[Five minutes of... is a series of investigations by former Edge magazine editor-in-chief -- and current development director of social game developer Hide&Seek -- Margaret Robertson into what five minutes of play reveals about a larger game, stepping back from all-encompassing reviews and doing some hardcore design drilling into interesting moments from interesting games.]
This isn't the story of my first five minutes in Minecraft. My first five minutes were the same as your first five minutes. Baffling. Underwhelming. Confusing. A brutalist lo-fi world empty of even of the rawest materials for fun.
Took me a while to go back, during which time I'd been further confused, baffled and underwhelmed by some YouTube videos which had variously promised enlightenment, clarification, and conversion. But back I went, and as a reward my perseverance, the next five of play were among the best of my playing life.
I'm not alone in that. It's likely if you know one thing about Minecraft, it's the hyperbole surrounding its success. It's the next in that now long line of Desktop Tower Defense, of 2Across, of Doodle Jump: the one man band marching all the way to the bank.
Minecraft, at the time of writing, has clocked its maker, lone Swedish developer Markus Persson, nearly $4 million so far. Notch, as the internet knows Persson, is frank on his blog about his amazement and the impact the money is having on his life. Planning next year's wedding clearly just got a whole lot easier, and a whole lot more complicated, all at once.
This success has been fueled largely by word of mouth. People who play Minecraft are incapable of not proselytizing. Every friend is a potential convert to the religion of Notch, to the devotion of the pick and the spade. Although every friend, despite the preaching, is usually left asking, "But what is Minecraft?"
Minecraft is a game where you mine stuff and make it into other stuff. In Survival mode, which is mostly what the people who are talking about it are talking about, it's a single player game set in a vast algorithmically generated landscape of beaches, mountains, and plains. Everything in the world is made of blocks, and every block can be "mined", which will remove it from the world and convert it to a resource the player can use.
So a block of earth can be mined, collected, and replaced elsewhere. A tree, if you punch it enough, will collapse into a heap of collectable wooden blocks. These can either be used raw and replaced in the world as blocks of wood, or further refined to make timber or sticks, and these in turn made into tools which will let you tackle the tougher blocks -- iron, gold, diamond -- that you will find as you dig deeper.
So you dig, you make, you dig some more, and then you build. Simple ingredients -- wood, coal, wool, iron -- ultimately allow for the creation of stairs and doors and torches and furnaces and railway tracks and minecarts and pressure plates and compasses and record players. The list isn't endless, but it is rich, and soon your inner architect is planning palaces and pagodas to house your stockpiles, and statues and sculptures to express your ownership of this vast and pleasant land. It's Lego, if everything in the world was already made of Lego.
Or rather, if everything in the world was already made of Lego and bits of it wanted you dead.
Survival mode is so-called because making it through your first night is an act of courage, ingenuity and luck. Minecraft's day cycle is ten or so minutes long, and as the sun sets squarely in the sea, and the stars prick through the sky, the nightlife turns nasty.
At least, that's what you assume. As daylight fades, night -- real night, not just a cheap palette shift -- spreads across the land. As the darkness spreads, you start to hear noises. New noises. Bad noises. The first time you play, that's probably the last you hear. Something behind you, happening to you, ending you. You'll respawn, blinking in the light of a new dawn, having learned little but fear.