Postcards from Minecraft

2010 saw something phenomenal blow up from out of the Indie Gaming scene. That something was called, simply, Minecraft.

Taking a very simplistic graphical approach – everything is rendered in large chunky squares,  a bit like Lego bricks – Minecraft wove a landscape of genuine wonder. You can explore in any direction, finding rivers, cave systems, hills, forests, beaches and mountains – the world will just keep on generating, adding to itself, no matter which direction you choose. However, as the name of the game suggests, it also gives you the power to use the local materials to build whatever you need to survive. Dig out dirt and build a house. Chop down trees for wood. Mine into the depths to seek out coal, iron, and other precious minerals…from these humble beginnings can be crafted mine-cart tracks, doors, furniture, weapons…all manner of things. So far so good, huh? The game has two modes. The first is a basic creative tool. Build what you like (and you’d be surprised how far some people have taken that!). This is a blank canvas designed for imagination to romp in.

But wait. The ‘Survival’ mode – the single-player mode of choice – restricts your freedom through the use of a clever assortment of monsters (called ‘mobs’ in the game) that plague the hours of darkness but mostly burn away once the sun has risen again. One of them, the hissing, exploding, slightly-penile looking Creeper, has entered Internet folklore. everyone who has played Mincraft has at least one particular story about encounters with this monster – usually the frustration of being fully laden with tools and minerals when the beast you never saw coming explodes behind you…

To say the game is compelling is like saying crack cocaine is “a bit more-ish”.  Minecraft gives you a world, offers you some tools and then lets you get on with it. It doesn’t burden you with plot or get in your way much at all. It just whispers ‘play’ to that part of your brain that never left the sand-pit you had when you were four years old.

Much like I did with my Morrowind piece I’d like to give you a quick visual tour of the game.  Why? Because in a similar fashion to Morrowind I seem to have lost untold hours/days/weekends playing the damn thing! For most of you, my strangely loyal readership this will be as an introduction. In the world of gaming Minecraft has earned it’s creator somewhere in the region of ten million dollars merely by astonishing (and astonished) word of mouth….and this is a game that’s not even finished or fully released yet.

My Lords, Ladies and everything beneath, I give you….Minecraft!

(NB: Make all pictures bigger by clicking on them)

I can see my house from here!

The above picture is me standing on the highest point I could find locally in a brand new world, a world of endless possibility. I could choose any point here to build my first shelter, but I’d be wary about visiting the cave you can see mid-photo. Creeping terrors lurk in the dark spaces, I’d be best leaving the exploration of that until after I’ve sourced some coal and wood to create flaming torches.

Home away from home. Ahhh.

This charming  island residence (the sandy strip leading to the main island behind the camera was built by me much later on) is from a world I’ve been living, working, building and crafting in for far longer than the one above. The trees were all planted by me, too, after I had to bulldoze the first few I found there. That’s that nice thing about the game – it gives you the ability to chop whole forests down to harvest the wood but doing so drops lots of little seeds per tree to replace the one you’ve brutally murdered. Sustainable forestry!

A word of caution: currently it is possible to ignite one tree and watch it spread to the entire forest; to my pryomaniacal mind this is the most awesome thing in several universes. However, the fire as currently implemented in the game burns eternally. Notch, the bushily-bearded developer, promises he’ll fix this sometime in the future. Meanwhile, If you’ve ever had to chop down an entire forest to stop the fires you’ll appreciate that what starts out as a great idea quickly becomes something of pain in the rectum. It’s not even like you can create a new world and set the fire – you need iron to make the lighter, which requires a fair amount of digging, which requires tools….

Unlike many people who craft ginormous edifices simply because they can, I prefer to minimise my impact on the world. Yes, that’s slightly gay in a digital world without real consequence but let’s just pretend I’m planning for the real thing, ok? 🙂

If you look to the left of the house, on that corner of beach, you’ll see one of the non-aggressive farm animals in the game – the humble sheep. Sheep can be farmed for their wool (which can then be dyed into the whole spectrum of colours, albeit only in block form. No woolly knitted scarves for this avatar!) Or you can brutally murder the baaing bastards for pleasure; no meat is dropped, oddly, despite being able to collect pork chops from the pigs. Cows moo and drop leather when killed, useful for crafting simple armour. ALL animals re-spawn in light so no need to worry about species extinction.

My beautiful home at night. Best not hang about here taking photos, though. The darkness all around me is where Mobs like to spawn!

The Day/Night cycle is perhaps a touch too fast as you can see both Sun and Moon moving across the sky but you get used to it. Oh, if anyone’s wondering, that cross-thing up above my house is a viewing platform. A new addition, made by attaching ladders to the side of the tallest tree. Great view from up there. 🙂

Creepers! The only sound they make is a hissing sound that announces their intent to explode, and that only occurs when they're standing RIGHT NEXT TO YOU. Unwary explorers don't survive long!

Ah, the Creeper. Cause of genuine nightmares but equally the best thing about Minecraft. They’re legendary now, you know:

Of course, they’re not the only monsters to inhabit these virgin worlds:

ZOMBIES!

The great thing about sunrise is that any Zombies or Skeletons that have spawned nearby will burn like matches at the approaching ultraviolet storm…except if they’re standing in water. They deal some fairly hefty damage if you let them but are easily dispatched, particularly if, like me, you’re armed with a sword crafted from purest diamond. PS: Diamond is BLOODY difficult to find. Actually chancing upon a seam of the stuff feels very much like winning the lottery (or how I imagine winning the lottery would feel. Now I’ve made myself feel sad. Excuse me a moment).

I found some Brazilians down here yesterday...

Behold! Dig deep enough and for long enough and you’ll come across something like this.  A natural network of caverns (flowing water and lava optional). It’s always a scary thing, finding one of these. Mobs spawn in any dark spot so your best bet is to run around placing torches everywhere to raise the light level enough to stop that from happening. Some of these tunnel networks are properly vast, though, so you don’t always have enough torches on you, and often the area you want to get to has ominous sounds coming from within…

Once you are safe enough in the light, though, you should be able to find lots of minerals in the walls/ceilings/floors, or be able to commence digging operations to find some. Lava is used to craft obsidian (just dump water on it) which, when mined by diamond pickaxes, can be built into portals you can use to enter a hellish other dimension. True fact. I won’t take you through that in this series of Postcards but it’s definitely a place I need to show you ’cause it scares the willies out of me.

Lava generates light but burns like buggery. Use it wisely.

Crafting: The essentials. (Some Assembly Required)

Back safely within my beautiful home the last photo in today’s series shows you the necessary means through which all of your items, furniture and building materials are forged. From right to left: 1) The crafting table. You have an innate ability to craft in a 4×4 grid. The table gives you a 9×9 grid, enabling more complex recipes to be made. for instance, to make a door requires wooden planks (or Iron ingots) arranged in a 3×2 formation.  2) A large chest (fnar). Two chests placed side by side (FNAR) give you a large chest, for storage of all your important items and minerals. It is recommended to build and use these frequently to avoid losing EVERYTHING YOU OWN to Creeper assaults (which, when it happens, is devastating like you wouldn’t believe). 3) The furnace. Shove in some coal, and some minerals, and out pops purified gold, iron, etc. Shove in sand, you get glass (seen up above). Shove in pork chops, you get…cooked pork chops, which restore health!

You can build all sorts of other items. Bookcases, etc, but generally these three piece of equipment are your defaults.

– – – – – – – – – –

So that concludes this little tour of one of the most fascinating games to have emerged, almost literally out of nowhere, in the last year or so. If you have a PC I urge you to try this game as soon as you can. Not to mention the dozens of mods and new texture packs that be used to alter or upgrade the game to you tastes. I should also mention that the game is still being actively developed, with creator Notch promising to keep adding new things all through this year. In March we will have beds – used to move your original spawn point to wherever you like it, finally freeing the game up for some serious exploration (when you died before you’d keep returning to your original spawn point, often miles back from where you ‘died’). Doubtless there’ll be more Mobs and items too, although I’d be happy if he just made the snow work again. 🙂

An awesome game, everyone. Thanks for reading. See you next time!

Postcards from Morrowind

Foreword: This article takes place in a Morrowind heavily modifed over the vanilla install and was inspired by one of my best friends playing it again and describing her experience in conversation (Hello, Sarah!), and also heavily influenced by an ongoing Game Diary written by one of RockPaperShotgun’s four founding members, Alec Meer. I’ve stuck fairly closely to Alec’s list of Mods, albeit tailored to my own desires, but have used one or two more I thought would be useful. I’ll mention these where applicable. Alec’s continuing diaries provide fascinating reading for those seeking a more journalistic interpretation of the enormous range of experiences the practically unparalleled game-world Morrowind has to offer. By contrast, I intend this article to be nothing more than light amusement and a minor showcase of the amazing things the talented and dedicated community has made available for this old classic. Enjoy.

– – – – – – – – – –

By far the most undeniably astonishing modification you can make to Morrowind is to unleash the Morrowind Graphical Extender (MGE) upon it. The default game, being a product of the time when computers were not so powerful as today, relies on some very close fogging to keep frame-rates high, hiding everything beyond a certain range as if you are perpetually surround by a thick cone of the stuff. For a world as imaginatively designed as Morrowind this can be extremely frustrating. The MGE utility removes such frustrations. Behold!

Morrowind 2009-06-29 11-31-31-98

Sunset, looking west from a hill not far from Maar Gan, in the Ashlands region.

Fans of Morrowind’s sequel, Oblivion, are well used to such sweeping landscapes thanks to the new technology developers Bethesda designed for that game. But to see them in Morrowind really does take the breath away. EVERYTHING you see here can be travelled to, including that Dwemer (Dwarven) ruin poking up on the right-hand side of the horizon. Another great feature of MGE is that it can apply better shading and lighting effects – you’ll note the blood red splashes of colour to the left of the snapshot, caused as the setting sun reflects on the water. What’s also enormously exciting it that I’ve had to use the LOWER settings of this mod to get an acceptable frame-rate on my six year old machine at a paltry (but still anti-aliased) 800×600 resolution. Imagine how much better it would look on a modern beast PC!

Morrowind 2009-06-29 13-21-50-96

A massive Silt-Strider stands ready to transport passengers around Morrowind, on the southern edge of Balmora. Early-morning mists still cling sleepily to the surrounding hills. Aww.

Another of MGE’s capabilities is to apply a blur effect to distant landforms, leading to a faintly romantic depth-of-field effect perfect for fantasy games such as this one. The patches of light you can see above are the product of another mod, Lights300, which applies much more realistic and dynamic lighting conditions to exterior and interior environments and other sources. Interiors look SO much better than the bland ambient lighting the game shipped with, although it does take some getting used to the now-pitch-black caverns, tombs and dungeons! Torches, lamps and lighting spells become vitally important for any intrepid explorer, introducing a much-needed note of real trepidation as sudden frontal attacks from the gloom test nerves and loosen bowels…

Morrowind 2009-06-29 12-38-48-29

Ahem. Yes, I paid a visit to the House of Earthly Delights in Suran, but only on official business for the Fighter's Guild, I assure you. You can put your hands down now, love. My weapon won't be leaving its sheath this time...

Speaking of human bottoms…this lively, somewhat seedy tavern in Suran benefits hugely, not only from the lighting mod bathing everything in flickering red light, but also from the Better Bodies mod (also Better Faces, Better Hair, etc), an enormous improvement over the rough, gawky, low-poly character models supplied by Bethesda back in 2002. When this young naked dancer completes her spin she is ENTIRELY anatomically correct (and quite deliciously so), meaning this is possibly the only shot (out of the 783 I seem to have taken) that I could show you without me and my blogging being summarily drop-kicked out of the WordPress community. Thankfully, the ladies of Morrowind don’t go in for ‘brazilians’, a practice I’ve always thought makes women look like plastic Barbie dolls anyway. Hurrah for realism!

Morrowind 2009-06-29 13-22-51-48

Silt-Strider travel agent, Selvil Sareloth, stands watch atop his lonely boarding platform, cheerfully reciting the company sales-mottos to each and every passer-by in his trademark throaty growl: "We make a special run, just for you. Same low price". Drives the ladies wild, so I'm told.

A noteworthy feature of this particular shot (apart from the re-textured surfaces: Morrowind Visual Pack v3) is something we geeks like to call HDR lighting, another fabulous ability of the now legendary MGE mod that seeks to emulate the way lighting contrast is handled by human eyes, the way our irises open and close to adjust to less or more light coming in. This shot perfectly encapsulates the glaring band of brightness that often occurs between grey skies and dark landscape. Taking this shot reminded me very much of the most prominent form of what we laughingly call ‘weather’ in my home town of Aberdeen, which also boasts one of the highest rates of suicide in the North-East of Scotland. Coincidence? I’m not a great believer in it.

Morrowind 2009-06-29 15-49-55-79

This coy minx steadfastly refusing to share her surname with me was discovered hiding her great beauty under the bushel of a local Imperial Cult office. I did try to coax a little softness out of her, but she weathered my attentions with the kind of measured patience only the truly beautiful learn to wield when being pestered by those of lesser attractiveness. Bitch. Still, I've dated religious women before and they always tend to clash badly with my Heathen ways. Perhaps this was for the best.

My last snap of the day showcases another of the great mods Alec had selected for his Morrowind adventure: MCA, or Morrowind Comes Alive. MCA adds hundreds more NPCs to the game, making the world feel more, um, alive than the default game, which often tended to be a sparse, lonely experience. Now we have bands of bandits roving the badlands, shoppers shopping in the towns and villages, and many gorgeous and startling additions like the one pictured above. I once encountered a pleasant, blue-skinned Dunmer (Dark Elf) woman outside a Daedric (Demon) Ruin who had the most amazing wings upon her back but, to my eternal regret, I had not packed my camera on that trip. I also found a Lay-Preistess in Vivec who bore a stunning resemblance to my good friend, Suzanne. But when I later returned, camera in hand, she was nowhere to be seen…

– – – – – – – – –

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I’ve enjoyed putting this together so much I may do this or something similar one day soon! If you fancy trying the mods you can simply google for them, read the lists of links Alec has diligently placed within his precis articles or, if you have some time, why not sift through this fairly mind-boggling  list? Please be careful, though. Spending hours looking for the right dresses to put into a game means you may be taking it all too seriously, and – if you are aggressively masculine like myself – might lead to some decidedly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness.

Plants vs Zombies!!! YouTube Trailer!!!

I don’t know what it is…but I must have played this song for myself over two dozen times already. I think it’s the litle sunflower’s singing voice; she’s adorable, moving the song well past the paltry word ‘catchy’ and into some strange universe where music directly reprograms your brain’s neural wiring.

Have a listen, but don’t blame me if you’re sneaking out of bed at 3am to fire up the PC for one more blast:

(Incidentally, this video is the highly imaginitive marketing effort for an upcoming PC game. Find out more here, particularly if you can’t get enough of Solitaire, Peggle or Bejewelled. You can even make your own Zombie Avatar!