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The Sovereign Survivor

By (February 1, 2014) No Comment

Minecraft

I had the great fortune to visit Peru during what those of us safely ensconced in academia still get to call ‘Winter Break.’ Dutifully playing our part as tourists, my spouse and I took a trip to Cusco, including a visit to the inimitable beauty of Machu Picchu. The terrain was gorgeous past telling, possessed of a grandeur great enough that the Incas opted to adorn rather than overwrite natural formations, their architecture forming ornaments upon Pachamama, the mother earth, their altitudinous cities obeying sacred geometries sketched out by the sun and the mountains.

Though sleep-deprived and light-headed from the thin air, we were profoundly impressed by the sight of those green hills and stone walls perched above the cloud line. It was inspiring. Some time after we’d return to Lima, still reeling from lack of sleep and altitude sickness, we recovered enough to share a peculiar realization. The granite citadel, that Crown of the Inca Land, had impressed itself upon us in a very specific way: it made both of us want to play Minecraft. Inspiration is an impulse, a feeling that compels a doing; I wanted to create something too, and for me the best place to try and pay homage to what I’d seen was Minecraft.

Minecraft, released in 2011, is a game that falls into the nebulous category of ‘indie sandbox’, meaning it was created by a small team (originally just one person!) with limited fiscal backing, and that gameplay is centered around players concocting their own goals and executing their own plans within a vast, open world, without anything like ‘plot’ getting in the way. The term ‘sandbox’ is applied broadly to many games that purport openness, including games such as Grand Theft Auto by dint of its dense and detailed cities which can be wandered freely; but the true spirit of sandbox-as-site – a space of amateur engineering and playful creative construction – is better embodied in Minecraft’s weirdly lovely, Lego-like realm of cubic ‘voxels.’

In the world of Minecraft, a player traverses a mostly-virgin land composed of biomes varying from snowy tundra and temperate forests, to dense jungles and sandy deserts. Days are spent crafting various tools and gathering resources vital for survival – an axe with which to chop wood, a pick for mining cobblestone, coal and ore, a shovel to shift dirt and gather sand for glass-making, a hoe with which to till the earth and plant crops, a sword to hunt swine and defend oneself – while the nights are typically spent safely indoors as zombies scratch at the windows and great black spiders clamber atop the shelter you’ve built. It is a world of cyclical labors performed with careful thought as to the position of the sun and the composition of the earth, where one begins with modest wishes – to have a steady food source, some semblance of shelter, and to survive the night – and ends up constructing grand monuments and labyrinthine mines, vast plantations and palatial estates.

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We went to Peru purposefully bereft of computers, so in order to scratch our itch we downloaded the iPad version, dubbed Pocket Minecraft, onto my brother-in-law’s tablet; but how deficient that ‘pocket’ world was! True to its name, the world was so damned small- too small to contain anything close to my visions of a mountaintop city. Minecraft, for all its simplicity, contains a distinct beauty and grandeur, one that pairs well with the sense of the player’s singularity in a vast, unexplored world. Indeed, my wife has wandered so far afield in her world that she can no longer find her homestead, a frustrating state of affairs that is only possible in a world as massive as Minecraft’s, a world that is generated uniquely for each player.

Now, it’s possible to play with others in Minecraft. I’m given to understand that many players converge on common servers, forming communities, collaborating on projects, sometimes engaging in player versus player conflict (a state of affairs abbreviated as ‘PvP’). This sounds charming, and the worlds of the game are certainly large enough to house numerous players. However, this is not my experience of Minecraft and, or so I believe, rarely anyone’s first experience of Minecraft. The first time one plays Minecraft, the experience is closer to that of English literature’s foremost castaway, Robinson Crusoe. Like Crusoe, you are exploring an isolated world. Like Crusoe, you must start more or less from scratch in order to reproduce a legible, livable universe. Like Crusoe, you can: your ingenuity is limitless, your resources abundant. And like Crusoe, you are all alone- or believe that you are.

This loneliness and power, concepts that unite in the notion of the sovereign individual of which Crusoe is such an iconic example, are a great part of the appeal of games like Minecraft. Indeed, the transformation from castaway to sovereign is one of the most reliable becomings one experiences.

Minecraft – with its ravenous spiders, flesh-hungry zombies, and deep, dangerous caverns – provides analogs for all of Crusoe’s fears. It also offers precisely his power: that of the industrious and wholly independent individual. This alchemy between fear and power, just like the connection between loneliness and power, forms the vital essence of the numerous ‘survival’ games released in the past few years, more than a few of which are indebted to Minecraft. Even those that don’t follow so explicitly in Minecraft’s footsteps still share in what is compelling about the experience, an experience that shifts dramatically depending on the answer to the question: am I alone?

To be comfortably alone is empowering, a deep affirmation of the subject’s singularity and – concurrently – its sovereignty. When Crusoe believes himself alone on the island, he fancies himself a ruler whose absoluteness and efficacy would make Hobbes blush. ‘There was my majesty the prince and lord of the whole island;’ Crusoe grandly declares. ‘I had the lives of all my subjects at my absolute command; I could hang, draw, give liberty, and take it away, and no rebels among all my subjects. Then, to see how like a king I dined, too, all alone, attended by my servants!’ – ‘all alone’ he insists, for the others around him, his ‘servants’, are animals – non-human objects (and thus ideal royal subjects). Later, when Crusoe is joined by Friday and Friday’s father, he will retain his sovereignty at the cost of their being subjected but not subjectified — a classic colonial move. Even in the company of others, Crusoe is singular in his authority; he is regally alone.

But aloneness – when it becomes loneliness – is also a bleak experience that can render one’s efforts meaningless, since only you are there to see them. I have built numerous monuments in Minecraft of which I am proud – shrines, churches and cathedrals to the Sun which rises each morning to drive off the undead, a beacon tower so high its pinnacle was wreathed with clouds – but no congregation will ever gather there, nor anyone use the beacon’s light to find their way. That is, no one besides me, their creator.

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It makes sense, then, that Minecraft and its ilk have multiplayer options; some even depend upon them to give the game its particular phenomenal punch. Take, for instance, Facepunch Games’ Rust. Though still unfinished and only available as a playable alpha version (this method of ‘early access’ is a flourishing trend in the indie game market), Rust is touted as a ‘human interaction simulator’ as much as a ‘survival/crafting game.’ There are zombies in Rust, as there are in both Minecraft and DayZ. Rust owes a lot to both, both, but the developers claim they will remove them entirely during later stages of the game’s development. They are a stopgap, a temporary threat cum resource, a role which they hope players themselves will fill as Rust recreates a Hobbesian state of nature.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, the world of Rust is not necessary a world of bella omnium contra omnes. In the thinly-populated servers I timidly visited I didn’t find people to be the greatest threat – though that might be because I didn’t find many people at all. I was devoured by wolves – twice, in fact – but my sole encounter with another person was a peaceful if peculiar affair. Night had fallen, meaning visibility and temperature had both dropped to the point where all I could do was huddle by a campfire I had found, set up by some now-absent survivor in an abandoned structure. Out of the darkness of the doorway, a figure blundered into view, lit by my campfire.

I had my stone hatchet in hand; I could have taken him by surprise, killed him and looted his body, had I felt so inclined. When I didn’t, however, the stranger remarked: “I’m glad this man didn’t kill me,” addressing the wider world on chat. “Let’s be civilized, shall we?” I replied, “please feel free to stay by my fire until dawn.” Next thing I knew, he had tossed two objects to the ground. Investigation revealed them to be his own potential weapons, a hatchet and a pickaxe; he’d disarmed himself as a show of good faith. I told him I’d have given him food, if I’d had any – as it happened I’d already eaten the two measly chicken breasts I’d hacked from a bird I’d chased for a full minute through the tall grass. He thanked me anyhow, and – after the sun started rising, turning the smoke of my fire reddish – he told me the chicken he’d left in the fire was for me. Then he went on his way. When I checked my fire, there were a full four cooked chicken breasts waiting for me.

No wonder hospitality is a virtue so essential to civilization; the ancient Greeks invested no lesser god than Zeus with the enforcement of xenia. My brief, potentially violent nocturnal encounter became a polite exchange between needful people, complete with its own ad hoc rituals. This is, however, not everyone’s experience of Rust. On more populous servers, with players who are slightly more dedicated than I, the codes of hospitality have taken on a decidedly different structure. Hospitality still exists, but is reliable only between players armed with equivalent weaponry: gun wielders get along fine with fellow gun wielders, but people who still only have stone hatchets are fair game. Thus, my fireside encounter might not have gone so well had my visitor been better armed.

This in and of itself is a rather telling diagnosis of the sovereign subject, not to mention those nation-states who based their sovereignty on that Hobbesian, individualist model. The capacity for violence equivalent to that of one’s neighbor becomes critical to the maintenance of sovereignty on both sides, and thus becomes a pre-requisite for the possession of sovereignty in the first place. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw quips that, in this way, Rust presents ‘a speeded up history of human development; you start off bashing rocks together, then invent fire, then guns, and finally that most vital of human inventions: classism.’

If nothing else, it reveals the tension and potential for violence inherent in any sovereign subject’s encounter with the other; hence our need for hospitality rituals in the first place. Rust aims to remove its generic horror element – the aforementioned temporary zombies – because it needs only the predations of its players to generate a fascinating dread. The question ‘am I alone’ is always loaded with anxiety, carrying with it a host of other concerns, not least ‘am I safe?’

For despite his insistences to the contrary, Crusoe is definitely not alone; Man Friday and his father, the cannibals, the recent wrecks and bone-littered beaches, all attest to a fairly abundant human presence on this allegedly deserted island. Yet it is Crusoe’s encounter with the ‘Print of a Man’s Foot on the Sand’ which receives the most attention because it is charged with that anxiety particular to the sovereign subject, an ambivalent desire to both embrace and avoid the other, an essential uncertainty as to what and even if the other is. It is worth noting, too, that this chapter is precisely that which begins with Crusoe’s declaration of sole sovereignty, the ‘my majesty the prince and lord of the whole island’ passage.

Crusoe is ‘exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore’ and stands ‘like one thunderstruck, or as if [he] had seen an apparition.’ He quickly becomes hysterical, near-delusional, subject to ‘strange, unaccountable whimsies’ and ‘wild ideas.’ He sees the other in ‘every bush and tree… every stump,’ even imagines that he has been visited by the devil. Though later, when he’s feeling a little more Enlightenment-rational, Crusoe considers that he might be seeing ‘only the print of [his] own foot’ – he might be alone, sole and sovereign after all, like me in my single player game of Minecraft – he also attests that it is out of that very state of uncertainty that ‘stories of spectres and apparitions’ emerge. That there might be someone else fills us with hope and terror, visions of friends or fiends.

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This tension suffuses the popular episode in Crusoe, and it is part of what charges many of the crafting and survival games for which Minecraft has made way, particularly games like Rust and Day-Z. It is a profound tension, one constitutive for a certain kind of subject, but it is one rendered safe and thus pleasurable, like the fear in a horror film. Indeed, the horror film may operate on an adjoining or resonant register: all of the survival games possess some aspect of the horror genre; almost all of them include zombies and/or ravenous animals, and Minecraft even features an enemy whose slim profile and flickering movement pays homage to the Slender Man.

Even when you know you are alone, as in my single-player sessions in Minecraft, the anxiety about the presence of the other takes on the form of a haunting. Take ‘Herobrine’, a digital ghost story (colloquially known as a ‘scary pasta’) about a presence that haunts single-player games of Minecraft. The Herobrine specter does little that’s explicitly sinister, simply leaving little signs of its presence: building small pyramids of sand or long, low tunnels – sometimes appearing, like a pale eyed twin of the player’s avatar, at the edge of your rendered vision. The original story implies that it is the shade of a deceased sibling of Minecraft’s creator, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, but other theories posit it as a malevolent virus, or a collective figment of the players’ imagination (the latter theory is essentially true).

Of course, this is just a pixelated torchfire ghost-story. Herobrine is not programmed into Minecraft, and Notch has no dearly departed brother. Yet the story has achieved meme status in the Minecraft community, because it speaks to an underlying emotional experience that comes along with a game like Minecraft, as well as the episode in Crusoe. It is the self-assuredly solitary subject’s encounter with ambiguous presence, that uncertainty at the heart of the encounter itself, that generates ghosts and the stories they inhabit. It is the potential for violence that is felt with each meeting between subjects who think themselves alone, the shade of longing that besets every castaway, the specter of guilt that accompanies every solitary survivor – “I am alone,” alas, and “I am alone,” thank God, alone at last – because the sovereign subject always casts a shadow, a function of that necessary but impossible loneliness which is the very essence of its power.

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Philip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.