A Sound from the Distance

There was a time when I was very addicted to playing Minecraft. I would play from morning to night without eating. Years later, I found that I was not the only one who became addicted to this game. Minecraft is the second popular digital game all over the world (the first is Tetris). And among friends of mine, no matter whom I talk Minecraft to, he would have experience to share. I thought over and over that what makes Minecraft so amazing. Then I saw its aesthetics, with which all the game elements work in perfect harmony and serve the central fantasy together. Minecraft is a masterpiece with charming grace. In this article, I will discuss how different elements in Minecraft support each other, and what kind of "central fantasy" they hold.

Minecraft's mechanism has great freedom and fun embedded. As a sandbox game, Minecraft's central mechanism is to destroy and place blocks. The idea is just amazing, giving players unlimited ability of free building with only two simple rules. The very first Alpha version[1] of Minecraft only has the two rules (and two basic blocks, soil and stone, with the multi-player function). It gained a lot of praises once posted. Players enjoyed the freedom, spending hours to build architectures like bridges, houses and sculptures, or just simply digging everywhere. The other mechanism is to use functional items like crafted tools or furnaces. It provides specialized functions in the game, which is necessary to make colorful experiences besides building. Vanilla Minecraft has enabled players to explore, to fight, to build, to destroy, to craft, to breed, to communicate with friends, etc. Players can freely choose their lifestyles in Minecraft with little pressure. The options are numerous, the punishment of death is little, and the goal of the game doesn't even exist.

However, no matter how many contents are included, it will never be infinity. After players get familiar with all the items and rules, (which may happen after hundreds of hours of playing though,) the game will finally be exploited fully. We can see the phenomenon in almost every game: open-world games, simulator games, sandboxes. But for Minecraft, this problem is resolved perfectly by Mods! Nowadays, Mods can add almost every imaginable function to Minecraft, and creating them is becoming easier and easier with developing tools[2]. It added infinite freedom to Minecraft where players are free to personalize the virtual world they live in and will never get bored.

Art and sound in Minecraft further enhance its fantasy that has shown by its mechanism. It is natural to have the voxel art style, because it corresponds to the cubic blocks (like dirt and stone) in the game. Also, the simplicity of art achieves a high degree of abstraction of concepts. It helps players to focus on the virtual world and rules in it, instead of their realistic impressions. The music and sounds, on the other hand, are very amazing and smart. Before discussing it, we know that repeated background music in most games can easily cause auditory fatigue, and it more or less breaks the immersion (since background music is played by no physical device in the virtual world). But Minecraft avoids this problem by muting the background music. Players can only hear various sound effects (like sounds of animals and steps), which only add to the immersion of the experience.

Muting background music is not often a good design. Music is actually super powerful in emotional expressions. It influences players' feelings all the time, and therefore sets the basis of the game atmosphere. But after all, it conveys not only "what the world is", but also "how the character feels about the world". This may be not obvious in logic, but we must remember that music is all about emotions, and in games, the emotions are from the main character (mostly). So once the background music is played, the emotions of the character are fixed, and the player needs to behave by these emotions to keep a good consistency. (As an example, this music[3] is clearly of happy and relaxing moods. If the character was fighting with this music playing, it feels weird and inconsistent.) It is great for RPG games, because RPG games' point is role-playing, where the players are expected to feel and behave as their pre-designed characters. Background music emphasizes the Characteristic and helps the players to understand the stories. But Minecraft doesn't want its players to play by the book. By muting the background music, Minecraft frees the players to feel and behave as themselves instead of the character. In Minecraft, characters are really the avatars of their players, the real humans.

But Minecraft also plays background music in two situations. First, the player uses a CD on the CD machine. In this case the music has a reasonable physical source so it won't break the immersion. Second, very randomly the music can begin directly at any time, play once and then stop. How could this not break the immersion we discussed in last paraphrase? Well, I think it DOES. But Minecraft's sound designer is very smart to make this case a nice rest of the player's experience. The music is relaxing and quiet itself (which makes its fading in and out more natural and smooth). While the player is fully in his avatar, busy on whatever he does, this random music would make him back into his human body and rest for a little while. At the same time, I personally think this music stands for more of the world's physiologies rather than the character's emotions. It feels like the End Poem[4] of the survival mode, in which the avatar/player is discussed by two unknown wills (maybe gods). Minecraft makes such a psychological architecture that the player is fully free in a world of static rules, while the "will of the world" exists and observes the player. The emotions in the background music come from the "will of the world", and when it is played, the communication between the world and the player is established.

After reading the background information[5] about the music designer of Minecraft, C418, I found that the music is casual creation inspired and driven by Minecraft’s very central core. Minecraft was just a funny prototype that allowed the player to destroy and place blocks when it inspired C418 to compose the original background music, Calm1-3. The casual, free and relaxing core of Minecraft, the graceful zen of concrete manifestation hinting infinite possibilities, are condensed into the music. It is why the music can represent the world's will. When the musical sound comes from the distance, the resonance is built up and the spirit is expressed by itself.

In summary, Minecraft only defines the world itself but not how the player plays this game. The game is static there for the player to freely play with. It is where the freedom, the fantasy comes in Minecraft. Most games are like girls with elaborated make-up, all focusing on conveying things and leading the audience to their pre-designed directions; while Minecraft is like a girl with a clean face, standing with her nature and existence quietly. She can be your lover, your friend, or your mentor...... Only when she doesn't attempt to narrow your views or lead the relationship between you and her, that you can ever reach out to find the relationship you want; you can understand her existence and care about her after all. I believe it is why that so many people love Minecraft: they are themselves in the virtual world.

[1] https://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=6273.0
[2] https://mcreator.net/download
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeaZu3nSn9A
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VWsq1JXVWY
[5] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/nbe2h/i_am_the_composer_and_sound_designer_of_minecraft/