I think one of the greatest things about Minecraft (2011. Various) is that because your ambitions in-game are pretty-much entirely your own (there is a way of beating the game but you are never instructed of its existence) they actually tend to shift. You might start by thinking you just want to survive the night, but it quickly expands into wanting to improve where you live, explore mines or lands, build contraptions, upgrade gear, etc etc. In my experience it ends up with juggling several plans at once, and I like the idea that just doing a bunch of different things at my own pace can either feel like juggling several things at once, or feel entirely laid back and cerebral.
I have become fascinated with the workings of villages. Villages are reasonably rare occurrences in the endless lands of Minecraft, appearing on occasion in the middle of deserts or grasslands. They have a seemingly random assortment of buildings, and a bunch of inhabitant villagers wandering among them. There are buildings, gravel paths between them, and a few crops being grown – perhaps potatoes or carrots. These villages look like they have been dropped from space – they connect with nothing else, and they respond to the random occurrences in the minecraft landscape. If there’s a river there, the village will run straight through it with the paths underwater, if that is what is there. It makes them oddly fascinating. My village was slightly on the side of a hill, so some of the paths and buildings had a warped quality to them sitting on edges and having raw foundations visible.
Then there’s the villagers, a peculiar set of AI-controlled people who are each able to offer you a simple bartered trade according to their profession (from librarian to butcher) and who hide in their houses at night and wonder about in the daytime making little quizzical noises that sound a little like Vic & Bob’s classic comedy creation The Ponderers. I ran into this village in a grassland that also had herds of wild horses nearby waiting to be tamed (I’ve never tamed a horse in Minecraft). I immediately dreamed of a populated ranch on the edge of this village, and took up residence in one of the houses at the bottom of the hill that seemed abandoned by the villagers.
What I naively didn’t realise, is that by moving in at the village, I was by design subjecting these villagers to almost certain death. The way that Minecraft works, nothing ever really happens unless you’re there – ie as soon as you wander far enough away from a thing, it just waits in a kind of artificial stasis until you return. This is a simple practicality of running a game world – you can’t have the whole world alive at once, so Minecraft breaks it into chunks around you. By living in this village, by just being there, I was actually subjecting the villagers to the random occurrences that actually occur when near to an active player. So every night that I was pottering away in my house, zombies were spawning and bashing at the doors of the poor villagers.
I realised this very late, when I checked the village one morning and found a bunch of zombies in some of the houses, and only two inhabitants actually left alive from the bunch that I assumed would be endlessly wandering to and from their houses in perpetuity. There may have been a zombie siege, a rare phenomena that may or may not exist – there seems to be some confusion whether or not Notch actually removed this occurrence from the game at some point. I now know that some of these zombies in the houses were in fact infected villagers – there are very obscure and elaborate ways to ‘cure’ these zombies, but I had no idea and killed them. These zombies only came because I was there allowing random events to happen, and perhaps because I didn’t skip the night-time a few times by sleeping at sunset.
Now I’m no fool – with only two villagers remaining I was acutely aware that the ecosystem of this village was under threat. With no villagers all I have is a ghost-town, and the thought of living there with regret may be overwhelmingly unappealing. The first thing I did in my panic, was create walls of stone directly around these villagers to keep them safe from attack. Then I went to the internet.
This is one of the crucial successes of Minecraft – even in a solo game you do not feel alone, because the lack of clear instruction basically forces you online to look for potential solutions to problems. The funny thing about the internet, of course, is that knowing what information you can trust is an art in itself. Look up villager breeding on youtube, and you’ll see a bunch of elaborately designed building contraptions that may or may not encourage villagers to procreate with each other. Some of these I regard with great suspicion – the videos encourage you to make buildings ‘so wide’, because ‘it helps the villagers breed’. There’s a hell of a lot of pseudo-science basically. And of course with a game that is always being updated, a solution for an old patch may not apply to a new patch.
But looking for solutions online forces you into a duality of states that is rarely so clearly obvious. On the one hand an immersive world that you care about, where you create your own future often according to random encounters and chance. On the other hand a game to be endlessly grokked – ie with complex rules at which you can pick at a thread to try and understand and solve an issue about the way it works.
One example is light. Play Minecraft and you realise that light stops monsters spawning. But how much light, and in what precise spread, is left open to the player. I have never felt moved to find out exactly how much light in what interval stops monsters spawning. A general idea has seemed to be enough to carry on. But there is a precise answer – Notch at some point created the rules at which level of light a square will be x times more likely to spawn an enemy that could be a direct threat to the player. At one level the simple concept of light and dark, and its metaphorical connection with good and evil, safety and threat. On the other level a set of rules which can be understood and adhered to for perfection, but which in practice exist to approximate something more theoretical.
0.35. This is number very important to villagers. Actually, more importantly doors. Doors are the key to villages and villagers. A villager responds not to houses, but actually doors that signify houses – the game looks at doors in the villager’s vicinity, measures that they have ‘outside’ on one side and ‘inside’ on the other, and deems that a house, ie a place of safety that a villager can exploit at night to be ‘safe’. But also doors trigger population growth – for every door in the vicinity, the game allows for 0.35 villagers to exist.
So in my panic, I actually came to realise that, despite the pseudo-science on the internet about the subject, all I needed was these two villagers to be together, and a third one will pop up at some point as long as I have enough houses (ie doors) to make something in the game system trigger. And hey presto, some love hearts started appearing between the two surviving, sexless villagers, and a little villager at some point popped up beside them.
But how to keep my tiny population alive? I proceeded to spend a panicked hour or so completely enclosing the village within a cobblestone wall. And making sure that the whole village was completely and relentlessly bright. So that most monsters cannot spawn there. This village will give its inhabitants a headache, but that’s the price of freedom.
The thing with progress, you get ambitious. I started thinking that the village currently allowed for a population of about 10, but that this wasn’t really that practical in the long-term. I think when things go wrong, there’s just a chance that a population of 10 could be wiped out in one night, as had nearly happened before. Get to 20-30 people, and your population is probably robust enough to survive the slings and arrows of bad fortune. And actually the game has a perk that it starts to spawn protective iron golems to defend the villagers once you get past a certain population level. This felt like the way to go. I started to dream of a city of bustling villagers who I could then call city-folk. Citizens.
And in my eagerness I started to grok the system. I built an entirely enclosed uninhabitable building enclosed in stone, but which was entirely full of doors hidden inside from view, each near enough to daylight to be considered as houses by Notch’s game. A secret shrine to doors. The doors that nobody could ever know about. And as expected the population soon started to explode – each door was being accepted as a house, and out popped a new villager. These villagers were being lied to, of course – there were no more houses, only hidden doors. But in my eagerness for progress I forgot the deception.
But with progress came new issues. Because this temple full of secret doors was actually the key to the population’s growth, I actually became aware that it was affecting the way my villagers lived. They were subconsciously being drawn towards the temple, without really knowing why, as if drawn there by an irresistible aura of door. Whereas the further reaches of the village were now desolate. The population was being concentrated in one area, just as London is at its densest in the very centre – nobody really wants to live in Croydon, they do because that’s where the free doors are. So my burgeoning village was actually a condensed, unsatisfying group of chattering villagers who just weren’t getting full value out of the facilities. And were obsessed with doors they couldn’t see or ever get access to. The population was bigger, the village itself seemed to become smaller in scope.
The way that villagers and villages actually work is fascinating I think.
The game is constantly measuring the world around each villager (around a 30-block radius I think). So their conception is of a village full of doors that they can potentially hide in at night. But if you think about it, they may be standing at one end of the village without being able to see the other end – in which case their perception is limited. But what Minecraft cleverly does is note the way that each villagers perception overlaps – imagine their 60×60 perception overlapping each others like a bunch of circles on a massive venn diagram. This is where the villagers ideas of a ‘village’ come from, their shared experience of how many doors they can see together.
But what happens is that the villagers will doubtless get drawn towards where the doors actually are. The only clear decision they really seem to make (other than running from danger etc) is at sunset, where they look for the nearest empty house (door) to go inside for the night. I think what happens is that regardless of the layout of a village, they will end up making a random decision each night that is nevertheless likely to eventually draw them towards where the greater amount of houses (doors) are. And the more central they become, the less likely they are as a group to be able to see the houses towards the edge of the village. They come to forget the suburbs, they like the bright lights.
This came to a head when a group of villagers started simply gathering outside the door temple where I had hidden my extra doors. They were looking for an empty house, were drawn towards the hidden doors, couldn’t get to them, and had no other empty houses to head for. So they simply stood outside the shack like eager worshippers waiting for a glimpse of their door God for some sort of empty salvation. Not only a dangerous way to act at night, but rather hopeless and depressing – a sort of malaise had descended on my village. I started to wonder if progress had been good for these people.
The only right thing to do seemed to be to tear down this shrine to doors, and destroy the hidden doors that were transfixing the villagers. At the time it felt like my only shot at redemption.
Then, tragedy. As I started to tear down the secret shrine, and the second that the hidden doors were exposed to the daylight, the villagers ran into the doors a full speed. They were simply going from door to door in there, opening and closing the door, and then moving onto the next door, and the next. It was like one of those disorientating funfair mazes full of doors. It was actually a cacophony of doors opening and closing. Every one of my 30 or so villagers just became transfixed and obsessed by these doors, each in a sort of mad stupor of simply opening and closing these doors for empty gratification.
Now the one warning I had heard about villager breeding, was that there is an inherent danger with doing it – one youtuber had mentioned that unfettered breeding can lead to a sort of villager-breeding disaster in which hundreds and thousands of villagers breed so quickly that it can destroy your game as it cannot cope with the demands of so many autonomous beings in the same world. Like crossing the streams, or meeting a version of yourself from the past, it just felt like one of those unspoken apocalypses that suddenly seemed like a potential reality as these villagers opened and shut these doors so that all I could hear was the opening and closing of doors, and villagers all stuck in a maze of doors from which they may never escape…
So I took out my axe and tried desperately to start smashing down these wooden doors to cure them. And as I hit the doors, so I started hitting the villagers too, and I didn’t know whether to stop or what else I could do! Collateral damage seemed like a unavoidable by-product of the situation, but for the greater good.
Of course what I didn’t consider was the stone golem trained to protect the villagers. He raised his giant fists and killed me with what seemed like one crushing blow. The last thing I remember was my inventory, largely consisting of wooden doors, spilling out onto the gravel path beside my broken body. I didn’t feel pain, only regret.
Most great empires eventually fail.
I feel like I’m a more benign influence on my village these days. I build little houses for the village folk, and get a little sense of satisfaction if and when a villager might visit them for the first time. I feel like I’m running the village as more of a collective these days. I’m enthralled by the way the villagers act, the way that they spread changes a tiny bit with every door that I add to every new building. I respect their opinion – if the villagers tend towards one area of the village I get the message and react accordingly. One funny thing is that I no longer have my own house as part of the village, mainly because the villagers themselves might like to use it for themselves. At night I just look for any empty house and sleep there.
I never built my ranch. I just like the way the wild horses are already, running free.