Published on October 31st, 2013 | by Nich Maragos1
Minecraft: Survivalist Horror
Minor Key Games released Eldritch last week, a first-person game that fuses Minecraft, roguelikes and the Cthulhu Mythos. As a fan of all three of those things, I was greatly looking forward to it, so I was surprised to find that my ultimate reaction to the game was on the tepid side.
The form and trappings were present and correct—you begin in a forebodingly empty library and travel to the realm of Dagon, where you’re menaced by cultists and fishmen—but the feel was off. The fishmen went down in two hits from the knife I picked up early on. These easy-to-dispatch enemies yielded plenty of loot: magic power and bullets, useful for picking off cultists from a distance. And health-replenishing food was plentiful, particularly for a game where I didn’t lose a single point of damage to the enemies for the entire time I played. For a game purporting to be a roguelike, a genre where death is usually swift and frequent until you learn the idiosyncrasies of your opposition, this was disappointing.
Strangest of all, though, was how Eldritch led me to appreciate how underrated Minecraft is as a horror game. When people talk about Minecraft, it’s usually not in terms of horror. They might call it a LEGO-style game of organic building blocks, and describe the majestic edifices they’ve constructed in their worlds. They might come at it as a puzzle to be solved, and detail mods they’ve installed to fashion a perfectly self-sustaining farm that chugs along without any manual input. Or they might consider it one of the finest children’s games ever made, marveling at how their younger relatives just can’t be dragged away from the screen.
Less often will they tell you about the times those edifices came under attack from monsters eager to tear them down and get at their occupants. They don’t talk about why it’s so important to keep your food and resource reserves stocked high. And they probably don’t see that if Minecraft is a children’s game, it’s one that owes less to Bob the Builder and LEGO blocks than it does to William Sleator and Roald Dahl.
The most pervasive horror in Minecraft is the fear of the unknown; of what lies beneath, lurking in the dark. When you start an adventure in a new world, you begin in an unspoiled natural Eden where the sun shines, animals graze contently, and you’re free to roam wherever you wish and take whatever you want. But this blissful peace lasts only until you find yourself in the dark.
This will happen eventually. The world, so pristine at first glance, is in fact pockmarked with rents and fissures leading down into the black depths; you’re likely to find one of these in the course of poking around looking for resources. But even if you wisely stay out of the gashes in the earth at the out, you still only have 10 minutes before the sun sets. And in the darkness, whether above or below, live the monsters.
These monsters are not Eldritch’s bumbling, pitiable opponents. Maybe once they were, many revisions of the game ago (and I have hope that Eldritch will follow in Minecraft’s footsteps) but not anymore. I’ve played hundreds of hours of Minecraft and know their behaviors and tricks inside and out, and they still manage to catch me off guard in a blind panic. In the course of researching this article, I began a new single-player adventure and took the best precaution I knew against the terrors of the night: I built my home underwater, a complex trick that, in theory, keeps you safe from the marauding creatures of the surface world.
Here’s what happened anyway:
Zombies, unable to invade my home in the usual way, began coming up through a mineshaft I’d dug into a nearby ravine. I would be tending to my trees in my home’s basement, wondering where those moans were coming from, when suddenly I’d find myself under attack from a zombie horde that’d followed the lights to a human victim.
Skeletons, which normally burn to death in the light of the rising sun, couldn’t get enough of my underwater bunker. The bobbing ocean’s waves protected them from catching on fire, giving them just the environment they needed to camp the waters above my head and pick me off whenever I tried to surface. It got to the point where I needed to build an underground passageway to dry land just to leave home.
Creepers perpetually spawned in the permanently unlit high ridges of the basement ravine. Though Creepers don’t home in you from as far as a skeleton or zombie will, they differ from more “dangerous” mobs in one key respect: having no sense of self-preservation, they leapt willingly from those high ridges to get down to my level and attempt to suicide bomb me to pieces.
And let’s not even talk about the Endermen. The point is, in Minecraft, you are never safe. No matter how well-lit your current house or cave, the moment you hear a zombie’s groan or spider’s hiss, you freeze and whirl, wondering: is it in here with me? Even above ground in broad daylight, you might walk over a shallow cave and hear the sounds of the monsters below, a grim reminder of what’s waiting for you only a few blocks away.
But fear of the unknown is only half of Minecraft’s horror equation. Unless you’re playing on the one-life Hardcore difficulty, then dying to these difficult monsters only means you spawn back at the origin point of the world, or at the last bed you’ve slept in. Where’s the sting of death, then?
The other half is the fear of loss. Nothing comes easy in Minecraft. Playing the game brings to mind Carl Sagan’s adage about how “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” Minecraft’s crafting recipes don’t include apple pies, but you can bake a cake. “All” you need to do is fashion four different types of tools, find two different types of animals, plant crops and wait for them to yield a harvest, brave the dangers underground for special minerals, and then craft the results together. Easy! (It probably took me less time to bake an actual cake for *Hyun-ae.)
Granted, some of those steps are things you’d have to do anyway in the course of a normal Minecraft game. But cake isn’t unique; making anything in Minecraft can be a laborious process of finding and harvesting materials. When you’re decked out in a suit of iron armor, carrying an enchanted Fortune Pick and a tall stack of cooked food down into a cave, you worked hard for all those things.
And when you die, you lose it all. Oh, you might get your gear back, if you’re lucky and determined, but there’s a window of only minutes before the items you leave behind on death all disappear, and if you can’t make it there in time, you lose everything you worked so hard for. When I see the end coming in Minecraft, sometimes my last fevered thought is please just let me die on land so my stuff doesn’t sink into the ocean or please just let me swim out of this lava before everything I have burns up.
Because death and monsters aren’t the worst of Minecraft’s horrors. Far worse is the fear, as you race back to the spot where you died, that all the things you crafted, all your in-game accomplishments, will have been for nothing in the end. It’s the horror of having to rewrite a thousand-word draft you forgot to save before the power went out—or rebuilding your life after a devastating house fire. This is the real reason Creepers are Minecraft’s most iconic enemy. By sneaking up behind you and exploding, they’re the only monster that can unmake the things you’ve built in the span of a few panicked seconds.
So when you’re casting about for a scary game to play on Halloween, consider one that might already be close at hand. Fire up Minecraft, harvest some jack o’lanterns, and go trick-or- treat for minerals down a deep black cavern. You won’t find any candy down there, but the game’s real sense of fear will make the goodies you bring back home all the sweeter.