This is how I spend time with my wife. She plays a lot of PC games, and rather than try to drag her off them, I watch her play and talk to her while she does it. I can’t talk to her when she plays Guild Wars 2 because it’s too noisy and intense. I can’t talk to her while she played Bit Trip Runner 2, because relaxing her attention for even a second means instant failure.
“I’m tired,” she says. “You play a game. I’ll watch.”
We used to plug the PC HDMI port into our big TV at home so one of us could play and the other could spectate whilst sitting on the sofa and drinking tea. (Knights of the Old Republic was my favourite to watch.)
I settle on Minecraft. I make a world and build a house in a ravine around a lava flow. I step out into the depths of the ravine and grab useful items: enough iron to make myself a breastplate, coal for torches, mushrooms to eat.
My wife advises. When I can’t eat we decide it’s a much smarter idea to put all my stuff in a box and leap into the lava pit rather than bother finding dinner; I respawn right next to it, after all, with a mysteriously full belly.
We go to bed, wine-drunk and still full from dinner, and do that thing married couples do in secret where they smile at each other inches away from each others’ faces and little else. “We could connect your laptop to a LAN,” I realise out loud, about two hours after I should have done. “We can play together.”
Her eyes light up. “Yes! Yes. Let’s do that tomorrow.” We were supposed to be going out to the beach tomorrow. It doesn’t look like that’s happening any more.
Morning rolls around and we skip breakfast, instead sitting down with cups of tea and sorting out opening up the world I created last night to a LAN. She appears inside my lava-lit house – like me, she looks like a hairy guy in a blue shirt and jeans. This is off-putting, initially.
We delve. We spend all morning delving. At one point we break to have lunch and watch Adventure Time and then push right back into it. Our goals are mixed – we want more iron, we want more coal, we want more glass, we want to make a farm, we want to bake a cake – but we both manage to decide on one thing: we want a portal to the Nether, as neither of us have been there before.
(The Nether is Minecraft’s version of Hell, a land filled with lava and super-strong zombies and great hovering whimpering blobs called Ghasts.)
So we push down as far as we can into the ravine outside our front door; halfway down once it opens up in a series of wide caverns and lava pools, we establish Base Camp. (We call it Base Camp.) It is two furnaces – one for iron, one for cooking – and a workbench and a large chest and a mushroom farm in a tiny hole that we have carved out of a cliff-face about 40m up from the floor below. When we get good stuff, we make a deal to take it back and put it in the chest at Base Camp.
To get to the Nether you need Obsidian, and to get Obsidian you need a Diamond pickaxe, and neither of these are easy to come by but we make it happen, eventually, returning to the surface on our last dregs of health running away from skeleton archers, dashing out of the upper tunnels into the wide open fields above and collapsing back at home. I put our Obsidian in a chest. Night falls so we go to bed – I have extended the single into a double – and the fact that my wife is a blocky, hairy dude is still kind of a problem.
My wife doesn’t let me build the portal right away. We have to go out and buy stuff for dinner; it’s quarter to four. We do so, and come back, and stick the stuff in the fridge aside from the crisps which we put between us and eat handfuls of while we dive back into Minecraft.
I erect the portal on our roof while my wife tends to our new farm, irrigated by a waterfall that I diverted into a moat last night, and light it and we step through and immediately die from falling about thirty stories into a great lake of lava.
My wife is still in the Nether, defending herself against fireballs by hiding behind flammable terrain. I charge back in. We dig through a mountain of soft Netherstone and come out into a plain but it is too inhospitable by far, and we die over and over just trying to make progress. Defeated, we go home.
“So what do you want to do now?” I ask her, knocking out one of the walls next to the lava pit to make an indoor flowerbed. (Girls like that sort of thing, right?)
“I want to go on an adventure,” she said.
“Yeah. I want to find a town. Or maybe even a Fortress!”
“Are there Fortresses in Minecraft?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Okay. Let’s go on an adventure.”
We packed up our stuff – we make the last of our pumpkins into pies, iron pickaxes to mine anything useful that we found on our travels, an iron breastplate each, a compass, a shiny new bow, a sword. I knew we were going through a jungle so I made an axe to machete my way ahead.
And it is exciting, exciting in a different way from the delving earlier that day because we are not pushing deeper and deeper into more valuable, more dangerous territory. We are just exploring together. We can go anywhere we want and the direction we choose is away from home.
To mark our way I light blocks of ever-burning Netherwrack. On the first night, in the relative safety of the dense jungle where monsters cannot see us, we spend all night fishing in a pond to try and find suitable food to charm an ocelot. The ocelots run away when we approach the next day.
I see a Creeper – my wife’s least favourite thing, a sort of ambulatory hedge that explodes when it comes close to you – and I take it out with my bow and arrow. She makes appreciative noises. I come up with a win condition.
I say to her – “Remember in the ravine where we found that enormous lake of lava with a waterfall cascading into it and we both thought it was incredible and then we both fell in by accident?”
“Yes,” she says, still a little upset at the zombie that pushed her in.
“Well, we just need to find another thing like that. Something amazing.”
We push on through the jungle, across a desert, over grassland. It takes around an hour, I think, maybe a little less. We get in boats and artlessly skim down an oxbow lake. The sun is setting as we disembark and I think – hey, we could watch the sunset on that hill, there, and my wife says “Come on, let’s watch the sunset on top of that hill.”
And we do, we watch the sky stain orange and purple and red and and I wanted, for a second, for there to be a button that let me hold hands with her in game. (Then I reached over and held her actual hand, as though such a thing was weirdly taboo with us both in this game-space.) That was it: that was the amazing thing. We smiled at each other, and kissed out-of-game, too.
“Come on,” she says, as night falls. “Light the fire.”
I spark some Netherwrack alight as we stand over the entrance to a ravine and begin to put together a shelter – dirt blocks arranged in a square, nothing fancy. My wife considers planting some wheat to sustain us if we intend to explore downwards from here, rather than out across the mountains, and –
A creeper appears and detonates, killing her instantly.
I scramble to collect her stuff but there’s too much, so I focus on trying to build a shelter but now the zombies are coming, attracted by the light and the explosion, and all of her gear is clogging up my inventory so I can’t grab more dirt. We got cocky; we were in love. We thought the world couldn’t hurt us.
The zombies clamber over the flaming Netherstone and set themselves alight, which seems to pose more of a problem to me than them. I hold out for a minute or so before I die.
We both respawn at home. There’s a real sense of loss, compounded by the fact that another creeper immediately lands next to her in the ravine and blows up; she’s unharmed, but it demolishes our potato crop.
“That was our last potato,” she says. Potatoes are rare. It sounds like she’s about to cry. (She doesn’t.)
We set out to remake the shattered farm, guiding the water around it again, replanting wheat where more exotic crops used to be. It feels like work. It feels like we’re striving. We faff about with redstone dust a bit and try to make some lights for the mushroom farm in the basement, but this is weekend DIY stuff, busywork, just pootling along.
We are not skimming across lakes, venturing across the vast trackless plains, catching fish to charm ocelots, setting up camp furnaces to make midnight snacks. Maybe the risk of monster attack, the fragility of life in Minecraft, makes the sunsets more all the more beautiful. Maybe we need all this mundane stuff to make the other bit exciting.
Maybe we need a home to run away from to make running away worthwhile.