The Creepiest Thing on the Block

I play Minecraft. I’m proud to say it. I’ve created parts of my novel in Minecraft. My pattern recognition, directional memory, and sense of design have improved through Minecraft. And my hope is that when I’m a little old whatsit, I’ll still play Minecraft, from my recliner, as a means of staving off dementia.

But sometimes Minecraft is scary is hell. I’m not talking about the screeches of a demon cow somewhere in the night. I’m not talking about coming across a charred hallway in a dungeon, mining a block of emerald in the floor, and spotting a dragon’s tail sliding along the cavern beneath. Nor am I even talking about scaling a mountain to the sky, only to find a creeper at the edge of the summit, where he blows me down, down to my death.

I’m talking about the things that, by nature of the program, shouldn’t happen in Minecraft.

[Let me make an introductory aside: For those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a survival game, where you live in a cartoon wilderness. The trick is that you can manipulate any block in that wilderness. And this allows you to build houses (or castles, or factories, or ruined abbeys). It lets you dig mines for resources. And it challenges you to explore the surrounding deserts, forests, and structures that the game randomly generates. There are monsters that come out at night–and never really leave the darkness (of say, a cave)–so there are points when you’re staving off the baddies torch by torch, while outside your little halo, the only thing you can see is a gleam of magical quartz in the distance. I have, in fact, been eaten by a Grue.]

Now if you know Minecraft, you probably recognize that many of the scariest events I’ve mentioned don’t come with the standard game that the company ships. Instead, you might realize that I’m playing what’s called modded Minecraft, where I’ve downloaded programs that users make available as a means of spicing up the vanilla experience. If procured from a trusted clearinghouse, these mods are astonishing in their variety and professionalism. (MIT has a Minecraft modding license.) Among a multitude of other things, they introduce magic systems, more monsters, distant lands, new building blocks, airships, spaceships, crypts, city-managemen simulators, mini games, and turbines run by hamsters. They also, necessarily, mess with the code of the game. And this–I hope–is what can explain the few moments when I’ve come across things that should not be.

First, there was the desert temple I found. Desert temple. No biggie. They’re pretty common. I looted the basement, as you do—and heard a sort of howling thrum beneath the floor. This was not common. I dug down maybe six squares, and landed in a chamber that was lit by a portal. I stepped through the portal—because we’re just playing a game, right? I stepped through, and landed in the widest desert I’d ever seen. Maybe a desert plane. It had mountains that rose to the sky. It had red cactuses. It had a scattering of wells. And the only other creatures except my trembly self were red creepers (instead of green). They would explode so violently that they’d leave craters down to lava. The red creeper is sort of a mythical beast in Minecraft—so I’m not surprised that somebody made one. But the desert dimension doesn’t show up in any documentation. It doesn’t show up on Google. I don’t know where it come from. And I don’t know, if I had stayed, I would have found some kind of destination, or raison d’être to that plane–or if it just somehow existed as a particularly volatile Easter egg. I left; it seemed both repetitive and dangerous. I logged it as a curiosity, and moved on.

Last week, in another version of Minecraft, I built a chateau. It’s got vaulted ceilings, five floors, a few outbuildings. My sister ruined it some by saying the color and the window placement remind her of a yawning hippo. But that aside, it’s a good, big build. The trouble is that during the construction, if you told me that Minecraft had an invisible stalker in its bestiary, I would have believed you. There were times—at least four—when I’d be going along, and then just… run into something. You couldn’t see it. I never took any damage. But this impediment would just show up—and rarely stay in the same place. It reminded me a bit of de Maupassant’s “The Horla.” But whatever. Apparently these things are called Ghost Blocks, and they are glitches that show up in the game sometime–and anyway, onward. There’s no stopping the hippo chateau.

Then on Sunday, as I entered the chateau, I found that above three of the floors levitated a collection of blocks. There were eight blocks in each construction, in a square pattern with the center hollowed out. Think of a square donut. (Or a Minecraft furnace recipe.) They were made of marble—which is what I used to make the chateau’s walls. They were manipulable. I could add to them—because I didn’t feel so inclined to delete them. But what the heck? I am not open to any kind of public server. I’m not even open to LAN. But let me tell you: Since I’ve discovered these little… entities, the invisible stalker has gone away.

This is why I love Minecraft. Even when arranged as a solo-player experience, you aren’t alone. If nothing else, you’re in contact with the intention of the game designers, and the intention of the mod designers, and whatever the heck both their imagination and yours happen to summon–deliberately or not.

Are we looking at a program glitch in my chateau? It must be. I mean, it must be. But the space that those squares fill has always been just space. And though levitating structures aren’t too hard to implement in Minecraft, they rarely occur out of the blue. I think I have a haunted chateau. It’s so big that I can’t keep track of what goes on in every corner. And if this were an homage to “The Horla,” I’d have to get a hand mirror. And I’d have to hold it our way in front of me. And I’d have to see that between me and it, something stood, blocking my own reflection.

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