Design by Abby Scheck

About a year ago, I ran into an old friend during the commute home from one of my classes. Given the state of the world in 2021, that commute was, of course, entirely virtual, and consisted merely of moving a cursor from the big red “Leave Meeting” button on Zoom to the power down button on the Windows start menu. But during my cursor’s brief virtual transit across the screen, it passed by a familiar face, somehow unchanged in the years since we’d first met: the “Minecraft” launcher icon.

It had been at least a year since I had played or thought about “Minecraft,” and on that day, I was eager to jump back in. The game was a huge part of my childhood, so I was hoping to recapture a piece of my youth. Yet, for as much as I remember loving it, the gameplay didn’t captivate me like it once did. Despite the amount of time that had passed since I last played “Minecraft,” I still remembered exactly how to progress, which incidentally made my achievements feel trivial. It’s hard not to compare this lackluster experience to my Herculean memory of my younger self, whose existence was largely defined by overcoming the game’s various obstacles. I sped through the beginning of the game with ease, but my playthrough ended abruptly — not because I made a mistake in the game, but because I pushed the technical capabilities of my underpowered laptop too far. By attempting to load into the Nether Dimension, I tanked the game’s graphical performance and allowed a low-level enemy to kill me before I could even see it. I pushed the game to its limits; I broke it, and it broke me. Frustrated and disappointed, I closed the game for what remains, to this day, the final time.

Even though I was disappointed by the gameplay of “Minecraft” during my last playthrough, something else unexpectedly captivated me: the music, composed by Daniel Rosenfeld (a.k.a. C418). I had never cared much for the soundtrack of “Minecraft,” but when I first heard the mellow piano arpeggio of C418’s “Wet Hands” fade in on my most recent playthrough, I was immediately transported from soulless, resource-gathering gameplay to another realm, one far beyond the menial tasks (both in the game and in real life) that kept me tethered down to this temporal dimension. I was instantly lost in ancient memories of the game, memories I didn’t even know I had. Within my mind, I casually meandered between entire years of my life: I had become unstuck in time. I remembered the first few times I played the game, coming home from school and building grand buildings on my own in creative mode. I remembered staying up late to play survival mode with friends and the genuine fear we felt as we slayed monsters. I even remembered the lonelier later years, returning to playing by myself as my friends slowly lost interest in the game, just before I did too. 

Despite its heavy emotional impact, the “Minecraft” soundtrack can be accurately generalized as ambient music in the most rigid, textbook sense of the phrase. On the liner notes for his seminal ambient album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, musical visionary Brian Eno conceived the term “ambient music” to describe music that is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” The soundtrack of “Minecraft” is certainly ignorable — I actively ignored it during the first few hundred hours I spent playing as a child — but just as Eno described, it manages to be equally interesting despite its harmonic and textural simplicity. With rich, minimalistic piano chords reminiscent of Erik Satie and Philip Glass and a contextually appropriate blend of conventional sounds and futurism similar to Vangelis’s soundtrack for “Blade Runner,” the “Minecraft” soundtrack is stellar.

Of course, I didn’t give a shit about ambient minimalism when I played “Minecraft” for the first time. Frankly, I didn’t even choose to listen to the “Minecraft” soundtrack in the first place: Listening to it was simply a consequence of playing the game. It was a consequence that seemed completely arbitrary, but what I never realized was that the constant ambient exposure to the same handful of piano songs would amount to something significant: Those songs buried themselves deep within my brain, effectively becoming time capsules of my childhood.

When I dig up those time capsules and listen to songs from “Minecraft” today, I immediately find warm memories. I can feel the joy of triumphing over daunting obstacles; I can envision the worlds I poured my heart into building from the ground up; I can remember the fun parts of growing up. But when I listen to the “Minecraft” soundtrack in isolation, hearing those big, empty chords without the game’s visual stimuli or auditory distractions, I can’t help but reflect on the experience of growing up and internalizing the uncomfortable passage of time.

There is the dreadful realization that even though my memories of “Minecraft” are alive and well, the game is dead — maybe not to the millions of people who still play it, but to me. All of the worlds I made as a kid no longer exist, having been deleted at some point or another. The servers and processing units that once held those worlds graduated from practical utility long ago and are almost certainly gone, too, unless they’ve been repurposed by somebody else to mine different imaginary resources than those found in “Minecraft.” But even more upsetting than the inevitable entropic decay of physical and digital structures is the ability to see the change in myself, the change often referred to as “growing up” that doesn’t always feel like such a simple upward climb. Measured only by my ability to enjoy “Minecraft,” one might say I grew down over the past 10 years.

Was “Minecraft” the peak of our gaming society, at least in this century? Maybe not. Maybe conditions will improve, and the static but vibrantly green appearance of the “Minecraft” overworld will stop drifting away from the real world which loosely inspired it. For now, “Minecraft” is our generation’s Moon landing. Just as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins left Earth merely decades after the Wright Brothers did, “Minecraft” represents an equally rapid technological evolution for gaming.

In just 25 years, open-world video games went from “The Legend of Zelda,” a game that struggles to process sound effects and music simultaneously, to “Minecraft,” a game that could process online gameplay on pseudo-infinite worlds along with an uncompressed, fully realized soundtrack. Technological innovation has allowed for better spaceships than the Apollo modules and more sophisticated open-world games than “Minecraft,” but in the same way that seeing people walk on the Moon must have felt unreal, exploring the limitless, 3-D world of “Minecraft” blew my young mind. That’s why I think it’s so hard for me to accept my lost enjoyment of “Minecraft”: it completely amazed me and shaped so much of my childhood, and now that sense of amazement is gone.

In the end, I don’t think growing up is a bad thing. I do lament that I can’t enjoy “Minecraft” like I used to, but I don’t mourn my equally lost ability to enjoy, say, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (in that particular case, I actually cherish it greatly). My biggest takeaway from revisiting “Minecraft” isn’t that everything has gotten worse as I’ve become older, but simply that what I choose to appreciate has changed. I don’t get excited about opening my computer to dig up rocks anymore, and I probably never will again. But when I hear the piano enter on C418’s “Intro,” a track that doesn’t even appear in the game “Minecraft” but closes the two-and-a-half-hour ambient album Minecraft – Volume Beta, I get a somber yet hopeful feeling. The feeling is reminiscent of how I felt the first few times I played “Minecraft,” which I think I can now describe: the feeling that the next chapter of my life is about to begin.

Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at jmoeser@umich.edu.