My relationship with gaming was impossible to separate from my relationship to it as a job. When I enjoyed being a videogames journo I bought games, played games and thought about games. Once I got fed up, though, I dropped out of gaming almost completely.
I say almost. What I did was fall into the arms of PC gaming, the always reliable wife waiting at home for the excitement and newness of our console mistresses to wear off. Waiting to comfort you with shared memories, passion and real caring.
At the beginning of last year I got back into console gaming, buying a 360 with GTAIV, Assassin’s Creed, Modern Warfare, all the big hitters. Now I didn’t have to think about why I was enjoying these games I could just get on and enjoy them.
But though I kept playing, there’s one game at the moment that has me by the balls, and it’s not on 360. It wouldn’t actually be possible on a console. Because it’s come out of the raw, unrestrained passion of PC gaming and the old talentgrounds of bedroom coding. Or, as it’s more politely called, indie development. The game is Minecraft.
Not since I was 15 or so have my waking hours been so enthralled by the urge to return to a videogame world. I couldn’t sleep last night because of it (probably because I was up until 12am playing it) and I spent all of yesterday thinking about it, reading about it. It’s like when I took the US Gold Amstrad collection into school – I couldn’t play it, but at least I could still see it.
The reason I constantly return to PC gaming is that there is nowhere else where the unadultarated spirit of adventure, of exploration, can flourish so freely. When I come back it’s always for exactly that urge – the adventure. And Minecraft is possibly the greatest adventure game I’ve ever played.
Adventure is possible on console, of course. But it’s not quite the same. I am absolutely loving Red Dead Redemption right now, primarily because I’m roving the hauntingly stark world hunting down the various treasure hoards with the brilliantly subtle and enticing treasure maps. Few things are as exciting as X marking the spot.
But outside of that, I’m not as constantly driven to play. In the past I’ve returned to PC for adventure games like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Or for BioShock (which for me was at its best on PC with a 360 pad). Or Half-Life 2. Or Oblivion. Or Left4Dead. Or Space Rangers.
Admittedly, several of those are on console too. But they just don’t feel the same. Take Fallout 3, for instance. I got it for 360 and really enjoyed it, but I don’t have the same memories of it as I do of Oblivion, of BioShock. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d like to think that on PC everything feels different, more valuable.
Minecraft is one of those games I’ve discovered on returning to PC gaming that has me contemplating the ugly word: Upgrade. Yesterday I ordered a memory upgrade for my EEE 1005HA, which struggles regularly enough for it to be annoying. I don’t know if it’ll make any difference, but buying the low-cost upgrade helps keep the wolf from the door. The wolf that howls, “NEWWWW PCCCCC!”.
Because when I have to start contemplating the cost of actually getting fully involved with PC gaming again I start to shrink away and return to consoles. Even factoring in the HDTV and Elite I bought, the console was a better investment since it plays games I bought 12 months ago as well as games I’ll buy in 12 months time.
Meanwhile my poor EEE chokes as I push bigger and bigger requirements on to it. That said, the games in my Steam account aren’t especially hardware-hungry, and my all time fave PC game (before Minecraft) Diablo II is more than playable on a netbook. Look, another game about adventure! But typically it’s the cutting-edge developments that leave me desperate for more.
So I’m crossing my fingers that 2Gb of RAM will make Minecraft better than 1Gb of RAM. Because I’ve already turned down the graphics and brought the fog in so close I can’t see those beautiful, beautiful cubic clouds. Fortunately the game is so obsessive I actually don’t care about what I’m missing.
Minecraft makes the dark a really unfriendly place. It’s really dark, too. The only other game that achieved the same feat was Ultima Underworld, another all-time fave PC game of mine. And, yes, another game all about adventure and exploration.
Minecraft lets you play your way, too. From the first night I’ve been surprised that everyone appears to have dug down into a grubby hole, or begun building a mud shack, or planned on building a castle. All these things are great, but there was only ever one destination for me: Up.
I spent my first night shivering in the branches of a tall tree. I watched zombies and creepers from the relative safety of my treetop hideaway. I’ve learnt the hard way about how to combat the drawbacks – beasties gather underneath, ready to spring an ambush the minute you step outside.
But there’s an increasingly satisfying skill in learning the best approach to carving out a living space within the natural foliage, leaving just enough trunk connected so the tree doesn’t shed, beginning to use wood as wall material to preserve the look. I can’t believe I’m the only one building tree houses. Oh. Of course I’m not.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think consoles will ever manage to provide the adventure I need to stop me returning to PC games. There are too many gamers with talent who want to (and can) make the games they want to play for PC to ever suffer.
With increased power on consoles developers concentrate on visual impact. On PC, indie devs (and some of the bigger muscle) appear to concentrate on what they can actually do with that power, and how they can blow open our expectations of what a game is capable of creating or simulating.
I just hope my mini-upgrade is enough to make Minecraft as playable as I want it to be.