Minecraft has become one of those games that is defined by the experiences of the players itself instead of the experience offered by the game. The last game I played that really gave me that feeling was Grand Theft Auto III, as I remember having conversations with friends about our crazy escapades through the streets of Liberty City as we stole cars, outran the cops and managed to pick up some prostitutes along the way. Sure, the game had a set experience defined by the developers, but the longevity of the game’s popularity really came from its open ended world that let the players essentially create their own narrative. Minecraft is a game entirely built around this idea. Like Grand Theft Auto, I’ve spent many lives roaming around the worlds of Minecraft, forging out my own reality. The one that really hit close to home was the day I died.
Dying in Minecraft isn’t a rare or new experience. It happens all the time. Sometimes that first night results in death from an arrow firing skeleton or a zombie. Other times a creeper comes out of nowhere and explodes, ending your life. It’s never a big deal. You lose whatever you were carrying and you respawn at your original spawn point or a bed you slept in. If you go back to where you died, you can pick up all the things you lost and go about your business. Like I said, it isn’t a big deal.
One time in particular, I spent a few in-game weeks digging out a mine. I dug down as far as I could, hearing the sounds of nearby dungeons through the mine walls as I went further down. The mine itself became a myriad of passages and paths, all leading to false exits and dead ends. I had built chests in the mine to hold the massive amount of building materials I had acquired, so inventory space was never really an issue. In my journey through the caverns, I discovered a series of caves built around a flowing underground river. I was surprised that the game had been able to generate something like this, given the regular glitchy nature that our world had been prone to. I dug through it and had set up a small base of operations inside, but eventually I had to make my way onward. I needed to mine more minerals! Most of all, I needed to find my way back to the surface.
The problem was that I had dug so far into the mine that I had become lost. I had no idea how to find my own way home. The only thing to do was to keep going. I couldn’t stop there. I had to keep digging. Eventually I decided to start digging my way out. Somehow, someway I had to find my way back to civilization. I had to find my way back to where my friends had set up their respective castles and phallic monuments to a blocky god that didn’t exist.
I finally reached the surface. When I emerged from the labyrinth of my own making, it was dark. The sun would likely be up soon. I stumbled around, looking for some sign of something that resembled the world from whence I had come. No matter what direction I looked, there was no indication that I was anywhere near where I had started. I was alone. The world had continued to generate as I moved further and further away from civilization. I was in a new world. A new, barren no man’s land lay before me.
I didn’t know how long it would be until dawn. I examined my surroundings a little more, and set up a few torches at the top of a cliff to light the area. I stood up there and looked out over the horizon, hoping one more time just to see something resembling my home. With nothing in sight, I saw that two choices were laid out before me: I could either build a new home and eventually try and find my way back, or I had to die.
I started building a small house to get me through the night. The plethora of building supplies I had amassed during the last leg of the journey through the mine made it an easy task, and the torches gave just enough light to see what I was doing. I built a small rectangular house out of the wood and stone I happened to be carrying. I had better building supplies that I was carrying, but for a temporary house, I didn’t need them. Inside of the house I built a chest to hold all of my valuables. I had acquired a lot of redstone, and I wasn’t in any position to lose all of that over a mismanaged encounter with a creeper.
My small stone sanctuary was completed, and the sun started coming up over the horizon. It was going to be another beautiful, blocky day. I watched from the cliff as the pixelated sun came up, and as the soft piano music started playing, I knew what I had to do.
I had to die.
I couldn’t make it home. I had no idea what direction I should have been wandering in, and for all I could tell there were fields of glacier and forests between me and my homeland. My thoughts of building a new home were quickly being replaced by the truth. I needed to die so I could get back to my home. I had a house there. I had a lot going there for me. I was in the process of building a floating tower of doom. I wasn’t ready to give that up.
I made a sign outside of my small home that said “Brandon Lived Here.” I knew that if anyone else on the server ever made it out there, they’d see that and they’d leave my materials alone until I could get back to them. I shut the door and walked to the edge of the cliff. I looked down at the ground below me, and then looked ahead. The sun was high in the sky. I took one last look at it, and I jumped. I fell to the ground, and I died on impact.
I respawned back at the server spawn point, not far from where we had all built our homes. I went back to my small house that I lived in. It was not far from the entrance to the mine, and it was not far from where I had been building my tower fortress. I knew the trip back through the mine would be a pain, so I planned to make that journey on another day. I decided to log out of the server. I wasn’t sure what else I could do at that point.
While playing Grand Theft Auto, it was rare for me to ever die by my own choice. It was typical that I would make some stupid mistake during a run and end up getting myself killed. After amassing a five or six star warrant, it wasn’t uncommon for me to die once the army started showing up. Beyond Grand Theft Auto, it isn’t uncommon to die in video games. Death typically signifies a problem that lay in front of the player. When we reach a challenge that we might not be prepared to face, we die, and the knowledge we take from that encounter helps us on the next attempt. Mega Man 2 taught me this, as did Demon’s Souls.
Death in video games teaches us the limits of our surroundings. This has been minimized greatly in newer games, which often relegate death to a minor inconvenience while we wait for the respawn counter to count down. Death is no longer a sign of defeat as much as it is a temporary impedance. Death in Minecraft is just that, a temporary impedance, but this death specifically took on an odd significance. It felt personal. That character lived a life, and ended it on his own terms.
I can’t think of many other games that give me that experience.