Of Pastures RGB: Minecraft, the eerie pastoral, and broken nostalgia
This is the full script and bibliography I used when recording Episode 1 of my new Let's Play Essay series for Plymouth-based arts & humanities magazine Client Culture. On Virtual Land is a sight-seeing tour for the confined! An examination of digital landscapes and video game spaces! What does it mean for us to exist within these worlds? This text was originally written for a research project for Plymouth College of Art. It was used as a basis for improvisation so it may differ from the content of the video.
Figure 1. rye-chip, 2019
A YouTube video (Figure 1), that has just reached over 2 million views as of Feb 19 2019, titled 'your family is asleep and you’re playing minecraft on a cool 2012 summer night' (rye - chip, 2019) is part of a growing trend of cashing in on nostalgia by subtly editing sounds to fit specific atmospheres. The video is a still image of a laptop on wrinkled sheets, blue light beaming across the bed, with the video game Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) on the screen. The audio brings in washes of humming crickets, the barking of your neighbour’s dog, and quiet piano music from C418’s soundtrack. In the comments of the video people discuss their memories of playing the game in varying degrees of detail, and express their longing to be back in that state of youthful bliss. One YouTube user says: 'One day, you and your friends played Minecraft together and didn’t realize it was the last time.' (The Tryhard Trackee, 2019), and another adds: 'Scrolling through these comments are making me cry, knowing that we all can’t ever go back. Only having the memories, but sometimes, that's a good thing.' (I like Milk, 2019) Minecraft was initially launched in 2009 / 2011, and so we can assume these commenters are still very young, and certainly too young to be having midlife crises.
So why all the bittersweet confessions?
Throughout this essay I am going to analyse Minecraft as an example of the ‘eerie pastoral’, as a way to explain its near cosmic ability to conjure existential dread and ravenous nostalgia in teens and pre-teens. I’ll connect the literary tradition of the pastoral to rurally-set video games as diegetic nostalgia. I will then further examine the game’s space, and its fictional world, placing it within post-apocalyptic fiction, and use Mark Fisher’s framework of the eerie to connect the pastoral innocence and nostalgia of the game’s world with hauntological ideas of lost futures. Finally, I will look at the function of the glitch within Minecraft as something that reveals the framework beneath, breaking apart the game world into something more eerie altogether: an eeriness that pervades and haunts all virtual worlds.
Minecraft the pastoral
So, first thing’s first. The pastoral is a long-standing literary mode concerning rural life: an idyllic portrait of shepherds tending flocks, waterwheels, and meadows, written as a form of escapism for urban audiences. The ways of life portrayed in the pastoral are often simplified, and incorrect to some degree, as expanded on by Terry Gifford in Pastoral: The New Critical Idiom, 'a pastoral is usually associated with a celebratory attitude towards what it describes, however superficially bleak it might appear to be.' (Gifford, 1999, p.2) The pastoral, then, can be seen as a form concerning the dynamic between urban and rural life, a genre concerning opposition and contradiction. Literary critic Leo Marx comments on the role of the pastoral in modern society:
The soft veil of nostalgia that hangs over our urbanized landscape is largely a vestige of the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages, and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness. (Marx, 2000, p.6)
Although this idealised view of the pastoral puts rural life on an unrealistic and unachievable pedestal, Marx posits that it is also framed in a kind of melancholy. The promise of the pastoral, that was once conceivable for urban readers has since been squashed; we no longer live in a world where the simple life of a shepherd can be imagined with any degree of plausibility due to the omnipresence of urbanism in our lives, and so the presentation of this type of lifestyle is now drenched in a cloud of longing and sadness. This dynamic works within Minecraft, the inherent contradictions of the genre existing within the technological form of the game itself: we are imagining a simple rural life, but we are seeing it through the lens of our contemporary technological capabilities. The rural and urban exist in opposition, an opposition that is crucial to the qualities of each; they need each other. Presenting the pastoral through the technological form of the video game brings the melancholy to an emotional zenith, distancing us even further from the bucolic dream, and separating us by way of screen and buttons.
Writing for The Guardian, Holly Nielsen suggests that:
Instead of being incompatible, video games and bucolic imagery are a perfect match. While earlier pastoral forms had to just ignore the realities of country life – the excruciatingly early mornings, the hard labour, the responsibilities of being tied to a particular piece of land or a herd of animals – pastoral games can turn those elements into a quiet joy. (Nielsen, 2016)
I find this to be a very interesting idea. Certainly, there is joy to be found in these quiet or mundane moments in video games (in Animal Crossing (2001), or Harvest Moon (1996), two games she cites, or in Minecraft), as, skinner-box-style, players receive dopamine hits for accomplishing tasks, whether that be a virtual monetary reward for selling a successfully-grown turnip, or whatever. Chores can become fun in the virtual world, but this is itself a radically romanticised view of rural life. Video games are not '[ignoring] the realities of country life' (Nielsen, 2016), as she suggests, but are using the medium to idealise them in their own way. Think of mobile and social game developer titan Zynga’s once absurdly popular game Farmville that swaps physical labour and routine for social-media-enabled addiction. In this world labour is not manual but emotional. Ploughing a field may only require a tap or two of the finger, but the continuous notification stream reminding you to tend to your farm acts in a similarly exhausting way. See Figure 2, a screenshot I took moments into starting a new game with a chaotic entanglement of pop-ups and notifications that followed.
Figure 2. Farmville, Zynga. Screenshot: Sam Machell, 2019
Kevin Baker sums it up well writing for KillScreen where he says: 'the player is rewarded at almost every opportunity, a gradual and linear way forward is always made available, and the land is bountiful' (Baker, 2015). The pastoral in video games succumbs to the same unreality exhibited in other mediums, but is uniquely refracted through the video game prism. Games are unique as a medium in that they allow interaction, and so the simplifications and falsehoods presented are based around the mechanical reality, where older pastoral examples, like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (Blake, 2013), would focus on the aesthetic qualities of the pastoral. Day and night cycles are shortened; crops grow within a couple of in-game days; every aspect of nature is mutable, removable, destructible: the player is God. Minecraft, then, with its free-time-gobbling, addictive and repetitive gameplay, set in a blocky, cubular wilderness with pixel rivers and mountains and forests, is perhaps a perfect example of the pastoral in video games: an abundantly innocent world, aesthetically in-line with the pastoral work of yore, presented to the urban audience with the promise of freedom and the chance of survival. A chance to go back to ‘the good old days’. A chance to fend for yourself and live off the land. A chance to escape.
We can see Minecraft, therefore, as a game that is diegetically nostalgic: nostalgia and the longstanding tradition of the pastoral are deeply crucial to the promise of escapism the game offers, the world that it creates, and the fiction the player builds from: nostalgia is coded into the game’s world. But, it is worth also mentioning that Minecraft’s pixelated, low-resolution aesthetic that references the style of games from the 80s and 90s could be seen as aesthetic nostalgia. Referencing older games aesthetically conjures nostalgia for those who played those games in their youth, sure, but the way the blocky aesthetic simplifies the natural forms, landscapes, and animals, also contributes to the nostalgic feel. The world appears like a diorama, a representation, a child’s drawing held magnetic to a fridge, or a LEGO model swept under a bed. I feel there is a lot more to say about the return of pixelated art styles in video games, and this notion of aesthetic nostalgia, but is beyond the scope and focus of this essay, so, let’s draw a tentative line underneath this for now and move on: the promise of pastoral escapism coupled with a visual style that evokes childhood and carefree freedom makes Minecraft the ultimate nostalgia fodder.
Minecraft the eerie
But, if you take a closer look at the world of Minecraft, things are perhaps not what they seem. During the day, under the blinding square sun, everything is at peace… but when night arrives, so do monsters… The most common enemies the player will encounter are zombies, spiders, and skeletons. Spiders make sense: they are frightening and dangerous and fit (only requiring a small stretch of the imagination) in the natural world we are presented with, but zombies and skeletons clash fiercely. In opposition to the pastoral ideals of innocence, nature, and growth, zombies and skeletons represent death - specifically, the death of a human. These creatures are undead: the world of Minecraft is haunted and filled with images of those who have lived before, but you, the player, are the only one who is alive. So, is the world of Minecraft post-apocalyptic? Is Minecraft the story of the sole survivor(s) of a devastating attack or epidemic? We can assume that something has occurred, as not only is the world infected with the dead but ruins and relics of a lost civilisation remain in the landscape. Players can discover dungeons, abandoned mines, haunted manors, jungle temples, desert pyramids, wells, etc, littered across the landscape. All of these structures are abandoned of human presence, or shelters to lurking monsters. The effect is eerie, feeling as though the world you are exploring is one that has been destroyed and forgotten... lost to time.
Figure 3. Minecraft, Mojang. Screenshot: Sam Machell, 2019
In his book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher builds a framework with which we can understand how eeriness manifests within forms of entertainment. The core principle he outlines is: 'The eerie [...] is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence,' (Fisher, 2016, p.61) or more simply put in two questions: Why is this thing here that shouldn’t be? Why is this thing not here that should be? We can see this in Minecraft with the presence of abandoned structures in the otherwise untouched, natural landscape, or in the absence of human life within the structures. Why is this abandoned mine here? Where are all the workers? Where are their homes? What happened here? What went wrong? In a recent playthrough, I discovered an abandoned mine that punctured and veined its way through terracotta hills and mesas (see Figure 3). The railways and tunnels that rupture the landscape with seemingly little logic are bound strictly to grid systems, which (surprisingly, in a cubic world) contrasts with the more organic and spontaneous generation of natural forms. It felt as though this portion of the world had already been claimed, altered, ransacked, and abandoned. I had arrived too late for the pastoral dream - someone else had already lived this life, and left me with nothing. In the video The Minecraft Industrial Revolution, Electron Dance muses on this virtual destruction of nature: ‘The Minecraft player does not respect the landscape but exploits it. Although Minecraft is pitched as a survival game, its true, secret nature is the simulation of human industry.’ (Electron Dance, 2015) Here we are again at the frontlines between the warring urban and rural. The human touch of industry, whether it happened before the player existed, or as a consequence of the player’s actions, permanently impacts the game’s world, analogous, Electron Dance posits, to the industrial revolution. Minecraft’s view of the pastoral, then, is textually clouded in melancholy just as Marx suggested: this is a world that has been exploited before, and the pastoral we are now presented with is hostile and posthuman.
But, back to Fisher and the eerie. He explains that the eerie is 'fundamentally tied up with questions of agency. What kind of agent is acting here? Is there an agent at all?' (Fisher, 2016, p.11) So, according to Fisher, this is all about the issue of control, and of power. Although we, the player, ultimately have total control over the mutable landscape (quite literally), we are denied power and agency. The failure of presence/absence in the Minecraft world serves to remind the player of their insignificance in the context of a world that is infinite. The world is not ours, and no matter what we do in our slice of time, there are things far more ancient that were here long before, or that will exist long after we are gone. Regardless of the player, the world will continue to exist. The true unknowable agent governing the world of Minecraft is not nature, nor the ghosts of civilisations crumbled long ago, nor the skulking beasts that rule the night, it is the great enemy of our times: the algorithm.
Minecraft the broken
In his landmark essay, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, Foucault defines the term ‘heterotopia’, contrasting with ‘utopia’, as a virtual space that ‘simultaneously represent[s], contest[s], and invert[s],’ (Foucault, 1964) real space. Photographer, writer, and game designer Gareth Damian Martin has long used this framework to analyse video game spaces, explaining this decision in the introduction to his aptly named digital zine, Heterotopias:
This is a perspective we rarely take. As the audience of these virtual worlds their total fictions are seductive, intoxicating. We want to believe. And yet, in this blinkered state we close ourselves off to the unearthly wonders in front of our eyes. Virtual worlds are strange mirrors. (Damian Martin, 2017)
It is tempting to analyse video games through literary means, as I have been doing, but Damian Martin argues that the material of these virtual worlds, their architecture, is just as telling. The world in Minecraft is procedurally generated, meaning that an algorithm creates a unique and infinite world for each player. Often, this works as intended, producing complex and varied landscapes, formations, continents, oceans, but just as often the algorithm fails. Sometimes, for example, the player may outrun the algorithm and glimpse an area of the world that has not yet been rendered. These weird glitches, known colloquially as ‘world holes’, reveal the inner workings of the world. A ‘chunk’ of the ocean that has failed to render (see Figure 4) may show us the patterns in which the kelp grow underwater, or networks of caves and tunnels; or a sudden disappearance of the ground (see Figure 5) may offer us insight into the layout of lava lakes and dungeons deep at the bottom of the world. The glitches and failures of Minecraft violently tear away the facade of nature, the veil of fiction, to show the world as it really is. As glitch artist and coiner of the term ‘Dirty New Media’ Jon Cates says, describing glitch art: “glitch art acknowledges our brokenness, systemic imperfections, and technological failures”. (Cates, 2016) The world that Minecraft, the heterotopic mirror, reflects back at us is a broken world. The pastoral is revealed as an illusion.
Figure 4. Minecraft, Mojang. Screenshot: Sam Machell, 2019
Figure 5. Minecraft, Mojang. Screenshot: Sam Machell, 2019
Fisher argues that 'the eerie concerns the unknown; when knowledge is achieved, the eerie disappears,' (Fisher, 2016, p.62) and so we may be tempted to think that the revealing glitch would enlighten us with some form of knowledge, rendering the world no longer eerie, but I do not feel this is the case. It is true that these moments bring our awareness to the algorithm as the true agent at work, but the algorithm is such an unknowable entity that our awareness of it is perhaps even more horrific. The way the glitched and broken tunnels, snaking oily and black in the cosmic depths, appear in stuttered, laggy bursts as the world is torn apart, is almost Lovecraftian, and juxtaposed with the blissful pastoral creates a deeply eerie sensation. We may know what the agent is here, but we do not understand how it works, and its presence remains elusive and dominating.
And so, here we return to that bizarre video I can’t stop thinking about, and those poor introspective tweens. The naively emotive language they use in their expressions of longing for this game begins to make sense, I feel, not as a longing for the game, or even necessarily for childhood, but for a lost future. The battle between the rural and urban in Minecraft gives us two binary ideals, the ideal of the pastoral dream, or the technological framework that enables our escape, so in our playing we are playing in the space between these two opposites. We are playing between the past, and the future; between the world governed by nature, and the world governed by the algorithm. In Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life he uses Derrida’s idea of ‘hauntology’ (the idea that the present is doomed to be forever haunted by the past) to describe the way contemporary culture and the postmodern condition are so intent on reviving things from the past (Fisher, 2014). Especially now, in a culture of remakes, reboots, and rehashes, his criticism is more relevant than ever. The children who played Minecraft were given a world that was literally created for them: a unique slice of infinity to explore. They were promised a pastoral ideal, but it was a facade, presented instead with an eerie pastoral. It’s surely not a stretch to compare this to the state of the world right now. How much of this premature nostalgia is really just an undeveloped yearning for denied innocence? The first brooding nubbin of boomer resentment and Gen Z angst? Baby’s first taste of late capitalism?
Fisher writes: ‘whereas mourning is the slow, painful withdrawal of libido from the lost object, in melancholia, libido remains attached to what has disappeared.’ (Fisher, 2014, p.22) Now undoubtedly making new memories in greener virtual fields, Minecraft was never taken away from these commenters, too young to be mourning a childhood, and the libido was never withdrawn, it still remains... clinging white knuckled to the ghost of a world destroyed by men now dead, or to the glitching fragments of mask concealing truth, or to the pastoral simulation of android sheep chewing grass under the RGB glow of the moon, awaiting the next undead horde.
So, in conclusion, analysing Minecraft as a game operating in the pastoral mode, we can see that it is inherently a work about the tension between rural and urban life, simplifying and romanticising facets of country living for a technologically advanced audience. Through this romanticisation we can think of the game as being diegetically nostalgic. However, the hostility of the world, coupled with the absence of human life/the presence of abandoned structures places the game within a darker area of analysis: the eerie: hinting at a world that came before and failed. The textual eeriness is enhanced by the glitching visuals of the game, that work together to reveal the pastoral as a facade, beneath which, we are confronted with our lost futures and the futility of escaping to the natural world.
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