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The first Minecraft novel...or is it a self-help book?

The first Minecraft novel...or is it a self-help book?

For anyone not obsessed with low-resolution blocks, “Minecraft: The Island” is like an alien artefact

For anyone not obsessed with low-resolution blocks, “Minecraft: The Island” is like an alien artefact

Tim Martin | July 10th 2017

I suppose I expected the Minecraft novel to be weird, because everything else about Minecraft is weird. The virtual environment that started as a bedroom-programmed applet in 2009 is now the second-biggest video game of all time, with more than 40m people a month exploring its endless freeform world of low-resolution blocks, in which you dodge enemies, dig caves, erect fabulous structures and – yes – mine and craft. Last month Microsoft, which paid $2.5bn to acquire Minecraft in 2014, pointed out that if all the nearly 107m people who had bought a copy were to form a nation, it’d be the 12th most populous on earth. 

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Minecraft has begun to generate its own culture. But this – at least for anyone else rapidly descending the entropy slide from youth to age – is where the real strangeness starts to creep in. There’s Kurt J. Mac, the chap who has been streaming his quest to walk as far as he possibly can in Minecraft for six years, over 646 instalments and counting. There are the adventures of Stampy Cat (pictured), aka twenty-something Joseph Garrett from England, whose squeaky-voiced commentaries have put his channel in YouTube’s top ten and made mega-celebrities of Stampy and his friends Sqaishey Quack, Polly Reindeer and Fizzy Elephant. There are the spin-off games. There’s the forthcoming movie. Weirdest of all, there’s the distinctly science-fictional experience, for anyone over 30, of talking to anyone under the age of 12 about Minecraft. To them, it’s an activity, a society and a children’s channel rolled into one…and you listen as you might to a visitor from another planet.

And so to this novel, a 270-page effort by Max Brooks, whose previous zombie novel “World War Z” inspired a vast Hollywood film franchise starring Brad Pitt. The blurb boasts that Brooks’s book is the “first ever official Minecraft novel”, a comment that quietly acknowledges the number of unofficial ones floating about: a gentleman called Mark Cleverton, for example, has published at least nine “Unofficial Minecrafter’s Adventures”. Brooks’s, however, has the logo of Minecraft’s creator company Mojang, plus a little gold badge saying “Official Product” to mark it out as the first commissioned project. Who knows what fabulous sum changed hands to make this first instalment happen. But if you think it’ll be the last, you’re mad.

Inspiring life lessons? Unless you live and breathe Minecraft, it’s a soul-sapping read

And reading it is, well, it’s like reading an alien artefact, or a book produced in a culture where the traditions of entertainment evolved differently. From beginning to end, it is nothing less than a first-person description of what it’s like to play Minecraft, starting with the protagonist’s first awakening in a world made of blocks (“Everything was a combination of cubes”) and continuing with his realisation that he, too, is made of blocks: “Brick-shaped feet, rectangular legs, a shoebox-shaped torso”. The story in the book is simply the story of booting up the computer game and spending a few hours in it, as the nameless protagonist slowly discovers the game’s mechanisms, enemies and rules – mining, crafting, building, combining materials – that govern the game’s environment. “In addition to the ability to heal quickly, punch things from a distance, and stick blocks to themselves without supports,” writes Brooks, in a representative example of the novel’s bland explanatory style, “somehow this world allowed me to transform raw materials into finished products in seconds.” 

In chapter after chapter, with his only interlocutors a few cows, some zombies and a chicken, Brooks’s protagonist upgrades his inventory, builds himself new weapons, makes a building or two, smashes a load of zombies and spiders and moves on to new territory. There’s no one else to talk to, so he has to shout his observations aloud: “Never give up!” “Me strong! Me have weapon!” “When the world changes, you’ve got to change with it!”. These and other self-helpish observations are summarised in a 36-point listicle at the end of the book: “Panic drowns thought”; “Tantrums never help”; “It’s not failure that matters, it’s how you recover”. And the kicker: “The most important thing you can craft is you.” This, I suspect, is where Brooks really earned his gold Official Product badge: he’s writing the game’s apologia pro vita sua, casting Minecraft’s basic survival loop – combine materials, build houses, clonk monsters, repeat – as a set of inspiring life lessons for the real world.

This may well be the way that the game’s players like to see themselves, but this book is a soul-sapping business if you’ve ever read a novel that isn’t about Minecraft. Character, plot and dialogue vanish on the wind, leaving only Brooks’s endless high-fidelity report of playing a video game – mine-craft-repeat, mine-craft-repeat – salted with a near-infinite supply of motivational quotes. By the halfway point I’d acquired a new and vivid sympathy for the poor computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, watching as its memory banks and its higher functions are dismantled one by one.

I don’t think I’ll be the only one to feel like this, but then I am a foreigner to Minecraft, one of those who approaches it as a video game (and, indeed, an enjoyable one) but not a way of life. That, however, is the equivalent of travelling on a tourist visa in the Republic of Minecraft. To enjoy Brooks’s novel, I think you’d have to be the sort of person who wants to take breaks from the game you’re playing to watch someone else play it on YouTube. You’d need to find something comforting about the way that this book so perfectly recapitulates your own experiences in an online world, while framing your journey through its virtual spaces as a primer for life itself. You might also need to have wondered occasionally, playing Minecraft, whether someone could possibly use the tools in Minecraft to programme Minecraft in Minecraft, so you could play Minecraft while you played Minecraft. And if you’ve read all this with a tremor of recognition…hi there. I think there are more and more of you by the day.

Minecraft: The Island by Max Brooks is out now, published by Penguin Random House

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