play. In fact, play rarely mixes well with a rigid narrative. Think of the way children engage in pretend – even if they are creating a story, it is constantly in flux, changing to the needs and interests of the children involved. "Minecraft" takes that same concept and gives each player the basic tools to both visualize and create the scenarios they imagine. Compare that to "Call of Duty: Black Ops," which is arguably the biggest release of 2010. There are entire sections of the "Black Ops" campaign that can be beaten without firing a shot. The player can literally walk away from the controller and the game will advance to the next cutscene. The truth of the matter is that game and narrative do not mix well. Even in today's most interactive narrative games, games like "Mass Effect" and "Fallout 3," the story is revealed in cutscenes or dialogue, narrative tools that have almost nothing to do with the player.
For all its financial success, all of the lessons we can take from "Minecraft" about independent development and the strength of the little guy, "Minecraft" is important because it allows every gamer to play it, exactly how he or she chooses without restriction or interference from an invasive and ultimately unfulfilling narrative. "Minecraft" is a game, a game designed to be played and enjoyed, a game without rules or restrictions or even easily defined purpose. And that's the point.