I first played Minecraft in 2009 back when it was an Infiniminer clone being developed on the Tigsource forums. It was immediately clear to a bunch of people that it was something special but no one could have guessed what the game would become in just a few years. It may be the most popular game of all time. It’s definitely the most popular game among kids right now. Odd, then, that most of the Minecraft experience is about not playing Minecraft.
One of my patrons requested a post on factory gameplay in the “Feed the Beast: Resurrection” mod pack. Minecraft modding is big, and FTB is a major contender. “Resurrection” compiles 71 different mods to overhaul pretty much every aspect of the game. A number of the mods interlock to provide a complicated, inter-operative factory system that lets you process and transform materials without the need to manually craft things.
Instead of babysitting furnaces and crafting tables, you load up vessels with supplies and connect them to devices with conduits. You’re tantalized with the prospect of a completely automated world where tracklaying tunnelers gather ores to be ground, smelted, and combined by an automatic crafting table that deposits tools neatly in a chest while the player sits by without moving a finger.
Of course, the mods add complications to make the game interesting. Devices generate waste products or require rare materials as fuel. Recipes and production ratios are tweaked to rebalance gameplay. One particularly acerbic modder, the creator of “GregTech” (no relation), has even modified other mods to make their devices harder to construct.
These mods transform Minecraft from a game to a system for games, from a world to a world-building engine. Quite early in the game’s popularity players stopped pursuing the standard goals and started playing games like Spleef. On multiplayer servers, the cooperation and accumulated resources can mean that the normal threats of the Minecraft world are little more than nuisances.
This transition of a work from game to an environment for games has happened before. In fact, it’s tied up in the history of modding. Occasionally you’ll find a DayZ or a Nameless Mod that takes a rarely-modified game and makes something popular or just impressive out of it. The most well-known mods, however, are products of an environment: the spawn of a game transformed.
Certain popular games generate hundreds of mods. Tiny mods, huge sprawling mods, sublimely broken mods and austerely polished mods. There’s rarely more than two or three of these communities active at once, and each community seems to move on to a similar game eventually, leaving behind their best work as a testament to their temporary home.
Team Fortress was born of Quake. Counter-Strike was born of Half-Life. Dota was born of Warcraft III. People played those games so much that they faded into the background: the players were bored of the game while still wanting to inhabit it. These mods, these parasites, build on their hosts while transforming them. It’s quite appropriate that the first true mod is “Aliens TC.” A mod about a creature that grows inside you and kills you as it emerges as something strange and beautiful.
But this pattern fits Minecraft better than those other games. Minecraft is a survival game. Minecraft is an upgrade game. Minecraft is a strip-mining game. Minecraft gives you a world full of mystery and danger and asks you to destroy it.
Your first goal in Minecraft is to build a house to survive the night. With rare exceptions, the simplest house in Minecraft is impervious to all harm. A dirt box with a torch in it is forever immune from the monsters that roam the darkness as long as you stay inside and never play the rest of the game. The coveted diamond armor defuses the danger of creepers. The alternate dimension of the Nether exists both to give a break from the overworld and to make long-distance travel less tedious. As you progress in Minecraft, there’s less and less need for you to play Minecraft.
Minecraft terrifies me.
I don’t like being startled. I don’t like being unable to see in darkness. Caves in Minecraft are dark and contain twists and turns and multiple levels that mean that, at any time, you could be hit by an arrow fired from a far-off skeleton or have a creeper drop from a hole in the ceiling onto your head.
When I play Minecraft it is with extreme care. All my doors are lit and bordered with windows so I’m not surprised by monsters. I mine through solid rock, not caves, in order to avoid danger. I space torches religiously so that I can be sure that I will never encounter the challenges the game wants to give me.
I don’t think I play Minecraft right. But it’s the way it seems to want me to play.
Grinders and Farms
“Feed the Beast: Resurrection” (or, more properly, the factory mods it compiles) courts my Minecraft approach. It lets you skip the inconvenience of the game in pursuit of a world in which you’re never in danger, never hungry, never in darkness. It overhauls the geology and physics of the original game and adds elaborate new systems to handle power and fluids and automation.
By the time you are constructing vacuum freezers and tesseract generators, you have to wonder why this is in Minecraft. The systems and code in place are as complicated as any full game and have little to nothing to do with punching trees or building castles from cobblestone.
The answer is the same as it’s always been: mods are iterative projects, usually done as a hobby. They start as a single lightning rod or alternate costume and grow and change as they are played and enhanced. Some aspect of the original game isn’t to the modder’s liking, so they build a dirt house. Before long, that dirt house has become diamonds.
The arc of Minecraft gameplay serves the purpose of transcending Minecraft. You become safe against all threats before leaving the mortal world behind to slay a dragon that may represent entropy itself and get rewarded with a dialogue on the nature of creativity and spirituality.
Appropriate, then, that these mods recreate Minecraft into something new.