Minecraft is a Terrifying Lesson in Solipsism and Existential Horror
Faye, what the heck are you doing here? Minecraft is the beloved jewel of all gamers. It’s accessible, endlessly moddable, and a place to gather with community. You can explore worlds together! Make worlds together!! It is every fantasy become reality! 200 million copies sold. Minecraft Underlies a Fun Happy Time. Fixed it. End of Article.
Wouldn’t you like that, dear reader. A world of boundless love troubled by nothing. And if truly, that is your desire, maybe this article isn’t for you. You’re not wrong. Enjoy the game as you do. But if you’re curious. If you’re okay reading low grade horror/game reviews, a genre I’m inventing as I type (I think), then I have something for you. A dark horrifying reality that exists within Minecraft that makes Bloodborn look like a child’s playful cartoon.
How can this be, Faye? You don’t see the cute little sheep in Minecraft? The cute pigs or cows that go moo? Tiny foxes with cute little items in their mouth? How can you look into the caring deep eyes of an iron golem holding out a flower like Frankenstein’s own monster in this universal gesture for peace, hope, and understanding? The world is so open, so bright, and so much to do within it that how could one even cast doubt or darkness here? Boo urns.
But dear reader, what lies beneath the surface of this play? The endless dark chasms beneath you full of monsters, noise, and dread? Hmm? Green phallic beings whose only purpose is to run up to you and explode like a Silent Hill monster? Hmm? A world of limits on your ability and power unless you dare venture into the dangers waiting for you beyond those idyllic meadows, flowers, and bees? And as your mind stretches, we can’t help but feel something reach back and grab hold. Something dark, something hollow and totally alien to our own psych. An uncanny wavering nothingness from which all things are stimulated and built into this world. To understand this, like with most things, we need to remember season five, episode 17 of Angel, appropriately titled, “Underneath”.
I really feel awkward in saying much more as everyone likely knows this story. In the off chance you don’t, this is an episode depicting a hell, where our boy Lindsey experiences the same day over and over. Each day featuring this idyllic version of nuclear family dominance. Big house, wife, two kids, math homework and all the other trappings of performed reality. However, at the end of the day he needs to get a lightbulb from the basement or some tool, I forget which, and it is there he is tortured and ripped apart by a demon. Waking up the next day to repeat those moments forever. Not unlike season 2 of Haruhi Suzumiya, that show boldly chose to play the same fucking episode 8 times in a row and make you as the viewer feel personally trapped within hell.
This landscape we see within Angel is not categorically different than what we see in Minecraft. You keep digging and lighting your way through darkness in the attempts to find diamonds and eventually you hit bed rock. You can’t go further and you typically don’t think much about it. You think there is just endless ground below you. But if you’ve found a way to destroy bedrock or if you play on creative mode you know there isn’t anything below you. There is an empty void from which you will fall into death and your screams will not be heard. The game could have had a type of ground. It could have had a general limit to the bottom to simulate an earth of some kind or just maybe a black ground you can walk on but not destroy. It chose to not do this. Beyond the veil of that bedrock is not more bedrock — it is emptiness forever. You are not on a planet, you are not on solid ground, you are an island that floats on absolute infinity of nothing in what could be at best described as purgatory.
Does this make you uncomfortable? It should. So you should run. You should climb. You should escape back to the surface world with your diamonds in tow. The surface is safe, right? It’s the world of life and happiness, is it not?
You may not realize that before Dan Olson personally destroyed the crypto industry (with help from münecat), he also made videos on video games. He describes the casual process in which he relocates villagers into a more convenient location, before reflecting on his actions. Let’s think back to those cute sheep that we spoke about with smiles and happiness towards the start of this article. How are they doing now?
That picture is taken from a website explaining the best five foods in the game and number four is cooking poor mittens here. Not killing it with a sword in one attack, then putting its meat into a furnace. No, it is lighting it on fire, until it dies, so it will directly drop its cooked meat. Maybe you never do this? Maybe you didn’t do this at first? Maybe you do it now without a second thought. What is that sheep to you? It’s a vessel for items, is it not? It doesn’t matter that it’s passive. It doesn’t matter that it’s friendly, that it provides wool, that there are a ton of other ways to eat without murder. No. No. It doesn’t matter if it represents a sheep or that it’s a symbol of a sheep or that you’re compelled to think about sheep in your interactions with it. Maybe you’re burning this one, maybe you have 40 of them locked into a tiny space to make cutting their wool easier.
It’s just a game. Ha ha. It doesn’t matter. And maybe you never stopped to consider any of this. Maybe you punched the first sheep you saw to death. Who knows. But on a long enough timeline most players will probably just gamify the entire world. At a certain point no tears will be shed by the infinite iron productions you may make.
Even a hardened Minecraft vet can’t help but take pause when understanding that every Iron Golem farm has a byproduct of roses. Never before have we harvested so much peace and understanding. And if you don’t know how this works, effectively a village of a certain size will summon an iron golem when they feel scared. The way this farm works is that a few villagers are trapped forever inside this glass dome, three feet away from a monster who will try endlessly to kill them. Their fear will make them constantly summon a golem to protect them. This golem will be spawned into a contraption that forces them into lava that harvests their iron flesh. This continues forever. Lengthy and simple tutorials explain how to do this. People will cheerly help you make these merciless death traps. If you can, imagine these lines as though Super Eyepatch Wolf was reading them. I do.
Minecraft as a game doesn’t explicitly have a story. You don’t really come from a place, you just spawn into existing. You don’t learn from people what goals are — there are simply places to enact your will on the world. Are you a hero? Are you the good guy? You murder caged or free roaming blazes and endermen to form the crystals into the end world. You slay the Ender Dragon and open the portal away and are greeted with the only thing this game has as a narrative: 1,500 words that exist as a conversation between beings identified as existing somewhere higher, yet everywhere. Who fawn over your data forged from a star and bullshit about reality and dreams. I think most folks who play Minecraft completely forget about this conversation, because you don’t think much about it and you skip it in every future run.
But there are times it is sad, in the long dream. It creates worlds that have no summer, and it shivers under a black sun, and it takes its sad creation for reality.
To cure it of sorrow would destroy it. The sorrow is part of its own private task. We cannot interfere.
When I say Minecraft is a lesson in existential horror I mean this. I don’t mean that you can infer these values from the game. I mean it was intrinsically built into it. Keep in mind it was built by (end poem not written by) Notch, what’s that guy up to?
A big part of Minecraft is effectively traveling into hell. While it’s called the “Nether” you’re met with a harsh landscape of massive floating ghosts with baby cries that drop tears, endless pools of lava, and SOOOOOUL SAAAND. This is basically just Silent Hills, can you not see that dear reader!? You can construct an eldritch boss by placing three skulls on top of those trapped souls that will attack you with the skulls of the damn to the ends of the fucking realm. You can get trapped here by a ghast blowing up your portal and have to forage for mushrooms as a source of food until you can get the needed materials to break back out.
So often in this game you are faced with the possibility of death and losing everything you have. Maybe a creeper will sneak up on you and that’s it. And suddenly five years of your life is gone. Maybe a Ghast will knock you into lava. Maybe you’ll drop unexpectedly to your death in some unmarked cave a million miles from spawn and lose everything you had on you. Maybe you’ll just lose track of your breath, not realize you’re taking damage, and drown in a small stream too far away from spawn to get those items back.
In Minecraft you’re never that far away from losing everything you have and it isn’t always trivial to make new diamond armor or enchant it to the highest levels. If you’ve mastered the game and by that I mean lowkey enslaved an army of useful villagers then it isn’t as big of a deal. But there never becomes a point where you really feel like you can drop your guard or that losing all your highest enchanted items doesn’t feel like a blow.
Eventually you’ll get to the point you’re exploring the endless void of the End Realm. Which is floating islands connected by nothing but your certain death as you try to transverse them. Your initial foray into this land is often looking directly at the ground and placing blocks beneath you as you make a bridge. Knowing that if you look up you might meet eyes with an Endermen who will teleport to you and slap your ass into the abyss. There is a button you can press that will stop your character from walking off a block and if you accidently stop holding it for even a second than you’ll be yolo’d into the void and every fucking thing you own is gone forever. I am less tense in most horror games than in these situations.
Minecraft is almost always experienced with dread. That can be exploring caves the first time, it can be the nether or end realm, it can be the underwater horror experience that is those temples. It can be your life slowly draining away as you drown and have no resources and know that your soul itself will be harvested by those Elder Guardians. Whatever comes back, whatever spawns again won’t be you. It will only look like you, have your skin, move to your command, but you know it’s wrong. You know it’s No Mercy ending of Undertale. The visions of the beast clouding your eyes, the weakness returning to you. Haunting you. They haunt the mind. You will never be safe. It can be looking over a cliff and knowing a skeleton’s arrow could end everything you are. It can be accidently stepping into lava. It can just kinda be anything.
At this point you may be wanting to ask about things like peaceful mode or creative mode or even multiplayer. You don’t need to experience Minecraft’s true horror. That is absolutely correct. You are able to put shackles on this beast, but that doesn’t mean that beneath those controls you set isn’t an absolute monster. We talked about the world going on forever and in a way it does and in some ways it doesn’t. 12 million blocks from spawn, in older editions of the world were a place called the Far Lands.
The terrain itself starts to breakdown, become corrupted. You get all of these eerie landscapes as the reality you think you’re exploring starts to bare its teeth. This wasn’t patched out of the game. No. There was a patch put in to stop this from happening. I hope you understand the difference, dear reader.
Many rumors circulated about this place and some called it the home of the Enderman. The story told was this is where they came from and it is where they were corrupted. And how we see them today is as tall, imposing and elongated black specters in the vein of a slenderman. Who are totally harmless and friendly, unless you dare look at them. And the second you cross eyes, they look back. And you know. You know the moment you drop eye contact they will teleport to you and attack you with an unnatural strength. Maybe you didn’t know. Maybe it is your first time playing and you wanted to get a look at what this cool eerie creature in the darkness was. That will be the last mistake you ever make in that game. The entire time dimensional rifts sparkle, the noise distorts, and your screen is covered in red as a message “You Died” pops up.
Keep in mind this isn’t a message that says, “You were Defeated”. You died. You were killed. You were ended. This game does not hold your hand. It does not disguise at all what it does. It does not shy away from nor hide the horror beneath every stone or cube of dirt. The horror is everywhere, the dread is omnipresent, and you’re meant to feel every second of it. And the way it does so are the existential ways that it combines the innocence and calmness of world spawn, like Lindsay in that episode of Angel, with what you eventually trek through.
Terraria as another block based game will eventually have you fighting Moon Cthulhu and by far is a much less tense and horrifying experience. Even if every game is effectively your character being trapped within an ant farm with an entire world trying to kill you, it doesn’t psychologically challenge you. It gives you real looking characters to interact with and not the uncanny reflection of whatever the fuck villagers are in Minecraft. You have some weird place in the temporal existence that is Terraria’s world. In Minecraft you share nothing in common with the denizens of the world. If your character models were based on villagers that may be different, but they’re not. Villagers are designed to be wholly distinct from players. Sub-players if you will.
And here is why this game is fundamentally solipsistic in a way other games may not be. In a lot of ways every game you play alone could be considered a solipsistic experience in that you’re often the only person actually experiencing something. However, most games are simulations that create stories that you immerse yourself in. The point of playing games alone is often to not feel alone. It is to get invested with something. Your experiences playing Stardew valley by yourself may be solipsistic within the overview, but broadly about community within the subjective. It feels like you’re connecting with others, it feels like you’re building a life and friends, and you want to capture that feeling. It feels great. And even if you’re experiencing it alone it is almost always intrinsically in some way a conversation with a real person or team of people who developed the game. They are experiences not born out of your own mind, but other people’s expression that you’re enjoying.
Minecraft definitely allows this when you play the game with friends. You can build worlds together and really create something more than the sum of either of your parts. But playing with friends in Minecraft is a feature. A lot of folks don’t or can’t. I’m guessing millions of people have played Minecraft completely alone and isolated in the horror experience they likely weren’t expecting.
And to understand this within solipsism is to understand that solipsism is effectively the belief that only you actually exist and everything else is in your mind. While kids sometimes pretend to be solipsists because it’s funny, most people get bored with it, because it’s incredibly boring. Value within life can only be created within contrast. If you arbitrary are choosing every parameter within a system, then nothing really matters in that system. It’s like playing a game of monopoly with yourself, you’re always going to win and lose the game and it doesn’t matter how many times you play. It really can’t be fun.
To understand this in a broader sense imagine that you built a statue in your Minecraft world. Then ask yourself why that matters. Why did you choose the material you used to construct it? Why did you place it here, instead of over there? How long will you look at it and how important is it to do so? When will you move on from it? If you don’t remember it in twenty years, was it even worth doing today? You will have personal preferences, but so long as you’re the god of the world then there isn’t preferences, there is just the way the world is.
There is no real reason to do absolutely anything in Minecraft. I spoke about how other games can be experiences or conversations with the creator in some way, but Minecraft isn’t a conversation with Notch or the current development team in real ways. It was always meant to be a game that effectively gave you the tools to do whatever and just enough content to feel like there was some structure. It was meant to be fairly sterile.
So, while a person could definitely play the game by themselves, dick around in it for a few hundred hours, build a massive floating base, and quit the game having enjoyed their time — if you’re not sharing that with anyone else, that’s an extremely lonely experience. If you can’t talk about that with someone else or get their perspective or share part of yourself or the things you’ve done, then that can feel incredibly empty.
In Terraria, the villagers have personalities and will to a point respond to the things you’re doing. It creates an illusion of connection to the game and the world. In Minecraft there is no villager who celebrates you killing the Ender Dragon. There isn’t anyone in the game to give you any positive or negative validation, comment on your actions, judge you or celebrate you. You choose every single thing you do in the world.
And after you labored for two hundred hours on your massive castle that looks insanely cool, what is left if not an empty structure that serves no function? What is left if not emptiness, because the only value you really had was the value of engaging with the task. You had the journey and while it was engaging there is an absolute void at your destination. You can’t live in Minecraft, your friends can’t live in it, and every thing you built is often enjoyed for only seconds or moments on completion and no further.
When I made that world pictured above I was doing very badly in life. I spent about two hundred hours on a friend’s server making things one by one. First I made a fountain, then a garden, then places for farmers, then a merchant market, then a tree farm, then a stable for horses and cattle. Eventually, I made a functioning boat race on ice, a guard tower, and finally the massive floating bone castle and a function quest on how to get into it without needing to break any blocks. This was all on a survival world. And every stone I placed was in some small way proof I existed. That I was doing something. And the fact I was doing it on a friends server meant that someone else could see this. That they could see I existed and what I created. And that connection was absolutely something that got me through some dark times. But that isn’t the base game of Minecraft.
Minecraft’s solo survival mode is an empty horror world. And it can feel like you’re making something important in it, but it can also make you just feel that much more alone and scared. You don’t develop in Minecraft. You don’t expand. Not without connections to others. And a lot of people do this. They have discord servers, Minecraft servers, friends they play with. This eldritch horror we engage with that stretches near infinity has been carved into a playground that can support communities and that’s pretty cool.
Faye, why you always wrapping your shit up with a positive bow? I think that within video games we have things like video game addiction and maladaptive behavior when playing that can start to hurt people. We also have positive things like community engagement, expanding and challenging yourself, and exploring worlds in interesting and compelling ways. I think it’s really cool to look at the ways we can intersect with this medium and draw lessons from it going in either direction. There is a lot to be understood within game design for how a game that is Spongebob the Builder can evoke such compelling elements of horror and dread. How it can be used to understand solipsism in practice and the flaws therein with that mentality.
I wrote this entire article because I was just thinking about all the things I made in Minecraft would end up being these big elaborate structures that were completely empty. Castles, houses, or apartments with programmed villagers who didn’t care about me at all. And how I kept building places where so many people could be, because of how incredibly lonely I was. If I built it, maybe they would come? And building bigger or better bases wasn’t the answer, but it’s what my brain came up with instead of making friends or trying to make connections. But another thing my brain did was make a throne for my turtle queen, so that’s pretty good.