“Well, I guess if I’m just gonna be sitting here while you play, I might as well join you.”
It’s a dry 90 degrees on a Thursday evening in July 2017, and Delia and I are drinking screwdrivers and sharing our first co-op Minecraft session in years. Picking the game up again after so long triggers some long-forgotten muscle memory, and on what is the eve of our fifth wedding anniversary, the experience feels warm, familiar, and a little sad. Wisps of summers past drift into my consciousness, memories of dreams we’d shared when we were just starting out together: of shaking off the dust of our small-town existence; of the grand adventures we’d share once we escaped; of the ways we’d grow together in our new life. C418’s ethereal score flits delicately around us, summoning up a painful longing for the years in which we’d actualized those dreams, now memories themselves. The drink, clearly, is also doing its part.
It’s easy to have such dreams when you’re doing well, and far less easy to stop brooding on them when things go south. 2017 has been a trying time for us, a string of disappointments stemming from my layoff last November and our subsequent westward drift back to California after four years in New York City. We’d fought hard for that life, earning a sense of belonging in a city of 8 million isolated souls. We had friends. Routines. Purpose.
And then, one day, that life was gone, as if it had never even happened. We’d manage to stay afloat for a little while, getting by on a combination of freelance jobs, unemployment disbursements, and the little bit of money Delia brought home from her non-profit job. But we were barely making the rent, let alone anything else, and just before the snow cleared, we took out a car loan, broke our lease, and headed back to a town neither of us ever wanted to see again. We’d regroup, stronger than ever, and find a new place to call home.
For the past half-hour, I’ve been lost in the depths of a mine that has yielded an abundance of redstone, lapis, and coal, but very little in the way of iron or gold. It’s my own fault: I keep telling myself that if I follow my nose, I’ll eventually find what I’m looking for.
Meanwhile, Delia, who’s just gotten used to Survival Mode again after years playing exclusively in Creative, has discovered something neither of us has seen before in Minecraft: an igloo, complete with carpeted floor. We marvel together over the fact that the game is still surprising us after all these years; I suggest she move in. She demurs—“it’ll be too cold!”—and I remind her that igloos are supposed to be warm inside, a fact I can’t recall whether I learned firsthand on a childhood trip to Alaska, or from something I read in a magazine. Curious about the redstone torch she’s found in the igloo, she removes it, replacing it with a regular torch for the increased luminance it offers. I head back up to the surface to unload my bounty.
As I begin emptying my pockets, interesting things are happening at the igloo: the torch has begun melting the ice blocks that make up the structure, causing water to rush in, destroying the carpet and revealing a hidden trapdoor. I hurry over to join her, eager to share in the excitement; along the way, I kill a zombie villager wearing a lab coat. I arrive at the igloo, open the trapdoor, and we descend together. At the bottom of a deep well, we find a small laboratory with a cauldron, a brewing stand, two chests, and two prison cells: one holding a regular villager, and the other a zombie villager. Neither of us knows what to make of the Splash Potion of Weakness on the brewing stand, or the many golden apples inside the chests, but we share a laugh over the story we invent to explain the situation: I’d just stopped a mad scientist from performing zombification experiments on unsuspecting villagers. Only later do we discover that the cure for zombie villagers is a Splash Potion of Weakness and a golden apple, and that the zombie I’d killed was in all likelihood actually trying to save his fellow villagers from turning.
It’s been several months since we left New York, and I’ve come to cherish these quiet nights in, playing games together like we used to do when we didn’t have so much to worry about. They’re a distraction from the long hours and low pay of the freelance lifestyle I’ve been forced into, from the constant feelings of failure born from the countless interviews, job applications, and writing exercises that have thus far led to nowhere, and from the embarrassment of not being able to go out for dinner or drinks with our friends whenever the mood strikes them. They’re also a reminder of the way things used to be, and what it took to get us there.
When a friend first introduced me to Minecraft in late 2011, I was instantly taken by the creative possibilities of the game, and set out to build a towering monument to my New York dreams that would live forever on our shared server. It took about a week to complete my Statue of Liberty, which I’d blanketed in white cotton during construction so I could unveil it in theatrical fashion by burning the cotton away when the work was finally complete. It was a triumphant reveal and remains one of my favorite video game memories: a declaration to those who’d doubted us that we would, indeed, be leaving Sacramento behind for bigger and better things.
It was also the first and last time I’d ever dedicate so much effort to Minecraft’s Creative Mode. As was often the case with early Minecraft worlds that got too big, the server became corrupted, with the only way to fix it being to remove the broken chunks of landscape and replace them with healthy ones. My statue was a casualty of this corruption, and its death sapped away any ambition I’d had for grand virtual gestures; from that point on, I’d prefer the comparative shackles of Survival Mode. Anything I created in the world would have to come from materials I found in the world, so the depths of my imagination would never outpace the game’s stability. Slowly, but surely, I’d dig, chop, smash, and rebuild the world into my ideal version of it.
A few months after we moved to New York, Delia became obsessed with Minecraft. The allure of the city had faded for her once the reality of our distance from our loved ones set in, and the game became a way for her to stave off her loneliness. It was also a means of expressing her artistic side inside of our 500-square-foot apartment, which left little room for creative manifestation.
Initially, it was the houses: magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright-esque hideaways that incorporated the features of the landscape around them. While I struggled to make my own dwellings resemble anything but medieval dungeons, hers flowed in and out of nature, with basement-level aquariums fashioned out of nearby lakes, rooms nestled in treetop canopies, and waterfalls in place of stairways. Eventually, she grew tired of building dream homes that nobody would ever live in, and went in search of “others.” Soon, she’d take on a new role: city planner.
Delia gives me a tour of her grandest creation yet: a metropolis of some 40-50 buildings which, as she tells me, started with only a handful of pre-existing houses and a church.
She eventually replaced the houses, but left the church standing as a reminder that, in a city with skyscrapers that literally pierce the clouds, the tallest building was once a mere two stories high. “So then I started extending outwards based on the way the land was already molded.” She shows me a frontier-era general store, which she has jokingly dubbed “General’s.” “This was originally one of the little houses that I took over as my own once I moved into the village, and then I built everything around it. Now it’s a general store, because that’s where I was keeping all my materials while I was building.”
The general store reminds me of the set of one of our favorite TV shows, HBO’s Deadwood, but other structures have clear real-life inspirations. The contours of her skyscrapers recall the Chrysler building in Manhattan—a favorite of both of ours—and a museum with a glass pyramid takes obvious inspiration from the Louvre. The coffee shop she’s currently working on, she tells me, is based on the Green Fig Bakery Café in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I Google it: apparently it closed earlier this year, shortly after we left the city. I break the news to her as gently as I can.
She shows me the complex inner workings of her train stations, the system of pistons that makes the lamp in her lighthouse rotate. Listening to her carry on is tiring and confusing, and I want to throw up my hands in protest. But I imagine this must be what it’s like for her, listening to me talk about any video game ever. I keep quiet, and she keeps talking.
As she continues demonstrating her work to me, there’s something I’m sensing but that she’s not outright saying: an aspirational element to her designs. I ask whether she’s using Minecraft to satisfy some kind of unfulfilled desire. “It’s just a video game,” she admits, “but sure, it’d be great if we had a house with a fireplace in the living room. And a table to eat at. And a backyard with a waterfall. And a garden.”
It’s mid-day on a Friday, and we’re driving across town to do some chores for Delia’s aunt, who’s off in Wyoming celebrating the completion of her chemotherapy. My Switch is plugged into the cigarette lighter with the screen brightness cranked all the way up, but it’s nighttime in the game, and I’m still laying down torches every few feet so I don’t take a wrong step and plummet to my death. We sail down the far end of a hump in the road, and my stomach leaps into my mouth. I ask her to take it easy.
We’d experience a different type of turbulence later in the day: a rejection letter from a job in Portland that Delia was exceptionally qualified for, sent mistakenly by a human resources director who’d later assure her that she was still, in fact, being considered for the position. We’d both become a bit burned out on the whole getting our hopes up thing—I’d gotten close several times, but never close enough for a job offer—but this time felt different: just the day before, I’d been contacted by a potential employer in Salem to schedule an interview for later in the month. I knew it was statistically unlikely, but damn would it be a relief if we both got offers in Oregon at the same time.
It’s almost midnight on a Saturday, I’m transcribing notes for this story, and I look up to see Delia playing the PS4 version of Minecraft for the first time since we returned to California. She’s on a roof not far from the museum with the pyramid, laying down some sort of ornate pattern in white blocks. I have no idea what she’s doing, but when I glance over at her, I detect a mischievous twinkle in her eye. I think it makes her proud to know so much more about a video game than I do.
As I watch her iterate on a design until she finds something she’s happy with, I think back on her comment from the other day: about the house with the fireplace, and the garden, and the waterfall. This was the year we were supposed to have all of those things. This was the year we were supposed to settle down and start a family. Instead, we were only barely getting by because a friend has let us move in to the extra room in her house. My parents didn’t have roommates in their early 30s.
When I think about everything we thought we’d accomplish by now, it’s hard not to spiral into bitterness and resentment. So instead, I try to focus on the things we have to be thankful for: the love and support of our families; the beautiful home we share with one of our best friends; each other. I look over to my wife, so intent on her latest creation, and I see our future together so clearly it hurts. Now, to find a way to get there.
Special thanks to Microsoft for providing a copy of Minecraft: Nintendo Switch Edition for this story.