By Neil Merrett
Minecraft Dungeons, released on Nintendo switch in 2020, developed by Mojang Studios and Double Eleven
Minecraft Dungeons strips back the well-trodden conventions and mechanics of action RPGs such as Diablo 3, where a seemingly endless cycle of quests is undertaken with increased difficulty and the possibility of ever-increasing power and abilities.
In doing so, the simplicity of the game serves as both chance to engage in a kind of family friendly multiplayer treasure hunt, while also inadvertently providing an introspective single player examination of the insatiable human drive for power – and that’s before you get yourself an in-game cape!
There is a fine line between besting a game, and breaking it. Besting a game is often an experience based on the concept of personalising or perfecting a play style and adapting it in a way that allows the player is able to overcome its challenges with such aplomb or style that they feel rewarded for their dedication, or at least their sheer lack of something to do in the real world.
Breaking a game, by point of comparison, is when an individual or group is able to exploit the mechanics, programming or AI to effectively nullify any challenge it is designed to have – in effect, making the base point of playing a game redundant.
One experience is not necessarily worse than the other.
For millions of people around the world who may have struggled to make their way through some arduous quest or level, there is a real appeal in watching someone manipulate that very same programming and mechanics to breeze through a game without breaking a metaphorical sweat.
A player that find themselves having broken a game, whether intentional or not through some form of exploit, ultimately risks undermining any sense of achievement they might get from succeeding at a title. As gamers, we are often asked to try and use a combination of wits, reflexes and blind luck to overcome a particular challenge. If you can avoid a challenge completely, what is the point of that game?
This delicate balance of offering a consistent and scalable challenge to a player, while also granting them the possibility of becoming infinitesimally stronger or skilled enough to smash through a game is something of a tightrope for developers to walk.
What is the point of undertaking an effectively endless mystical treasure hunt for new weapons, armour and magical artefacts if not to get increasingly stronger?
A game such as Diablo 3 has been built and enhanced for the best part of a decade on the idea of experimenting with a wide array of character classes and different magical abilities and weapons to find the optimal, sometimes deeply personal combination of play style for each player. Satisfaction and progress in the game is not so much acquiring greater power, but experiencing and then understanding how best to use it.
Minecraft Dungeons is another action RPG game with more than a few passing similarities in gameplay and mechanics to Diablo 3. As the name suggests, this adventure is played in the visual style of the popular crafting, construction and adventure game Minecraft.
In trying to ape the play-style of a very different game, Minecraft Dungeons completely drops Minecraft’s open ended, almost limitless mechanics of foraging and crafting to survive, build and then thrive in a literal world of your own making.
In ‘Dungeons’, you are charged with questing through a pre-built world to battle monsters, loot powerful weapons and artefacts and acquire funds for in-game characters to build new weapons for you.
The initial DNA of Minecraft is present mostly in the visual style of the game, which ditches the murky darkness of Diablo’s world for a colourful and blocky impressionistic world of enchanted swamps, floral deserts and well… dungeons.
Another vital component of the Minecraft DNA present in Dungeons is the game’s accessibility. Accessibility in this case relates to the decision to limit and reduce down the large number of choices and options in Diablo 3 into a more streamlined number of weapons, outfits and powers.
The player must choose a ranged weapon such as a bow, a melee weapon for poking or punching, a choice of different powered armours and then three magical artefacts that can help heal, shield, or let you set things on fire.
Within each of these item types is the ability to assign a selection of different enchantments that can grant a player healing and defensive abilities, or otherwise manipulate opponents in other ways by slowing them down, poisoning them, or bunching them together to make them easier to destroy.
The further the player goes into the game, the more they can test larger random combinations of these abilities, with the idea being to constantly keep swapping out for items for new gears with a higher numerical value.
A range of different reviewers have noted Minecraft Dungeons’ very open attempt to simplify the Diablo formula into something of an all ages approach to action RPG games.
In using similar headlines, Ben Maxwell of PCGamesN described the game perhaps more positively as ‘my first diablo’, while Paul Tassi of Forbes decided the more simplistic structure functioned as a ‘baby’s first Diablo’.
Both reviews are broadly positive of the experience of playing through Minecraft Dungeons, noting that it was both a cheaper, and in some ways, more shallow experience than a game that has seen years of development based on constructive and not so constructive audience feedback.
Tassi, who describes himself as an avid Diablo 3 fan, said he didn’t care that Minecraft Dungeons was a much more simplified and stripped down version of another game that he has put over a thousand plus hours of his life into.
He concluded, “I like that Minecraft Dungeons exists because I wish more dungeon crawlers existed. I want a League of Legends dungeon crawler or a Borderlands dungeon crawler. But this genre is notoriously a lot harder to monetise than most, which is why I don’t think you see a lot of investment in it, despite the clear success of many games in it, Diablo, Path of Exile, Torchlight, etc.”
“So I will take Minecraft Dungeons arrival as a good sign, even if it’s not exactly what I want out of the genre.”
But for all its child-friendly visuals, Minecraft Dungeons is still very much a game to be conquered by players of all ages. Players are urged to intensify the experience with increased difficulties to get a better chance at finder ever stronger items.
Many players will be doing this way past the point where there is anything new to see or experience in the levels. But players, much like in Diablo 3, remain driven for days, weeks and even years to put themselves through these ordeals to get stronger in a game that they may have long conquered.
What then keeps players coming back to gain power and abilities without any seeming purpose? Why do they seek to feel strong in a way that will have limited real-world value on how they are seen or navigate life?
In the end, it may well just be the comforting illusion of being powerful and unassailable in a fairly affable fantasy world of cubed zombies, gelatinous monsters and childish tyrants with abilities well beyond their grasp or understanding.
In those nagging moments of occasionally isolated, mindless gaming, Minecraft Dungeons hammers home better than most the addictive drive and lust for power for its own sake.
The question of what the power is for; why it can be such an intoxicating driver even with a defined and purpose, is an interesting theme. But it does not always have an obvious answer.
Does one seek power to best a game that has an outside appearance of child-like simplicity, to amuse or impress those around us, or simply for that brief escape of being unencumbered by external forces?
Minecraft Dungeons is perhaps the most comforting power fantasy in that it can be simply fun to be strong and get even stronger still.
Some players through fortitude and luck, have already found themselves walking that tightrope of besting or breaking Minecraft Dungeons.
This is my Minecraft Dungeons build. I call it… The Cheese Wizard. (final boss spoilers) pic.twitter.com/lBjdCksNnM— Uncle Dane (@danekevincook) June 3, 2020
Others may find their latest build of items and weapons that can, for certain sections of the game seem unbeatable, suddenly being undone by a boss or particular horde of creatures at higher difficulty.
Some people will always live for that experience of overcoming or even breaking a game, while others may take pleasure in a game pushing back and keeping them on their toes as they ramp up the challenge for a shot of deeply introspective glory.
Power and control, one realises, can become quite personal things. Sometimes, the simplest experiences can be the things that most get under your skin.
If you are going to go power mad, there are worse places than Minecraft Dungeons to get such a kick.