Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Minecraft, Little Big Planet, etc.

When I was a teenager and still home-schooled I spent most of my time screwing around. Luckily for me, my chosen forms of screwing around -- mostly doing things and then writing about them, or imagining things and then writing about them -- tended to be at least somewhat educational. Yes, I had homework, but really I mostly read and learned about what I wanted to read and learn about. (This is also, unfortunately, why my math is so poor.) I could write a book at the beginning of the day and then read a book and then draw for a while and listen to music and then write about the music and re-watch a movie and then work on my book some more, and I could play just about every video game that caught my interest, because I had a job and very little else to spend the money on.

These days I have to spend my time a little more carefully, so I don't read as many books as I used to, and I don't finish anything that bores me. I do still feel a need to keep up with things, though -- to read about the bands I used to follow even if I don't care about them anymore, and to read something like six articles about Freedom even though (in fact because) I never plan to read the behemoth itself. I don't play many video games either, in part because I can afford so few. But I do watch videos of other people playing them, or read what they've written about their experiences. Often this lets me extract what I really wanted from the book or the music or the game with a much smaller investment of time. What am I extracting? Learning, sometimes. Sometimes a mood. I'm not sure where Minecraft lies in that scheme.

What I like about videos of people playing Minecraft is how soothing they are. This one above in particular. Minecraft is, I guess, a game about gathering resources and building things. I guess that in one mode you just build for fun all the time and then in the other mode there are creatures that want to kill you, to break through what you've built. Both modes sound pretty cool. I am increasingly attracted to games that focus on building, though.

A few observations about this video in particular: the music is nice. It makes me feel good and relaxed. I wouldn't listen to it alone but I will listen to it while I look at a miniature version of the planet Earth. I love the idea of building a model of the world one brick at a time. I love the way this game lets you build with cubes, and only cubes -- which is to say, with 3D pixels. Limitations make the game world manageable. I like that he walks across a bridge to get to the planet. What's outside the world? I guess, in this case, other things built by people, including others. The best part of the video is where he goes up inside the world from underneath and it turns out there's sort of a clubhouse thing going on there. Imagine if the Earth were hollow. Imagine if it was your playhouse inside.

In this video a guy has built the framework of a 1-to-1 model of the Starship Enterprise (I'm guessing Enterprise-D). He would like some people to come and build the individual decks with him.

In the video above, you can watch a time-lapsed 24-hour period of building on a server. This video explores some other nice architecture from the inside, and there's some nice music too.

Sometimes when I look at games with a focus on user-generated content I feel guilty about Little Big Planet. The game was a gift for a friend. If you're not familiar, Little Big Planet is a platformer for you and up to three friends. You jump around, sort of like Mario. It's really simple and usually pretty laid back. What sets the game apart is that the users can make levels just as good as (or better than) the ones that come packed with the game, using a series of extremely powerful tools. I could easily make levels for this game. I've had a few ideas for levels, even, that seemed pretty cool. I doubt I'll ever get around to it. I'll probably buy the sequel at some point after it comes out, and marvel at the levels other people made, and then go on not contributing anything myself, though I like to think of myself as a pretty smart dude, fairly capable, etc.

The thing is, though, that there's not much point in playing Little Big Planet levels apart from the fact that you could have, given sufficient time and skill and energy and planning and so on, perhaps maybe made them yourself. Tracy makes sounds of genuine delight when something interesting or cute or exciting or unexpected or innovative or clearly difficult-to-make happens in a level she's playing, and often this is followed by verbally congratulating the maker of the level for what he or she has done. There is a sympathy, a meeting of the minds, that reminds me of the pleasure I feel in reading a book I feel I could have maybe someday, given sufficient time and skill and energy and planning and talent and luck and so on, maybe kind of sort of written myself. I would be happier if I had really written it, perhaps, but there are other books for me to write, and I feel a profound connection to the one that did make it. I feel gratitude, delight. I feel as if I've extracted some of the joy of the making. When we play Little Big Planet, we are constantly engaged with the joy of the making as well as the thing made.

The joy of that experience is often diluted by the fact that most people apparently prefer recreating movies and other video games rather than creating their own original levels. It seems so lazy, so unimaginative, so depressing -- given the opportunity to make practically anything they can imagine, they make a Castlevania knockoff.

But this impulse is cast in a more charitable light by the painstaking recreations of major architecture in Minecraft. To rebuild Notre Dame in Minecraft is probably less difficult than to recreate a Mario level, especially if you do anything witty or interesting in your interpretation of the Mario concept. You also generally cannot perfectly reproduce a Mario level, while in recreating architecture one might actually use the blueprints: the interpretation is, at least potentially, terribly literal. But I instinctively respect the effort of those rebuilding already-existing buildings.

Part of it is the visual austerity of the buildings, I imagine. Part of it is their apparent solidness. Probably it's mostly a highbrow/lowbrow thing. In any case, it makes me feel that one might remake a Mario level for the same reason one might remake Notre Dame -- to drag one's fingers over its texture and its curves very slowly. To roll it on one's tongue. To imagine what it might be like to build the thing oneself. To participate in architecture, in building, in making. To remake Mario is to imagine making Mario, just as I love to imagine building that model Earth, but do not want to take the time to do it now, or just as I want to make fun of Freedom, but without having to take the time to read the thing I laugh at. But nobler, I guess, than that.

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