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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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Minecraft a masterpiece of emergent play Add to ...

I had no idea what to expect from Minecraft before I began playing. I intentionally refrained from reading any of the countless articles written about this indie darling during its earlier alpha and current beta phase. I heard word early on that it was about creating things, and that its developer-a lone Swede named Markus Persson-didn't provide much in the way of details or instructions because part of the fun stemmed from discovery. Hence, I insulated myself from the publicity storm in hopes of ensuring that when I eventually dove in it would be with an untainted mind. If you want to experience Minecraft this way, I suggest you stop reading now and go download it at www.minecraft.net. You won't regret it.

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Upon clicking "Create New World" l found myself looking out over a grand vista of randomly generated hills, trees, lakes, and beaches under a blue sky with sparse clouds. The graphics were decidedly old-school-blocky and vividly hued-but possessed of a retro charm.

Clicking the left mouse button resulted in a cube-like hand swinging out from the side of the screen. Okay, first-person view. That was one mystery solved. Using the WASD keys to walk I began exploring.

I climbed small mountains, swam in ponds, and walked past cows, sheep, and pigs grazing in fields, but I found nothing one would traditionally think to be of interest in a game. No weapons, no buildings, no non-player characters, no objectives. After perhaps 10 minutes, night began to fall, the moon rising up from the horizon. I paused momentarily, admiring the pixel-y sunset.

Then a deep, ominous moan came from behind me. I spun around to find a lumbering monster quickly approaching. I turned to run only to be confronted by another. They touched me and I began taking damage, the small collection of red hearts lining the bottom of my screen quickly winking out of existence. I fled, but evil creatures-zombies, spiders, green ambulatory sticks-were everywhere, and all of them were giving chase.

Frantically running up and down hills, I eventually stumbled into a deep crevice. I couldn't see anything, but I moved forward in the inky blackness. I was utterly blind and wasn't even sure if I was still making progress. Eventually I stopped moving. Groans and skittering sounds could be heard, but didn't seem to be coming from my immediate vicinity. I waited.

After what seemed an eternity, light appeared. It was dim at first, but it quickly grew into the brightness of day. I moved forward and crept up and out of the hole into which I had fallen. I peeked over the edge, just in time to see monsters in the distance bursting into flame and disappearing.

To the east I could see the sun slowly rising. I jumped out of the hole and ran around looking for something with which to arm myself or a better place to hide, but the world was just as empty as it had been the previous day. How would I survive the night again? Frustrated, I approached a nearby pig and whacked it. It jumped away. I moved closer and hit it again. About 10 strikes later it disappeared and turned into a hunk of meat. I moved over it to pick it up and a meat icon appeared in a row of empty boxes at the bottom of the screen.

Inspiration dawned. What if I hit other things with my blocky mitt?

I approached a tree and began whacking it with my fist as quickly as I could. A square chunk of wood chipped off. I kept whacking and more wooden cubes appeared. I collected dozens of pieces before opening my inventory, where I began experimenting with them. Placing a piece of wood resulted in the crafting grid a stack of four wooden planks. Perfect.

Planks in hand, I exited my inventory and returned to the game world. I tried clicking the left mouse button, but that just made my fist lash out with planks. Such an action might come in handy when the monsters returned, but I had a feeling my new material would be better used to build something.

I tried right-clicking, and, sure enough, a wooden block appeared before me. I clicked again and a second block appeared next to the first. I stole a glance at the sun. It was already going down. But I had about 60 planks to work with. I began assembling a makeshift square structure, just big enough to fit inside. I slotted the last cube in place just as I heard the first creepy moan of the evening's freshly resurrected fiends.

It was going to be a long, creepy night, but I would survive. I spent it thinking about all of the things I wanted to try whacking and building come dawn.

Remember, Minecraft isn't even out of beta. Full release is expected by the end of the year, but for now it has plenty of broken and missing features and is loaded with unpredictable game-ending glitches.

But players don't seem to care. Persson has pre-sold almost two million copies. At 15 euros per copy, it's earned him more than $30 million. He's created his own firm-Mojang-to speed up development. In the meantime, enough people to fill the city of Calgary twice over are playing every day.

I spent six hours with it my first Saturday.

After my second night I began whacking everything I saw and discovered that, with a bit of patience, I could harvest just about anything-sand, wool, gravel, even dirt. I headed back to my little shelter come nightfall to tinker with my collected elements, combining them to create new building materials and useful tools, such as torches to light the night, swords to protect myself, and, most importantly, pick axes to dig deeper into the earth, where rare minerals including iron, gold, and diamonds are waiting to be found.

By the time I figured out how to make a smelter-which allowed me create refined materials such as glass (I immediately installed a glass roof on my hut so I could track the moon's progress across the sky and know when it was safe to head back outside)-I had more ideas for things I wanted to try building than I could keep track of. Bridges, fences, moats, boats. Minecraft is nothing if not an outlet through which creative juices can flow.

I'm currently in the process of digging a mine into the bowels of the world from inside my home. Stairs lead down into the dirt from right beside my crafting table, torches lighting the way. This allows me to mine safely in the evening without going outside. It's not completely free from danger-I accidentally dug through the ocean floor at one point, flooding the cavern with water-but it's a far cry more relaxing than exploring the monster-filled world above come dusk.

I've downloaded a list of items from Minecraftwiki that can be crafted using various resources. Many recipes can be stumbled upon simply enough through experimentation-set coal atop a stick to make a torch, place six wooden planks in a triangle to make stairs-but this list has proven invaluable for figuring out how to make more complex items, like a furnace. Still, I'm trying hard not to look at this cheat sheet. Minecraft is a triumph of emergent play; reading crafting recipes rather than discovering them destroys any sense of achievement.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the Tower of Babel-like stone spire I'm building. I'm want to reach those blocky clouds I noticed at the start of the game. Who knows? Maybe I can mine something from them, too.

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