My son has recently grown a great fondness for Minecraft. It started with the 3DS version he got for Christmas before I finally convinced him to try the Java version on PC. His excitement for the game has incidentally pulled me back into a rabbit hole that I started down over a decade ago.
It was around November of 2010 when I first heard about Minecraft. A close friend of mine showed me a world he had been working on. I remember being rather confused by the mismatched collection of building and pixel art. There was no structure to this game. There wasn’t even a unifying theme that I could see from the example given by his builds. As I recall, I sort of just shook my head and said that it wasn’t for me.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that I actually figured out the appeal of the game. I don’t remember a specific moment that got me to give the game another try, but I do have some vague memories of my first world. I built a little house out of wooden logs (back when oak wood was simply called ‘wood’ and the other wood variants didn’t exist) next to a river. I can recall that when I decided to dig out a basement, I quickly realized placing my home so close to the river was a bad idea. I had a lot of accidental floods when trying to build the lower floor.
But when Minecraft truly became fun for me was in May of 2012. I took the time to spin up a server for me, my girlfriend (now my wife), and one or two close friends. Before long, I had a smattering of IRL friends and acquaintances joining us, and we had a sizeable town built before us. At least it was sizeable relative to the builds any of us had accomplished on our own.
I was rather proud of the little village and outlying settlements we had. It’s one thing to look at your accomplished work in a solo game. It’s another thing entirely to explore things built by others in a multiplayer co-operation you helped facilitate.
I believe this was before the Minecraft frenzy had truly entrenched its way into the gaming world. It was popular, sure, but Minecraft’s actual release date was perhaps overshadowed a bit by the other game that was released on 11-11-2011: Skyrim. It hadn’t yet reached the media saturation it would attain a year or two later.
There’s something special about getting invested in a game right as the wider community discovers it as well. Everyone’s talking about it. And because everyone’s talking about it, everyone’s playing it. And due to the nature of the internet (and Minecraft itself) back in 2012, a not insignificant number of people had yet to really experience online play. There were large servers out there, of course. But if you wanted to play on a private server with just your close friends, you had to host it yourself. Minecraft Realms wasn’t a thing yet. Third party hosting services were no doubt around back then, but none of us had heard of them yet. And we wouldn’t have been willing to pay a monthly fee for it anyway. So the server I hosted was the first time that most of the people in my local friend group got to play the game together.
I tried to keep it running 24/7 so that people could log on even when I wasn’t playing. At its height, there were probably around fifteen people who were actively working on things on the server. That is, of course, not a lot at all when you compare it to “big boy” perpetually hosted servers. But for my little home-brewed server, it felt like a big deal.
Sadly, all good things must end. Just a few months later, I had to shut down the server due to an impending move to an area without broadband internet. I made the world file available for all my friends to download if they wished and didn’t play Minecraft for about a year. What else could single-player offer me when I had experienced the best the game had to offer with friends?
When I did return to Minecraft in 2013 to check out the Redstone Update, I started a new world file, but used the same seed from my 2012 server. I named this world Ditaria.
Minecraft had changed its terrain generation, so everything looked different, of course. Never one to make things easy for myself, I used MCEdit to copy and paste the server’s village and outlying builds into the center coordinates for my new world. Then I traveled north, far away from any existing structures, and started over. I didn’t want to continue playing in the ghost town that was our old village, but I wanted it to exist somewhere in my Minecraft world.
That pattern of restarting became a ritual for me when I wanted to start a new world in Minecraft. Every couple of years, instead of clicking ‘New World,’ I’d just click Ditaria, throw my old belongings into a chest, and travel a significant distance away to begin anew. It was a nice way to relive the Minecraft survival experience without feeling like I’d abandoned everything I had previously achieved. Those old settlements and towns were in the same world. All I had to do was walk there. Over time, I developed quite a few interesting settlements and cities both on my own and with my girlfriend playing over LAN. My world became quite large, with the oldest generated parts at the center and the newer chunks circling outwards from there. And every time Mojang would update the world generation, I would just use MCMerge to make a neat (albeit unnaturally straight) river that would stitch together mismatched terrain.
And after Mojang added writable books, whenever I got bored of just actually playing Minecraft, but still wanted to do something with that world, I would come up with some in-universe lore or fiction for my little Minecraft world. A lot of the world’s religion I based off of my close friends from the 2012 Server days, and I formed some mythology around memorable events from our time playing. The “TNT Incident,” in which someone gained access to a friend’s computer and placed a layer of TNT under our entire village, now became an early world legend to rival that of the Biblical flood. Instead of an annoying little PC hijacker, he was now an evil wizard hailing from a distant land. The previous day’s world backup that I restored was now a miracle of time travel granted by the gods to reverse the devastation. This silly little game of Minecraft had become a world-building experience for me.
Oh, I still played Minecraft the “proper way” from time to time. I built a cool little coastal village that defied physics by floating on the water. I made that my base of operations for a time while I progressed through survival mode. However, I took the immersion to an
unhealthy unorthodox level. My slow ascent to taking on the Ender Dragon wasn’t just a goal set by the developers. It was now a roleplaying experience that I chronicled in a set of in-game journals.
When I eventually killed the dragon, I wrote a brief historical short story about the time I rid the world of Ditaria of an evil that threatened to invade the overworld. I placed a sign atop one of the Obsidian pillars in the End that immortalized the date and time I felled the dragon. The weapons I used to do the deed were placed in a chest on the same pillar as a monument to “completing the game”. The console versions of Minecraft might have had achievements, but did they have lore behind them? This was a more satisfying end to a game than many more fleshed-out titles have given me.
But then the fever of world-building began to wane, and the purpose of it all was harder to find. Yes, I had crafted this cool lore and world around a pre-packaged gaming experience, but it was only really cool to me. As with any world-building project, the finished product rarely means as much to others as it does to the one who created it. The stories set within a world matter more. And the stories that existed within my Minecraft world no longer involved other people. The server had been offline for over three years. I doubt many of them even remembered what our town looked like by this point. They hadn’t traveled there every few years to reminisce like I had.
I guess I got bored of Minecraft at this point. I’d finished the game and the new content that Mojang was adding, while cool, didn’t add enough to the overall experience to warrant starting over and building a new base. Building for building’s sake wasn’t as fun if there was no one else to enjoy it with me.
So I decided to let Ditaria be the end of my Minecraft playthrough. I’d developed the world enough for it to be considered “done”. To put a nice bow on top, I ensured that all of my currently explored lands ended at a body of water, then I changed the world’s setting to only generate infinite ocean. Ditaria was now a lone continent.
I kept that world file backed up in a couple of different locations, so it wouldn’t get accidentally left behind when upgrading PCs. When I got an Oculus Rift, I installed Vivecraft so that I could explore all of my old builds in virtual reality (seeing the things you’ve made as they tower around you in VR is an experience that is a bit surreal), but I stopped “developing” Ditaria further. There was nothing more to do there.
Returning to 2023, my son got into Minecraft this year on his 3DS. Wanting to play with him, I set up a server again. And, instead of starting over, I reached back to an old tradition I began a decade prior. I took Ditaria, changed the world setting back to normal terrain generation, and set out west in search of a new continent.
Things have changed a lot in Minecraft, even since 2015. No longer do you have sheer blocky cliffs created by mismatched terrain generation versions. 1.19.4 added “chunk blending,” so now when you update the game, it will automatically blend in your previously generated chunks into the new ones, creating a much more natural-looking transition between areas. MCMerge is a thing of the past. While there is a vast ocean (by Minecraft standards) standing between Ditaria and the new continent, the coast of the new land blends right in with the edited ocean areas.
But this wasn’t just about starting a new playthrough to generate a new land. This was about building something with my son. It required me to change how I’d been thinking about Minecraft for the past ten years. A four year old isn’t all that keen on building structures that make sense within an established fantasy world, after all. When he wants to build things, it’s usually giant numbers. And when he doesn’t want to build things he mainly just wants to dig holes everywhere.
Regardless, getting my son to move to PC was instrumental in getting me back into the game. Playing around on the Xbox version of the game was fun in a way that served entertaining him, but Java edition has always been where the most customizability of worlds has existed. And it is, of course, where my old world exists as well.
Our new continent, Fahlvia, lies about two or three thousand blocks away from the edge of Ditaria. And I plan to exclude all of my previously written lore and history from this land. It all still exists back on the old continent, of course and I keep copies of those books in my personal library in my new base. But any world-building for this continent will be the product of shared experiences in this new area and not be held back by old ideas I created on my own.
It didn’t take long for my wife to join in and start building a new castle. And after a short stint living upon a mountain base, my son and I have started work on a new village atop a plateau near the inner sea. A couple of friends have joined as well, but of course not as many as from the 2012 days. People have moved on, and the zeitgeist around Minecraft has long died down. A big server full of people was fun, but it was never something I set out to have. I’m happy playing with even just a couple of people if we can make some cool stuff together.
And maybe in another ten years we’ll have something really fun to look back on.