Game Pile: Minecraft’s Missing Goblins

What can you learn about Minecraft from the monsters that live there?

Script below the fold.

I don’t mean some sort of ‘ooo, Steve! was the real monster,’ or ‘Herobrine is a thing’ nonsense. What I mean is that in the purest and simplest sense, Minecraft is a game that in its natural game experience, introduces you to monsters, and those monsters reflect a detail about the world.

First, Minecraft is a world that has a sort of pseudo-fantasy flair to it. It’s not really what you’d consider fantasy fantasy, it doesn’t have a lot of your classic fantasy elements when you approach things from a sort of classical Western European Tolkeinesque fantasy landscape. There aren’t tons of the normal signifiers there. Why is it my natural impulse is to call it ‘fantasy?’

I mean, it has circuitry and it has personal hangliders that you can use to fly around, but they’re presented as being extremely rare objects, created by a civilisation that looks like they made these interesting, weird cities, and… then are gone. Weirdly just… gone. There’s some reference to the idea that the End is empty or was destroyed or the like, but what’s the alternative? That the Endermen built the End Cities? That the Shulkers did? We don’t get statements on it, and the End is, as a world, deliberately very sparse. I don’t think Shulkers built those cities. There are gates, that need some sort of agent to engage with them, that’s another thing.

Point is, that you could arguably make a case that Minecraft is a sort of science fiction story. There’s sinew there. The game has mechanics that can seem a little magical – like the way golems and snowmen just come to life – but magic doesn’t mean that you have to be fantasy. I mean, look at Destiny. Circuitry can make automated carts and thinking machines and has resistors and repeaters and light detectors and piston machinery, all of which wants to interact with its big, chunky, natural world, but which still has brewing stands that want spider’s eyes to make potions of leaping.

You could do a read that feels vaguely unhelpful where the Villagers are inspired by Jewish lore, in that they create golems to defend themselves and are notorious for being driven from their homes to serve some dictatorial other, but that seems more of a bummer than a premise.

That is, however, largely what Minecraft is not. I say it’s ‘fantasy’-ish, but part of what prompted this line of thought is the realisation that the game doesn’t show you a world with enemy others. It shows you a world with enemies, usually, that are like you.

The two most common enemies to encounter in Minecraft early on are the zombie and the skeleton. They spawn commonly in the dark. Spiders need more area and will usually spawn only when an area is pretty dense. But a zombie and a skeleton are both creatures that are basically you, but dead. The horror of the undead are pretty much just the horror of death itself, personalised and able to wander around being a huge jerk and ruining your day personally.

Then there’s the Creeper.

Minecraft is an interesting example to look at because right now, it is a work that started out by someone who was playing with pieces and made the most iconic piece of monster design accidentally. The Creeper is not a creature the likes of which came from anywhere, per se, not reference to another mythology, but is instead the creation of the game’s creator messing up, and then, its purpose in the game is turned to the challenge of what would be, in the context of this world, the most terrible thing for a building game; the creeper doesn’t threaten you –

I mean, it does –

but it threatens your work, your labour efforts, more. It turns your work into nothing, it turns pretty pristine landscapes into pockmarks and it can kill things that it has no reason to care about like your bees and cats in the name of killing you. Which it does, to its own detriment.

Creepers are incidentally, part of the delicate ecosystem of the late game of Minecraft, too, where getting eventual access to Elytra gives you flight, and suddenly firework rockets are incredibly important to travel around the world. That means that for most players, the creeper represents an important new resource. So important you wind up wanting to farm for it, and that creates a new incentive, and a new view of these monsters. Farming creepers can be a surprising thing where your first attempts fail explosively, too!

Typically, fantasy settings present you with a starter culture of things to fight – the demands of the game giving you creatures like goblins or kobolds or snobolds or ratfolk or all sorts of other low-level, not-important creatures to ease you into the conflict space. There is, typically, a culture of things to fight that represent the things that exist to be fought.

And Minecraft doesn’t have that. It has zombies and skeletons, but they’re just like you. It has spiders, but they’re animals. It has Endermen, which are weird and creepy, but also, you can leave them alone and they’ll largely leave you alone except when their curiosity gets the better of them.

It’s not that the world isn’t hostile, it’s that the world has so many places for nothing particularly dangerous. The world is a world with you in it. It’s a world that seemingly has a large number of people like you, who died. It has a whole neighbour dimension, seemingly under a tyrant, but with nobody living there, and remnants of a civilisation where the boats being launched hang out in the air, devoid of everything, their homes studded with creatures that don’t seem capable of making the things that surround them. There’s the Nether, where there are incomplete, mangled and damaged fortresses of two different cultures – The Piglins and the strange denizens of the Nether Fortresses.

None of this is to say that Minecraft is necessarily a post-apocalyptic setting. That kind of world is one where the actual apocalypse has an impact, defines the character of the world that’s left. What we have in Minecraft is instead a world that has a space for you; it has a space for people like you, even the people like you who died (and turned into skellybones). It is not a world where you are an invader – it is a fantasy world where you are part of it; you belong to it, and so do the things there that want to eat you.