Minecraft and Terraria: Two Very Different Games

An Exploration of Minecraft as a Spiritual Experience

The pictures of Minecraft are from an earlier version of the game.

I’ve already written once about some of the differences between Minecraft and Terraria, but that dealt with actual differences in gameplay and content, things like monsters, weapons, and crafting. The two games’ single player experience differs on another level however, a sort of almost spiritual or mental one. Let me explain.

To start, Terraria is more akin to the Metroidvania type massive side-scrolling genre than it is to Minecraft. This is a game focused on killing enemies, collecting loot, and seeing fast-paced character progression. It’s an action-oriented game that, though allowing for construction and creative building, keeps those elements on the back burner with the focus instead falling on finding more loot or hunting specific monsters. Minecraft thus far has taken a very different approach. There are far fewer objects to pursue in Minecraft and far less monster varieties. The player’s goals and progression relies much more heavily on self-set objectives. You want to build a specific structure, often for the sake of doing so or because it will look cool. If you go hunting for specific minerals or ores, like diamond, you can’t really go out in search of it, instead having to rely on blind luck.

The populated 2D world of Terraria.

Whereas Terraria’s 2D setting allows the player to see into adjoining rooms that are separated by a wall (provided you have adequate lighting), the Minecraft player with their first person perspective would never know the wall they just ran by in a pre-rendered tunnel was hiding a treasure trove of diamonds. It often takes sheer dumb luck to stumble upon the quality goods in Minecraft, or a rigorous and exhaustive search of a given area. While Terraria’s limited in-game real estate might make thorough searches of entire regions more plausible, the go-any-direction 3D world of Minecraft would make a similar search a tedious and somewhat futile process.

The space issue extends further into the two games’ differences. Terraria’s surface, even on the larger maps, is easily explored as the player can simply run in either direction until they hit the eventual ocean. Just a few power-ups and buffs will keep you alive and let you take in the lay of the land pretty early on in any new game. As well, you have NPC characters that will show up and offer you aid in your developing village as you progress through the game. It rarely takes a player a long time to have 4-5 helpful people hanging out in their home or area, interacting, selling, and essentially populating your world with other “humans”.

Minecraft doesn’t have NPCs yet. As it stands, the world of Minecraft is a massive place, with rough estimates placing any generated world at about 8 times the surface of the earth. It would be unrealistic for anyone to explore enough of their world to see a fraction of this, but the potential is there. In all this space though, not a single other human character can be found. Minecraft provides an almost infinite space for one single person to live in, populated only by a limited variety of animals and monsters.

Very little music, save a few notes scattered about here and there; docile creatures wandering about, glancing your way as you pass with only mild interest; and monsters in the dark places, waiting for you at all times, their sole existence based on killing you, the player. It’s this lonesome, dangerous Eden in which the player finds themselves with neither explanation nor purpose, as though a twisted god has provided all eternity to one soul to do with as they please. This god would have split personalities of good/evil, light/dark, and above and below ground. The day and night cycle assures that the player spends an equal amount of time with both sides of this deity, and the lack of certain crucial resources being available in either the surface world or the subterranean world requires exploration of both.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

Genesis 1: 29-30

This description from the Bible explaining the world the Abrahamic God gives unto humanity would describe the deity of the world of Minecraft’s lighter or good side. It’s essentially the rest of the Bible, the post expulsion-from-paradise bit that illustrates the other side of this god. Why provide a rich, unused world if you populate it with danger and evil? Why provide such little explanation of the player’s purpose, instead leaving it up to each individual to find their own. Terraria hands you a guide from the very start, someone to point you in the right direction, and there, you can feel the game designer’s presence trying to help you out. Notch, the creator of Minecraft, is all but non-existent in his world, lest you consider him this dual-sided deity. His design isn’t as readily visible in the game space, his digital footprints invisible. It is just a strange and mysterious world with no clear purpose.

It is in this large, lonesome place where I as a player have come closest to a spiritual experience in gaming. There is no conversation, not another soul to interact with. I soon become one with the denizens of this strange world while completely detached and separate from them at the same time. I am the only living constant in Minecraft. Creatures disappear from existence when I’m not looking, even if I trap them in a completely sealed environment. Monsters appear out of nothingness, and burn away with the rising sun. Even the wolves which I can tame will die sooner or later, and I will again be left alone.

It is in this place where with no stimulus from the game, I’ll find myself digging for hours on end, or single-mindedly focusing on one creation, losing myself in the game world in a way unlike what I find in other videogames. I’m not one for meditation, but playing Minecraft feels like a sort of meditation broken up by the two-faced god’s insistence of throwing danger and evil in my path. Overcome these obstacles, and my reward is more digging, more building. It is an exploration of a private spirit world, another existence separate from the one I know in the real world.

Terraria offers none of this. Terraria is a game at heart, and a damn good one, but Minecraft is something else. The purposeless sandbox that many gamers find off-putting makes it something special from my perspective. It is a quality of the game that is chipped away with each update as more tired gaming tropes are added to the experience. The upcoming adventure update promises to introduce NPC villages to the game. Though this is a feature many of us have long wanted, I can’t help but wonder if this won’t also deplete the more “spirit world” feel of the game.

All I can do is backup one of the earlier game incarnations, and save it away, hoping I don’t accidentally allow it to update. Will I ever visit this incomplete Minecraft again? Will new players ever experience such a strange incarnation of the game? With each update, the game changes, and with each update, I lose another piece of my own private Eden.

2 Responses to “Minecraft and Terraria: Two Very Different Games”
  1. Gregg B says:

    When I was younger, me and my friends found a huge secret place a decent walk away from where we lived that few people (of our age) knew about. It was a valley with a stream running through it, cloaked in trees and so so peaceful. We used to go there a lot during the summer breaks and sit in the grass in the sun knowing that we wouldn’t be disturbed by others. It was our secret little world and your article kind of reminded me of that.

    While I’ve little experience with Minecraft, I understand where you’re coming from with this. I know I’m the guy who bemoaned Minecraft’s aimlessness but I can appreciate the sort of spiritual and meditative qualities that that liberty (as well as the loneliness and the size of the world) brings. The adventure update, which I expect to be welcomed by many, seems like it’s going to dilute the very thing you mention that makes Minecraft so unique. That’s not to say it shouldn’t happen or that the original concept won’t still be in there somewhere but it’s slowly creeping towards the traditional and away from the mystical.

    When I play Minecraft I feel fidgety, like I need to be doing something but I don’t feel compelled to dig, craft, build or attack things. The screenshots and videos of Minecraft always take me to this beautiful, serene, untouched, vacuum sealed world ripe for exploration and adventure but when I’m in it I just can’t shake off the feeling that I could (or should) be doing something else rather than exploring for nothing in particular or creating my own goals. I think the spiritual side that I see in the screenshots and vids just doesn’t get through to me in-game because of this fidgetyness. Perhaps I need that update and the artificial focus it will bring.

    All this reminds me of a first person space exploration game that I played some years ago called Noctis which features (to quote the wiki) ‘over 78 billion stars, most of which host many planets and moons orbiting them’. You can land on any one of them and explore the otherwordly surfaces. The game is ‘massively single player’ in that newly discovered stars can be named by players. This is done by connecting to a central database and updating it. It all sounds great but the game itself is very hard to play for two reasons: the controls are obtuse and the resolution is crushingly low (320 x 200). Check it out, or at the very least have a look at some of the videos on Youtube — it’s a very lonely and similarly mystical looking experience.

    Hmm, that was a long post. Great article Armand.

  2. Ape says:

    Minecraft is essentially a multiplayer game. You reviewed it as singleplayer one. Go find some friends or join a massive server with 200 players.

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