Condensed into the first few minutes of one of the biggest games of all time is the entire essence of a genre. Minecraft presents you first with a lush, almost infinitely large world, and then it allows you to instantly set about transforming it.
You chop down trees and dig down through dirt and stone, each tapped block and mined resource disappearing forever. But you also add to the world, reconfiguring it to your needs and wants: a small shelter to see you through the first night; later, a mountaintop fortress just to make a statement. At the same time, you’re advancing technologically, like human evolution played in fast-forward. From stone to iron to something altogether new and fantastical.
Since the release of Minecraft, which has an estimated 112 million monthly players, building games have risen to unseen heights of popularity. Players build cramped shelters from little more than mud and sticks in grim survival games like The Forest and Green Hell. In the online multiplayer Rust and ARK, ragtag clans build huge communal forts and bases. Being able to build permanent habitats even helped No Man’s Sky move past a rocky launch period.
JC Hysteria is a No Man’s Sky builder who’s made the most of the game’s complex building tools. Many of his creations are cooperatively constructed, and like his Marine Observatory or Space Station, they often stretch what the game is capable of to its very limits. For JC, building is less about setting up a practical base of operations and more of an artistic vent. “It’s a creative outlet,” he says. “I have a wild imagination… and building allows me to express that.”
But Minecraft and No Man’s Sky aren’t just about the freedom and creativity that the building tools bring. Unlike Lego, there’s an entire world and ecosystem (rather than just a carpet) to ground our actions. Building can be a way of reconnecting and developing a closer relationship to the surrounding land and materials. A lot of us are already estranged from these things in our everyday lives — we might even feel as though there’s something missing — and so returning to the virtual earth can feel immensely rewarding.
These are places where we feel like part of the world, where we can work with our hands and see the tangible effects and even the progress of our labor. This new wave of building games brings players closer to this feeling, thanks to a shift in perspective.
For most of gaming history, to talk about building was to talk about strategy titles like Sim City, Age of Empires, or one of the Tycoon games. But where once we strictly built from a zoomed-out, god’s-eye perspective, planning and looking down upon our creations from the clouds, there now exists the option for more embodied first-person experiences. Cities and shelters are still being constructed, but there is now a keen need for building to feel a little more hands-on.
Coffee Stain Studio’s Satisfactory is one example that encapsulates the shift we’re seeing away from top-down strategy games. In Coffee Stain’s factory builder, construction is planetary in scale. Buildings are skyscraper-big, complexes look like metropolises, and the twisting production lines often make you feel as though you’re trapped in a labyrinth. It’s easy to imagine Satisfactory being played out from a more strategic perspective. (Construction would be tidier and more manageable for a start.) “The first person perspective was picked because we wanted a more personal experience. Playing from this perspective really puts an emphasis on it being you who does things, and not just an avatar,” game director Oscar Jilsén explains.
Jilsén also believes that playing in first-person “helps convey and strengthen the idea of verticality… You get to play with more than just two dimensions. Being down there in the thick of it allows you to experience scale in a whole different way. One of the best feelings in the game is walking down the walkways to get across to different production floors and then looking up and seeing the belts and other overpasses criss-cross the gaps.”
With the move from top-down urban planning to boots-on-the-ground construction comes a certain loss of control. Jilsén and his team appear to want you to feel lost at times, even insignificant when dwarfed by all of the surrounding machinery. But the closeness that first-person brings can be empowering in its own way. It’s about getting your digital hands dirty — procuring materials and erecting monuments in a more intimate and granular fashion.
In No Man’s Sky, one of JC Hysteria’s recent projects, Replicant Alley, which he built alongside players ER Burroughs and Action Pants Gaming, showcases a similar kind of scale and verticality. JC feels there’s “greater personal connection” with first-person games. “You can relate to your in-game character more and even begin asking whether or not you’d actually live in the place you’ve built.”
André Bengtsson, artist and CEO of Redbeet Interactive, was also willing to trade distance in favor of a closer perspective. For his survival adventure game Raft, Bengtsson says that whilst “a top-down view could very well be preferable for a building game focused heavily on management,” for him and his team, a more attached first- or third-person view was “essential” in helping the player become immersed in the world.
It’s not just about building, either. There’s a real desire to dwell and inhabit virtual worlds. In Subnautica, a survival game where you eke out an existence in the depths of an alien ocean, feeling at home — even if just temporarily — is important. Game director Charlie Cleveland tells me that it’s all about the “feeling of building a habitat. First-person is important to convey the emotion of what it’s like for you to build that new home.” This personal element is important. These aren’t just buildings you click and watch instantly materialize. There’s hard work and a process behind it. There’s also a far stronger connection to building when you can occupy them, even make them a home.
“The main loop in Satisfactory is to expand,” says Jilsén. “There’s this interaction with the world where you replace nature with constructs of your own — you convert the natural world into something appropriate to your goals.” Jilsén describes this transformative process as “converting the unknown into the (useful) known.” Many of these kinds of survival / building games drop you into dangerous and mysterious worlds, and it’s up to you to establish safe zones and habitats, places you can then go to launch larger expeditions. “As you do this you bring in the useful things you find to expand your home and its capabilities. Human beings are very creative and nurturing creatures, and we’re driven to try and make circumstances better for ourselves and each other.”
Leaving our mark on the world is this very anthropocentric urge, but the power to change what’s around us can also turn destructive. Subnautica’s Cleveland tells me that it was important for them to not allow players to “exert their power over the environment. You can survive for longer, slowly mitigating your fear, but you can never dominate your surroundings. This was a very conscious desire for us. We didn’t want to make a typical game that involved gaining power and taking things over. It’s one of the reasons we removed terraforming from the game.”
Compare this to Minecraft, where whole ecosystems can be carved up and exploited. Dan Olson, in his recent video “Minecraft, Sandboxes, and Colonialism,” lays out the idea that these virtual spaces can “harken back to the colonial frontier,” with new regions unfolding simply in order for the player to explore and conquer. “The player arrives in the world, like Robinson Crusoe, into a terra nullius,” a blank slate which they are then encouraged to improve and where the native inhabitants are often obstacles in the way of development.
With Raft, there’s much more of an emphasis on salvaging. Its oceans and islands are littered with resources, but many of these are scrap or flotsam. Your creations — be it useful tech to help you on your journey or the raft-habitat itself — are an elaborate form of cleaning up, or at least putting previous human waste to good use. With all of these games, it’s worth considering exactly what your relationship is to the world you’re inhabiting and the precise effects your actions are having on the land around you. For example, Eco is a game where your building can cause immense and lasting damage to the world. Even Satisfactory, which eventually allows you to power manufacturing with nuclear energy, ensures that waste builds up and becomes an issue that players cannot ignore.
In all urban societies, there’s a growing wish to escape, return to the land, work the earth, rewild, and get back to basics. On YouTube, among the gaming celebs and popular makeup artists, there are the surprise-hit wilderness vloggers, building and surviving with what’s directly at hand. This same impulse to reconnect to nature plays out within the new wave of building games.
While Satisfactory is very much about rapidly building large-scale, high-tech structures, Jilsén tells me that during playtesting, they found it was important to have players begin with very little and work manually. “You simply appreciate the automation of item production more if you know what it takes to make each thing by hand.”
“The idea of returning to nature definitely relates to what first intrigued us about Raft,” says Bengtsson. “There’s something enticing about the idea of living in the woods or out in the ocean. At times we looked at wilderness vloggers for inspiration. We often try to ground our game in reality.” Like many of these building games, there’s a tangible physicality to both Raft’s crafting and building. Even in Subnautica, where the sci-fi setting necessitates far fewer hammers and nails, there’s still a meticulous clarity to the act of phasing in vehicles and modular habitat pieces. Just as you feel part of the world, the building feels material.
“It sounds like [wilderness vloggers] are tapping into the same primal urges as Subnautica,” says Cleveland. “I think there’s a lot of people today who feel overwhelmed by [the abundance of] information and todo lists… so they love the simple tactile challenge of survival at any cost. I used to know a programmer who would go home every night and do nothing but make bird houses. I personally spend a lot of time cooking for the same reasons. It’s just me, the ingredients, and fire.”
Jilsén agrees that there’s a real “longing for non-abstract work,” which is something that survival fantasies and the concrete building projects that take place within their worlds try to address. JC Hysteria tells me that, for him, building is a form of medication, his “own personal release from the world.” It’s about escape. Simultaneously, it’s about connection: connecting to the world in closer and more intimate ways as well as to other people in the case of multiplayer games like No Man’s Sky.
“There’s a quote from another YouTuber, CobraTV, that has always stuck with me, and sums up the community aspect perfectly: ‘we are a constellation,’” he explains. “The feeling of connection fills a void for many of us.”