This month’s Blogs of the Round Table is on homes in games, a topic I’ve thought about for years. Read other blogs on the same topic by following the links in that post.
At first, when I read the inspiration/solicitation/prompt, I thought about Minecraft. Minecraft is for building things; if you want to get a sense of what people do when given the tools and time, check out the top posts on the r/minecraft subreddit. Most of these, I can’t look at without gasping (or wondering why the hell people do this).
Since picking it up again a few months ago, I’ve made many homes, most of which I shared with other people. What can I say, I like designing and building a space for myself and for people I care about. In Minecraft, I tend towards a type of architecture best characterized as Hobbit Holes: I dig into features in the landscape, and hollow out rooms for myself. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and I don’t follow a pattern. I just carve out space to suit my fancy.
There was this one time on a server I shared with a few friends, and I basically created an underground island base by digging. The only above-ground bits were two structures, one of which was a basic shelter/harbor (because who doesn’t want a pool of water in their entrance hall?) and the other ended up becoming a giant obsidian spider (thanks creative mode). Over the course of several weeks, I just dug, and built, and dug, and built. You can see the resulting change of landscape in the three minimap images below from screenshots I took in summer 2014, and get a sense of the visible (and invisible) structures.
I am not writing this post to show off my giant obsidian spider, though. Perhaps the most important lesson from the above anecdote is one for myself: though I claim to abhor an industrialized building style in Minecraft, I still end up doing significant violence to the landscape. There’s no way that spider is natural. There’s no way that shelter is natural. But what is even natural in the world of Minecraft?
I mean, take blocks, the foundation of the game. The placement of blocks in Minecraft is procedural, except for the involvement of players or (some) hostile mobs. When I destroy a block and place it elsewhere, this feels unnatural to me, unlike the game’s block generation or the interference of mobs. Those are natural. Things created by code, and things molded by code, are natural in this cybernetic landscape. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of free will allows me to claim that my adjustments to the world in Minecraft are unnatural and unrelated to code. I dig hobbit holes because I work with the space I have, I say. I dig hobbit holes because the houses I build aren’t on a grid, I claim. I dig hobbit holes because what I am doing is human, unique, flawed, and unnatural.
When the fuck did that association happen? Imperfection generated in a replicable way (procedural generation) is natural, but imperfection generated by human involvement, and generally not replicable, is unnatural. What I’m doing with this association is coding my interaction with the game space as violence, as unnatural, as artificial, as conscious creation.
But it’s been a pet peeve of mine for many years to take structures like anthills created by non-human animals, call them natural, and then turn around and call a city unnatural. Either the product of living creatures is natural, or it isn’t. There’s no reason why technology can’t be natural. I could give a repetitive lecture on the rise of the pastoral in conjunction with industrialized society (try reading anything from like 1660 to 1900), but I’ll abstain, because this isn’t college. This is me wondering what it means to make things in a generated landscape in a game created by a team of people. What it means to be a person, and have a conversation with other people, through the process of creation. What it means to find something like home in that.
Homes don’t come pre-fabricated, we have to make them into homes. And in so doing, we do violence to the environment around us. I could idealize some non-conventional life philosophy that advocates living in harmony with the environment and sleeping under trees, and sure, I know there are some people and traditions who work like that. The whole world is home, because home feels right and being in the world is right. My approach to what makes a home (something set apart from nature, created, unnatural) is heavily influenced by Western cultural traditions. It’s interesting to see these traditions continued in virtual space, though not surprising; virtual space is cultural space. In Minecraft, for instance, you cannot sleep through the night without using a bed that someone has crafted. It is impossible to sleep without having changed the world around you. There are no soft patches of moss, no convenient trees, no rocks under your hip to poke into you at night. Sleep is comfort, and more importantly, sleep means no monsters to terrify you. It’s true, you don’t need to sleep to succeed in the game, and I’ve gone long periods of time in games without ever crafting a bed. But by and large, the game expects you to have a bed: sleeping in a bed makes the night pass quicker, prevents the spawning of hostile mobs, and resets your spawn point to near the bed. Beds are extremely good and cool.
Beds are also perfect crystallizations of an ideology at the heart of Minecraft: survival means taking things around you and making them into things that you can’t find. Survival, and gameplay.
The best part is, I wanted to get all of that out so I could talk about the Anvil house in Oblivion, which to this day feels like home even though the computer I played on is a decrepit husk and the save files are on some hard drive. The way that homes work in Elder Scrolls games is weird, and quite capitalistic. You have to buy your home after the person in charge of its town likes you enough. Returning to an earlier point, these homes do come pre-fabricated and you can even buy upgrades and DLC.
The house in Anvil (Benirus Mansion) is a bit different, though, because you have to complete a quest after buying it in order to transform it into a safe place. I’d normally say spoilers here, but really? It’s a game that came out in 2006. You’ve either already played it, or you probably won’t play it. So on to the spoiler: the house is haunted, and you need to complete a quest in order to make the ghosts go away. You don’t know about the ghosts until after sleeping in the house, but they will attack you when they appear (so here’s hoping you can defeat them!). Ghosts keep spawning when you enter the house until you complete a quest and defeat Lorgren Benirus’ undead Lich, giving you a book and a staff and an awesome house.
For some reason, when I played Oblivion, I fell in love with this house even during the ghost incidents. It’s green, and Anvil is a harbor city on the southern coast, and the house is full of light—these make sense to me as things I want in a home. To this day, thinking of the afternoon light streaming through the bedroom window in this house brings me peace. I know the scale of this house intimately, know when to jump to skip up the stairs and when to turn and close a door. All that, despite the fact that it’s a house created anew with every new playthrough of the game. Despite the fact that it’s not something I made, and not something I can ever make.
All this, because for however many hours I sank into Oblivion, I lived in that house. That house was home.
This certainly brings me back. In Morrowind, I killed a man for his house.
It was Nerano Manor in Balmora, and it was perfect! I walked into the enormous ground-floor room, and immediately walked out. I toured the rest of Balmora, trying to calm myself, but already knowing I was going back there to hack the owner to death. I was not a player who did that sort of thing, and I’m still not, so it was emotionally jarring. I wasn’t even leveled up enough, and didn’t have good enough gear, to unlock the bedroom or the second-floor doorway. And yet, I went back, killed him, and moved in some stuff I’d previously stored in a shack in Seyda Neen. Next thing I knew, I’d been playing Morrowind forever, and a significant amount of that time had been spent modding the game and fiddling– to make my house nicer.
I was surprised how quickly Morrowind acquired home-like properties, with the player having the ability to put down an object anywhere, just so, for aesthetic effect, and with most of those objects being perfectly pedestrian houseware, from utensils and napkins to candleholders and books. You have the possibility of caring about the minutia of housekeeping and decorating, of thinking ‘This room needs more light’ and simply walking down to a shop (or someone else’s house) to fetch more lanterns, in the color that suits you, to dispose artfully on the corner of the table. And yet this isn’t a sim game: this isn’t what the game expect you to do to play it. You can follow quest lines that get you property and servants, and then you can spend an hour deciding to organize your armors alphabetically by type, or all your gauntlets in one chest or something, but really the game wants you to go out and interact with the world, by talking or fetching or killing, with the process of acquiring that property having been only one more chain of interaction. And yet it will let you get on with your decision to line your shelves with all the game’s ash statues if that’s your thing. The mercenary way that ‘player housing’ is handled in most games may allow for some freedom, but I’ve never found any other game of its type to allow home-making in the same almost MOO-like way.
Thanks for sharing! I know what you mean about being able to decorate your homes; I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to arrange books on bookshelves in Oblivion (and it didn’t work so well because of the physics engine) and putting stuff in display cases. And it’s true, it’s all ancillary to “playing the game.” I think Bethesda does a good job of allowing and supporting that kind of play without really making you go out and kill stuff.
I once heard an anecdote by an old higher-up at Bethesda about how they made the first Elder Scrolls game and then got a bunch of registration cards from older people, retirees and such. They followed up on those cards and found that these people were individuals who had traveled the world but were now unable due to physical or social limitations, and they played the game as a tourist. The person telling the story said that since then they’ve tried to support the tourists and make the world interesting, and I really do think they’ve succeeded.