Friday, 28 February 2014

Minecraft - the whole span of human history in a week.

Minecraft is a game without an instruction manual.  You download it, and then you're plunged into a strange, vast new world, packed with pigs, sheep and spider-riding skeleton archers.  You have nothing to defend yourself have nowhere to hide.  However, you don't know this yet.  All you know is that you can see loads of lovely, blocky trees, and perhaps a few brightly coloured flowers.  The cubes of earth beneath your feet undulate gently, forming hills and meadows.  The bright blue sky presides over a vibrant world.  You prance, quite content, through this place, taking in the strange vistas, noticing a desert in the distance perhaps.  The weather holds, and you gamely climb the nearest mountain and marvel at the view - a broad Savannah to the west, a thick jungle to the south, a vast ocean with a craggy shoreline to the north.  The sun continues to move overhead.  You see a cave in the craggy mountainsides, and explore it for a while, finding nothing more than a few black specks in the rock that look a little like coal.  Emerging from the cave, back into the sun, you realise that it is now evening.  Said sun hangs heavy in the sky, orange and raw, and the blank above is beginning to darken.  It will be night soon.  You begin to feel anxious.  All of your roaming around was lots of fun, but now it's nearly dark.  You've heard that the darkness in Minecraft is not your friend, and that monsters appear in the black of night. The sun continues to sink, digging into the horizon.  It hovers for a moment, and is then gone.  Darkness envelopes the landscape, and suddenly the inviting land around you seems alien and strange.  Odd noises emanate from the jungle.  Shapes are moving on the grey sands of the desert; you stand on your hill-side perch, and you panic.

The 'first night' in Minecraft is an experience that you will only ever have once.  Eventually, you become accustomed to the game, and any attempt to re-live that dreadfully scary time is undone by your experience.  But it shapes the player, and most Minecrafters will recall their first night with relish.  Mine was spent in a makeshift hovel made from wooden planks in the middle of swampland.  Luckily, I had figured out how to punch trees to gain log blocks quite quickly, and had crafted planks from the logs - I had just enough to build a 2x2x2 hut that enclosed me totally.  I had no torches, so no source of light.  I didn't manage to get the wool together for a bed for about another in-game week.  So I sat in my pathetic hut all night, listening to the moans of zombies as they swarmed around me, with only a thin wall of wood to protect me.  Being totally unencumbered by weapons or armour, I was the epitome of vulnerability.  If they'd somehow managed to gain entrance, I would've died a scary death.  I stayed in the hut for around 3-4 nights as I explored the area and gathered resources, and each night was the same - tedious yet strangely thrilling, like I was experiencing first hand the thrills of being the main character in I Am Legend.

But before long, you will have a secure, well-defended homestead out in the wilds, with farmland, storage space, domesticated animals and interior design.  That's the beauty of the game - you get better, and end up leading a comfortable and safe lifestyle.  You no longer fear the monsters of night, as you have a diamond sword and enchanted armour, so you focus on aesthetics and making your home a beautiful sight, adding wholly unnecessary turrets and flourishes, all to please your eye for architectural glory.  It is a microcosm of human experience, mirroring the birth of culture once the immediate dangers of starvation and being prey to toothy predators had been held at bay for good.  Your home towers, cathedral-like in its splendour.  The surrounding land is tamed and landscaped with great oaks and hedgerows.  You add stables, barns, outbuildings.  You expend once-valuable wool on trivial fripperies like picture frames and carpets, flags and portraits.  Your home is awash with colour and design.  Diamonds, once so vital, are now in strong supply as you expand your mining operations, so you create a throne built of blocks of the precious stones.

Soon, a huge stock of electronic redstone thrusts you into the industrial era.  Now application and efficiency are key.  You begin working on train networks, webs of railway lines threading between your quarries, mines and forests.  You begin to create large scale smelters, using the myriad tools available.  Now you can craft whole stacks of iron bars in moments, and those early days, spent desperately wandering caves searching for minute pockets of iron ore seem long, long ago.  You now have so much material that you no longer know what to do with it, so you make pointless diversions, crafted from various rare blocks, just for something to do.  You build a vast skyscraper out of iron blocks and populate it with furniture, just to get some kind of use out of the gigantic stockpiles of stuff you are now struggling to store.  Your cathedral home is disfigured by necessary extensions for all this rubbish, yet still you crave more, until you have utterly exhausted the world around you.  The trees, the flowers, even the mountain is now gone; they have been ground up, used to make other things.  You stand in a desert of your own making, and despair.

My Minecraft YouTube channel is here!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Vampire Slaying, fifteen years too late.

I've never seen a vampire in real life.  Apart from some questionable characters seen during various festivals at Whitby, my life has been vampire-free, and all the worse for it, it seems.  I've recently been getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you see.  The endless joys of Netflix have enabled me to scoot merrily through seasons 1-6, and it is being made increasingly clear by Joss Whedon's critically acclaimed show that vampires make your life a whole lot more exciting.

Anya's Hallowe'en suit - like Bishop
Len Brennan, she is terrified of rabbits.
I should have watched Buffy at the proper time, of course.  It first aired in 1998, when I was fourteen, sitting comfortably in its demographic; however, I somehow managed to miss out on its charms.  Being an American show at a time when  The Simpsons and Friends were still pretty esoteric and niche on this cold, huddled little island made it almost imperceptible to me.  I am vaguely aware that it was on BBC throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s, but I was busy with the grimy business of being a teenager and later a student.  I simply missed it.  But now, eager to make for lost time, I'm imbibing the contents of this macabre, funny and tightly plotted programme like a crazed man drinking Drambuie before Christmas is up.

It's tricky to define what makes Buffy such a good show.  I should confess that part of my joy is probably taken from my naive assumption that a show with a name as seemingly foolish as 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' must be awful.  How nice it is to have one's prejudices slashed like this - if only the same thing could happen to my view of Tories.  So, part of my enjoyment may stem from this astonishment.  However, the bulk of it is down to the character arcs.  In fact, they are more viaducts than arcs, given their complexity.  Buffy, for example, undertakes challenges and difficulties that shape, distort and bend her into one of the most complex characters I've seen in a TV show.  She dies at least twice (by Season 6 - I won't tell you how or why) and has family members come and go like Pop-Up Pirate.  She has a turbulent love life revolving around the undead themselves, and hates herself for it.  Her best friends are regularly put in mortal danger by her very existence.  She holds the fate of every living creature on Earth in her poor hands.  Watching her life billow and crease and occasionally fall apart is great fun.  The supporting cast have just as convoluted and myriad plotlines that weave and twirl around each other, creating a colourful, emotional and hilarious tapestry of death and despair.  The oxymorons mount up due to the very dichotomy at the heart of the show - it's a true horror-comedy.

So, a complex, involving show that makes you scream, cry and chortle in equal measures?  Yes; that's precisely what Buffy is.  A sample episode - the Emmy-winning 'Hush' from Season 4 - had me squirting hot tears of terror at regular intervals, thanks to the menacing yet oddly camp withered-headed villains that steal the voices of a population, leaving an episode almost devoid of dialogue (usually the show's strongest suit).  The characters resort to crude charades-style miming to convey the plot to each other, and to us.  Yet this is, of course, where the humour comes in - confusion, bewilderment and misunderstood gestures are always a grand source of amusement, after all.  So I dilly-dallied between fear and amusement like a man on a waltzers filled with twirling axes.

As for the archetypal Englishman, Rupert Giles... I cannot stress enough what a fine portrayal of a disconnected yet caring father figure this is.  Anthony Head gives a performance that even trumps his Nescafe adverts of the late 1980s (no mean feat, and you know it), and his departure is a harrowing moment that suggests that a vital safety net has been removed from underneath the Slayer, making her even more vulnerable.  I'm told he returns before the end, and I seriously hope he does, as watching the younger characters flounder and struggle to find answers without his wisdom and security is probably as stressful as actually trying to sort it all out yourself.

So, fifteen years late, I am discovering a show that has shocked me with its quality - a show that I am actually extremely sad to have missed the first time round.  I can only imagine how it would have impacted my impressionable little brain back then.  It even has an episode that is entirely in the form of a traditional musical...