It’s surprising to some because Minecraft doesn’t seem to follow any of the rules people associate with D&D, tabletop RPGs in general, or even computer RPGs. There are no classes. You don’t gain additional powers or fight better when you gain levels. Monsters are pretty simple. There are no stories to unravel, no NPCs sending you on quests. There are plenty of monsters to fight, but fighting monsters isn’t really what the game is about, and even on the hardcore setting, it’s possible to avoid monsters almost entirely.
But anyone who closely read my post on Skyrim probably isn’t surprised at all. I said that what I liked the most about Skyrim, and what makes me feel it’s closer to old school tabletop RPGs than many other video games, is the immersion, especially immersion in the world. When you combine Skyrim with a mod like iHUD, you can pretty much ignore game stats and quest pointers and just play as if you were a person living in this fantasy world of Tamriel.
Minecraft actually feels way more immersive than that, to me.
First, the world is huge and procedurally generated. It’s not designed to look like a carefully-crafted adventure area that funnels you towards various story goals. You can play it any way you want.
People who play in survival mode often play it like a wilderness exploration and settlement simulator: find a good spot for a camp, build temporary defenses, and then start setting up farms and planning your house. The recent upgrade to villages helps to expand this playstyle, turn it into a colony-building game.
Other people focus more on treasure and trophy hunting. Dungeons and temples in Minecraft are no where near as elaborate as in computer RPGs, and the much larger and varied mineshafts, strongholds, and fortresses lack built-in storylines, but there are also no limits on what you can do in such dungeons and locales. Aside from the fundamental limits of the game as a whole, you can do anything you imagine: find the entrance and explore in a linear fashion, dig shortcuts, clear out the dungeon or leave it intact, even take it over and rebuild it. When oceans were expanded, shipwrecks, sunken ruins, and buried treasure expanded the treasure-hunting options. And there are some random dungeon and structure mods or datapacks that add even more variety to the kinds of adventures you can have.
Can’t stand to play a game that’s so open-ended? Need that story line to guide your roleplay? There are people who have made adventure or puzzle maps that work more like what you’d expect. Which leads to another point: Minecraft is easily more mod-able by the average player than almost any other video game. Not just with mods written in a computer programming language… the game keeps expanding its data-driven features, making it extremely easy for people to load in their own custom structures, trigger events, or alter the way existing game features work.
I played something like 1,200 to 1,500 hours of Skyrim over the past six or so years. I have no hard numbers for Minecraft, but I started playing almost five years ago and have pretty much played every day. I’m certain I’ve played way more Minecraft than Skyrim.
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