The Biomes Declare the Glory of Notch


One of the main rea­sons for Minecraft’s con­tin­ued appeal is the way its envi­ron­ments are designed. They are ran­dom­ly gen­er­at­ed, although the envi­ron­ments fol­low cer­tain pro­ce­dures and all gen­er­al­ly adhere to a set of rules. This allows for incred­i­ble vari­ety among the game’s var­i­ous regions, or “bio­mes,” as they are called.

The bio­mes, as well as all the mon­sters, min­er­als, and mass­es (of land) con­tained with­in them, are what is cur­rent­ly being termed “pro­ce­du­ral­ly gen­er­at­ed” because Minecraft gen­er­ates the bio­mes and so forth by fol­low­ing a pro­ce­dure (sim­ple enough, right?). Procedural gen­er­a­tion as a fea­ture is a trend we’re see­ing more and more of, and I for one am glad to see it on the rise. Randomly gen­er­at­ed envi­ron­ments have been a part of the gam­ing lex­i­con since Rogue at least, and ran­dom­ness itself has always been a fea­ture (be it in item/enemy place­ment, enemy behav­ior, or chance of crit­i­cal hits), but only recent­ly has pro­ce­dur­al gen­er­a­tion as it is prac­ticed today risen to the fore­front as some­thing to be boast­ed about.

All that being said about Minecraft, I want to talk for a moment about clouds and God. Clouds, I believe, have the propen­si­ty to be the most beau­ti­ful naturally-occurring phe­nom­e­non in nature. Mountains pro­vide chal­lenges for us; we can climb them. Forests we can walk through, take from, give to. Oceans we can use to feed our­selves, be it by fish­ing or mov­ing things from one shore to anoth­er. In some way all of these things in nature pro­vide us tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits and uses in addi­tion to their inher­ent beau­ty. But clouds, to us on the ground, pro­vide only aes­thet­ic enrich­ment (so long as they haven’t spawned a tor­na­do and are active­ly try­ing to kill us).

When I was younger, I used to often muse and that clouds were blobs of paint on God’s sky-canvas. I now know, of course, that they are the result of weath­er pat­terns, atmos­pher­ic pres­sure, and but­ter­flies flap­ping their wings a world away. Science tells us that clouds are con­densed water vapor frozen in midair, sub­ject to the whims of chang­ing air pres­sure known as wind to move and rearrange them. Indeed, counter to my ear­li­er point, clouds are far from a pure­ly aes­thet­ic exer­cise. Through a form of augury we can do much to improve our lives based on the move­ments of clouds. It is the swollen and dark storm cloud, after all, that has made the non-nomadic lifestyle pos­si­ble and brought us to where we are today as a soci­ety. Clouds, in fact, in addi­tion to being a pure­ly sci­en­tif­ic phe­nom­e­non, are incred­i­bly use­ful if har­nessed and planned around.

That does not, how­ev­er, make them any less beau­ti­ful.

It does noth­ing to detract from the fact that clouds even today and prob­a­bly always will, fill me with won­der. In fact, my under­stand­ing of the procedurally-generated nature of clouds, the Grand Canyon, coast­lines, Jupiter’s storm, forests, cells, super­novae, the Kuiper Belt, and any­thing else in this world, only gives me a deep­er appre­ci­a­tion of the beau­ty I’m wit­ness­ing. By under­stand­ing that the clouds in the sky are the out­put of an algo­rithm run­ning on lit­er­al­ly a glob­al scale (as if in Deep Thought, eh? Eh?), I find myself in awe, and arriv­ing at a kind of spir­i­tu­al rever­ie at the won­ders of our procedurally-generated uni­verse. Instead of paint, God is work­ing with far more beau­ti­ful and intri­cate sys­tems.

I men­tioned ear­li­er that I am glad to see pro­ce­dur­al gen­er­a­tion on the rise as a mechan­ic. Other games, such as Sir, You Are Being Hunted (PLAY THIS GAME NOW), Dwarf Fortress, and Rogue (and its var­i­ous ‑likes) are capa­ble of incred­i­ble depth and lit­er­al­ly end­less vari­ety and replaya­bil­i­ty. Though the major­i­ty of games use most­ly statically-generated lev­els and envi­ron­ments, there seems to be a call for more vari­ety of the pro­ce­dur­al vari­ety. Otherwise game devel­op­ers wouldn’t adver­tise that they used a com­put­er pro­gram to do their job for them.

In my expe­ri­ence, pro­ce­dur­al gen­er­a­tion brings a lot to a game. Because the lev­els are not designed for a spe­cif­ic pur­pose, feel­ings of lin­ear­i­ty are erased and are replaced with free­dom to explore and expe­ri­ence the game world. This can result in far greater vari­ety of expe­ri­ences, and gives Minecraft’s devel­op­ers in par­tic­u­lar a ter­rif­ic excuse as to why there are so few gor­ram dia­monds to be found. But that, after all, is part of the fun; end­less depths of the envi­ron­ment lead to end­less hope for reward, end­less incen­tive to go onward, end­less rea­son to explore, to, you know, play the game.

To close, I guess what I want to say is that even where ran­dom­ness appears to be the order of the day, there is always some sort of guid­ing prin­ci­ple, some path along which the dice fall. Whether you, read­er, ascribe any form of deity to this phe­nom­e­non or not, I feel, is irrel­e­vant. You are a play­er in this crazy uni­verse, and I encour­age you to stop for a moment every now and again and con­sid­er what an amaz­ing con­struct Real Life is. Now get out there and play!

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.