Maybe you’ve had nightmares like this too. Finding yourself stuck in the middle of an impossible nowhere with no hope of getting back to the safe and familiar. I stared at the unending maw of the ocean, a handful of sand teeth poking through the surface. This did not look like the kind of world I could survive in.

I discarded the desert island world and asked for another. This time I was presented with trees. Pigs. Snow-capped mountains. A pond.

And then I began playing Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) for the first time.

Minecraft started out simple, taking cues from inspirations such as Infiniminer (Zachtronics Industries, 2009), but it eventually morphed into proof that indie games were a billionaire lottery. Minecraft is so big it has its own YouTube subculture. It’s so big that Minecraft books are now sold in mainstream newsagents. It’s so big that children celebrate birthdays with Minecraft-themed cakes. Such a phenomenon meant one and only one thing to me: Minecraft had not just been written into the ground but down through dirt and stone and quite likely into lava. There was no point ever writing about it because infinite monkeys had already typed out the entire works of Minecraft Shakespeare.

Canny games writers quickly identified the “Lego factor” as the key to Minecraft’s early success unless you were American and it became the “Legos factor”. The world could be transformed cube-by-cube with your own virtual hand-stumps. There were some physical constraints, but lax enough to inspire players rather than frustrate them.

I never read much about Minecraft so I started playing with little more in my head than a short post by Kent Sutherland about building a tower which would kill him. In the comments, I’ve written: “You’re probably right about the environment being the star – speaking as someone who has avoided Minecraft for fear of losing the will to exist in the real world.” Losing the will to exist in the real world. Ha, ha. Nervous laugh.

But I exaggerate because I wasn’t totally n00b when I kicked off the game. I knew that night was coming and I had to build shelter before ne’er do wells emerged from the darkness to kill me. After a very short scouting run around the immediate area, I began punching trees hoping that was how I got wood.

From there, it wasn’t difficult to turn the chopped trees into materials to make a house from and soon I set up something that looked like a small, roofless wooden cage. A roof would cost too much time in tree chopping and the sun was already dipping towards the horizon, tinting the sky red. Sitting inside a small wooden prison was going to be dull though, so I left a “doorway” open which I could board up at a moment’s notice. I also put a couple of holes in the side to act as windows.

I waited, peering out across the still-unknown landscape, wondering if anything would appear as the mo–

What’s that?

Something bright red, fluorescent in the dark, was squatting behind some grass. It was too far away to make out but it had definitely not been there earlier. I was unsettled to learn that things could just… appear without me noticing them. The night remained silent apart from the occasional moo and oink.


The red shape scared me witless. Had it seen me? How fast could it scuttle? Would I have time to barricade myself in? Then it moved. Moved a little closer. I could make it out at last – ah, a spider. Got it. It crept a little closer.

Uh, yeah, it was moving unambiguously towards me and I knew what to do; I sealed up the cage entrance good and proper. I was disappointed I couldn’t see outside any more. The side windows were facing the sloping sides of a low valley rather than offering some beautiful vista. The spider clicked and hissed, sounding pissed off; I wondered if it was possible to see it from the windows. I turned to one window and indeed I could see the spider, perfectly framed by the window.

It took me a moment to realise why the window framed it so beautifully: it was sitting inside the window cavity. I backpedalled but smacked straight into a wall of my house-cum-deathtrap. The spider leapt inside and I hoped to God this wooden house wouldn’t become a wooden coffin. I didn’t know if I could hurt the spider, but I kept karate chopping at it with a pink stump that was able to fell trees, desperate to keep the hungry spider’s mandibles well away from me. To my relief, it disappeared in a puff of smoke after several blows. Then I sealed up the windows, determined not to become sustenance for any passing spider with a rumbling stomach.

Bored with nothing but the sky to see, I clambered up onto “the roof”, my new name for the top of the walls. Out in the distance were solid black figures that I recognised to be Endermen, because they had eyes and Endermen were all about seeing and looking. I knew that if I looked at them, they would get a tad excitable. I kept my gaze away from them but they kept hopping around zooop here zooop there – and eventually I screwed up. I freaked out as an Enderman teleported to just outside the house and wailed, trying to hit me. I killed it with the same karate chop that had defeated trees and a spider but I wasn’t comfortable with my performance. I didn’t seem to be safe at all.

The next day was let’s get serious, people day. I dug a pit around the house then extended a channel to a nearby pond, imagining a glorious moat. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out the way I wanted. I was also appalled to discover that I wasn’t playing Thief (Looking Glass Studios, 1998) and zombies were totes fine wading through water.

Each night I returned to my house, but night was dead boring because, well, I was in my house. What can you do in a Minecraft house while waiting for the dawn? Well, turns out you can build a proper roof. Then create stairs to the roof. Then extend the roof so it becomes a large floor. Then I made another floor and another floor. The moat forced me upwards rather than outward and so, after several days, my makeshift shelter became a makeshift tower that could be seen for some distance.

And when I looked at my tower, I realised I was proud of this ugly monstrosity.


Google will happily share with you images of grand Minecraft towers that others have created. I look at them and feel nothing because they lack the special material in my tower. They lack me. Not one of those towers is mine.

More importantly, there’s something about building in the frugal survival mode that I do not feel in creative mode, where you can conjure any material you desire. Need some planks of Spruce wood? Just click your fingers and SHAZAM.

Most people regard “Feng Shui” as a practice that re-arranges your home so it “feels better” but Feng Shui is about the connections between things and the belief that objects have memory. Survival mode ensures every structure feels just a little more personal because it’s not just pure architecture – these buildings have memory. Every block came from somewhere, liberated from rock deep underground or perhaps snatched from a sandy beach. Each one holds a story.

I have not made a masterpiece worthy of tens of thousands of views on YouTube, I have made a place which had accrued history and personality. What I have made, and what you have made, is the heart and soul of Minecraft.


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13 thoughts on “The Feng Shui of Minecraft

  1. You killed an Enderman with your fists? Good work, Joel! But wait – were you playing on easy? 😛

    I completely agree with the sense of pride felt around one’s own creations. That was the theme of the first Minecraft post on AR, too. I like the way you expressed it a lot more, though.

  2. Well, Shaun, I was sure someone would have written this before =) Not that I’m calling you one of infinite monkeys, you understand. However, there is more to be said on what it means to be a player in Minecraft. If I went further here, I realised it would likely pollute the article a bit. Expect another piece on Minecraft next year.

    Hah, I just took the default which happens to be Normal. I killed the Enderman with my fists from the roof. He didn’t seem to be able to hurt me, but I dealt damage aplenty…

  3. Weird. They can hurt you rather badly, and easily kill you when you’re unarmoured. Perhaps they’re not able to attack upwards? Stranger things have happened.

    Looking forward to reading your future pieces on Minecraft. I find reading about the personal experiences of people I know or read regularly (or, er, both) very pleasant and relaxing, much like playing the game itself.

  4. I’ve taken on a few Endermen since and they don’t seem to be too impressive? Maybe they’ve been downgraded since you played last?

    I hope to not write too much about Minecraft, because if there’s one thing the planet does not need, it is more writing about Minecraft. But I’m hopelessly addicted to it. Sometimes I’ve spent a whole day thinking about what I’m going to do in it tonight. The entire family is watching Minecraft.

    It is the death of games.

  5. I am always fascinated by how addicted people get to Minecraft so I do enjoy reading about how normal people (Harbour Master, Shaun and Potter being the closest people I know) get to it.

    I have played it split screen with a buddy for about 8 hours on the Xbone and we had this simulataneous realisation that we were extremely bored. I think it is once the initial threat goes away and you are both suited and booted enough to deal with pretty much everything you kind of go ‘what next?’, the answer is ‘whatever you want’ and what we wanted was to be terrified by an ever mounting threat. So we stopped playing it and I haven’t gone back to it since.

    I feel that this reflects poorly on my imagination.

  6. You finally made the jump into Minecraft!

    This was a really interesting read Joel and I especially love the bit about the magic ingredient being YOU. This also ties very neatly into why I wasn’t a big fan of Tearaway which goes to some lengths to cleverly build you into the narrative of the game, making you out to be this wonderful and creative creature/being capable of adding magic to all manner of things, and while I appreciate the sweet sentiment and idea of that, your influence on the world is really quite negligible at best so it comes off ringing a bit hollow to me. Minecraft on the other hand totally lives up to that and is the perfect example of a game that gives you full freedom to do what you want, freedom that can be quite intimidating to some, me included.

    My first real experience with Minecraft was a bit of a revelation though. Rather than retype it all up here I’m just going to post a link to my Games of 2013 list where you can read a short entry on it. If you don’t want to read and just want to look at pretty pictures then here’s my first creation! 🙂 http://imgur.com/a/eGwBr#0

    I’d like to go back to that world and explore some more because I know there were a lot of other people’s creations that I missed because I spent most of my time making my own mark on the land. Successor games/saves/worlds are really fun in that regard.

    Playing on ‘Peaceful’, I still haven’t encountered these Endermen or the infamous Creepers.

  7. badgercommander: What you need to try are scenarios/handicaps/mods. Start games where the best armor you can wear is leather, games where you’re the warrior monk who nightly defends the village against zombie attacks, games where the only food you can eat is the food you can find. My favorite is a “the surface world is covered in radiation” type scenario; the pumpkin mask makes for a decent gas mask.

    There’s only so much you can do on the Xbox, of course. For the PC, the tekkit pack is a must.

  8. @BC: The thing that really got me is when I discovered how to make rails and my head filled with a transport system. I decided to build a rail straight through the neighbouring mountain and then, after dying deep down in a cavern far away from home, build a rail to said caverns. I’ve never been so interested in “buildings” per se, but infrastructure, how things connect, how different spaces weave into and around each other.

    @Gregg: I think everyone’s feelings about Minecraft are different, but I think without the threat at night and in caverns – which seems to get steadily worse as you do better at the game – things wouldn’t feel as “hard fought” otherwise. This is channeling a bit of How to Stop Making Players Lazy I guess.

    @mwm: You make an interesting point indirectly about where the line between “Minecraft is great” and “the mods are great” is. I’m absolutely addicted to normal Minecraft so hearing you tout mods intrigues me. I don’t think BC does PC games, though, so he’s totally screwed.

  9. @HM: The wonderful thing about running a Minecraft modpack is that you suddenly go into this world that you *almost* understand. Trees and pigs and iron? Yeah, easy. But then you come across a humming obelisk, or a floating sentient gem, or an island in the sky… and the sense of wonder comes back into the game.

    Well, Minecraft is capable of scratching a lot of different itches, and I think the mods are only a part of that.

  10. Aw shucks, you made me want to play minecraft again. Especially when seeing this, after following your google search link: http://static.planetminecraft.com/files/resource_media/screenshot/1138/2011-09-22_145550_496522.jpg

    I totally agree about survival mode. Back when I still played mc (just around the time when 1.0 came out), I only ever played survival. Building grand structures was satisfying mainly because I had mined the materials myself, and defended them against evil monsters.

    My most momorable construct (though perhaps not my most architecturally impressive) was the land bridge I built from my spawnpoint and home base by the shore, to my secondary mining operation in the mountains, a couple of kilometers inland. Between them was a large forested valley that was typically full of zombies and spiders, so I built an L-train of sorts to bypass all that (and also make transit speedier, with a cart track).

    I knew nothing about redstone at that time, so to propel the cart I just built a giant ramp at each end of the bridge.

    At some point, a fire broke out in the forest, for some unknown reason. Since I only ever saw that part of the map during my train rides, it remained a mystery to me. It was just this fire out in the woods that I saw when I swooshed past. I seldom/never ventured out there by foot.

    Further inland, at a strangely-shaped mountain, I had grand plans to make a hovering fortress, but I didn’t get much done. I built a large hovering platform and then didn’t really know how to proceed.

    Shit, for every word I write the urge to get back into this gets bigger. I need to stop now.

  11. @postinternetsyndrome: All I can say is RUN AWAY. It’s hideous how much time this game has sucked out of my life. I was supposed to have played The Talos Principle already and play Verde Station again now it’s launched. But no. I’m building my national rail infrastructure.

    I believe lightning – which I have seen strike the ground – can cause spontaneous fires. It may be the source of your mysterious fire… then again, it may not.

    How did anyone work redstone out? I’m intrigued to look back over redstone’s emergence and how news of its properties disseminated through the fanbase. Oh, you can also use a “furnace in a cart” to make a sort of steam train if you don’t have use redstone powered rail.

    But like you once were I am full of plans like building a structure in the mountainside, extending the rail system to join up special locations and I’m just starting to work on farms now that I’ve figured out some basics. (GOT WHEAT? THEN MAKE LOVE.)

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