Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Valheim is intimidatingly immersive—so I’m playing Minecraft instead

Valheim
Valheim
Image: Iron Gate AB

Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend? 

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This should, by every reasonable metric for success, be a column about Valheim. After all, Iron Gate AB’s indie Viking simulator is very much the game of the zeitgeist at the moment; it’s new, it’s interesting, it lets you die of carbon monoxide poisoning—every critical box ticked! So why, I have to ask myself, am I writing a column about Minecraft instead?

Like many people, my relationship with gaming has either evolved or devolved over the last, surreal year on planet Earth—it’s hard to ever be sure which. You can even track the phases through this column: First, there was an enthusiastic embrace of social gaming. Then a retreat to old comforts. Then an ongoing effort to find something, anything new to fill the yawning anxieties and overwhelming lethargy. Now I find myself, more often than not, falling back into the arms of old depression games, polishing up my Binding Of Isaac save ahead of the release of the game’s new Repentance expansion next week, and running sometimes as many as three different idle/clicker games at once. (Y’all on that Leaf Blower Revolution? Mythical Leaves are killing me right now, it’s such a pain, I love it.)

When I poked at Valheim—which I’ve spent five or so not-unpleasant hours playing—I found a robust and interesting building simulation, full of meters to manage, weight limits to worry about, and the potential to literally kill my dumb ass by standing on the wrong side of a falling log. What I also found was a deep, spiritual tiredness. That’s not Iron Gate’s fault: They’ve done everything they can to make their Norse-inspired world feel vibrant and alive. But there were just only so many sticks I could pick up off the ground, so many more building rules to internalize, a maximum number of skill boosts I could bring myself to care about. Valheim is totally fun, but I’m not, right now, and I could feel it leaching into the experience.

Which brings me back to Minecraft—a game that, not coincidentally, I first got into during a very different dip in my mental horizons, more than a decade ago. And, against all odds, it’s become one of the few gaming joys to buoy me up in these last few months. It’s not as flashy as Valheim (although its blocky aesthetics, against all odds, still hold up). Its physics simulation is a million times less robust. But for me, it still embodies a sense of play in a way that very few other games can. The term “sandbox” gets thrown around a lot in gaming, but Mojang’s ability to build a world, and a ruleset, that lets you Build Fun Shit really can’t be denied.

Take this semi-random anecdote, from a recent play session with my (also-pushing-40) buddy Kevin. We’ve been playing on a Realm (i.e., a paid, dedicated server operated by Microsoft) for a few months now, building out a base, chatting idly about life and kids, and sometimes getting murdered by spiders. On our most recent session, I decided it was finally time to start building a railway out to our nearby ocean. The following Rube Goldberg machine of back-and-forth ideas was then swiftly kicked off:

  1. It would be cool if our new minecart track finished by tossing the cart into the water.
  2. Given 1, it would also be cool if the cart sank into a sort of underwater base deep beneath the ocean.
  3. Given 2, we should probably find a way to launch ourselves back out of the water and up to the surface.
  4. Given 3, there’s really no reason to have said launcher stop at the surface, when we could instead shoot all the way up into the sky.
  5. Given 4, we could probably set up a minecart track in the sky that could then fall back onto our original tracks, allowing us to return to our point of origin.
  6. Given 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, Minecraft still totally kicks ass.

None of this was supremely innovative, especially in light of some of the completely over-the-top contraptions and architectural marvels Minecraft players have built over the decade-plus since its release. But it just felt incredible to have this robust ruleset and toolbox at our disposal, allowing us to follow our impulses in pursuit of a series of cool ideas, and end with a working transport system. (Even now, I’m still thinking about how to refine it; I’m pretty sure I can get the minecarts to fling themselves into the sky if I get the water currents right…)

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The point is, Minecraft—slated for its next big update, Cliffs And Caves, sometime this spring or summer—remains one of the purest expressions of play I’ve ever encountered in gaming. The world at large is full of big, scary problems at the moment. Having a place where I can set my own—and then solve them—is about as comforting as it gets. (I swear I’ll play Valheim more soon, though; please don’t yell at me, Viking fans.)