You don’t need to be psychic to predict how the media’s GOTYs are going to turn out this year. Yes, there have been big budget hits and long awaited sequels. There have been exciting new franchises, returns of characters long left in stasis, and multiplayer gaming of a quality possibly superseding any year before.
But despite the big guns, the money makers, the games that are pushing gaming further into (and beyond) previous levels of cinematic mastery, there is one huge curve-ball. A game that has entertained, educated, scared, challenged, inspired and awed people of all ages. A game so wide in scope and purpose that to explain it to a prospective player is surprisingly difficult.
If you hadn’t worked it out already I’m talking about Minecraft. The fan response to Minecraft has been off the charts. Over four million players have bought the game despite it being in beta, and who knows how many more will buy it once it’s released in full next week. The game has made it’s primary creator Markus “Notch” Persson a household name in tech-savvy circles. Even MineCon, a convention dedicated solely to Minecraft, sold out its 4,500 seats within weeks. The sales of Minecraft would be strong even if it was a AAA big budget title, yet it started as a one-man indie project and got its sales through word of mouth.
Should Game Of The Year be decided by what games garner the best critical response? What else should be important? Which game has moved things forward? Which games have helped the industry the most? Or which games have benefitted most people?
What Makes Minecraft special?
Gaming is an intensely personal experience. No two people come away from a game seeing or feeling the same things. Games like Uncharted, Call Of Duty and Gears Of War hold your hand through a fixed narrative with a strict set of rules. This is no bad thing, and the games are executed exceptionally well. Because they excel in spectacle, action and direct story-telling everyone comes out of those games with approximately the same framework of experiences as handed down by the writers and level designers.
A game like Minecraft in contrast, has exploring, collecting, mining, farming, building and hunter-gathering as tent-poles of the single and multiplayer experience, but gives you freedom to create or do pretty much whatever you like, alone or with friends. These are approximations of the routines you’d have to perform to survive if you were really dropped in Minecraft’s virtual worlds – the resulting experience is more intimate. When playing Minecraft you never feel like you’re playing a character. You ARE the character. I’ve never felt like that in any game with a fixed narrative, even ones with an open world like Skyrim and Fallout 3.
When you explore those games you sit and admire the beauty of the hand crafted environments, knowing it’s all been set up that way for you to discover. You’re never going to stumble on truly new sights – it had to be built for you by someone else! In contrast, Minecraft generates it’s terrain on the fly. The joy you experience from discovering something noteworthy is palpable, your attachment to the environment and your achievements feel greater as the world, however blocky, is more tangible than the slick “film sets” of other games. Nobody has ever visited the bizarre mountain-range or underground catacombs you stumble into by mistake.. It IS your world. (unless you’re sharing it on a multiplayer server)
How does any of that make it worthy?
Some of Minecraft’s accomplishments are well outside the realms of what “normal” games can achieve: It has been used in schools to teach teamwork, used to stimulate disabled children to open up and interact, it can be an elaborate chatroom, a way of building sculptures, a tool for mocking up and visualising architecture, a basis for virtual sporting events, player vs player turf wars, roleplaying, creating simple logic programs. It’s also very flexible and open to modders, who’ve done everything from add new animal and terrain types and to implementing complex magic and economy systems. (mods obviously don’t count when considering GOTY status, but it’s definitely part of the appeal to many gamers), it’s even won its fair share of awards pre-release, including arts prizes.
Possibly most importantly, it appeals to a very wide range of people. It’s a game that attracts attention to gaming as a positive activity without dumbing things down or leveraging physical fitness or any other subject that’s not really furthering games design. In my opinion Minecraft has done more for individuals, families, indie developers, children and gaming as a whole than any other game in a very long time.
What do you think? Does it deserve the award/s or acclaim?
NB: I’d never hate on any of the big titles this year. I wish Arkham City, Uncharted 3, Portal 2, Skyrim, Skyward Sword all the luck in the world, but all I see each of those doing is refining formulas and polishing tropes that haven’t radically changed in over a decade. I believe Minecraft and certain other titles point to a future for the industry which is much richer, and more empowering for the developers and players alike.