Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

2011 in Review, Part 1: Terraria

I’m not a fan of ranking games. I think that numerical ratings have become a completely worthless indicator of a game’s value, a viewpoint brilliantly articulated by the folks over at Extra Credits. It’s why none of my reviews ever have numbers next to them. Keeping this in mind, the list I’m about to present is not a manifesto of which games I think are the best of the past year. I’m sure Gamespy, Gamespot, and 1up are more than equipped to hand out gold stars to the most critically hailed AAA titles of 2012 – titles I won’t get around to playing until they go on sale for half price on Steam. Instead, I’ll be featuring a handful of games that I enjoyed immensely and that I feel hold some significance to the trajectory of the industry as a whole. Some of them are popular, some of them aren’t, and some weren’t even released in 2011. Enjoy! Terraria is a game that came out of nowhere. No one had really heard of it prior to its release on Steam, but it quickly captured the gaming community’s imagination. It’s gone on to sell a million copies, and it’s charming mix of treasure hunting, mining, and sidescrolling action indiscriminately devoured a month of my life this summer. Terraria is popularly described as a two-dimensional version of Minecraft. Given the clout of Markus Persson’s sandbox title, this is a loaded statement. But really, to understand the success and significance of Terraria, you have to look at the title and its predecessor side by side. Prior to Minecraft’s release, there were only a handful of games in the mining vein (pun intended). These were all niche independent efforts – such as the largely attributed forefather to Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress – that never really caught on beyond closeted communities. Minecraft changed everything. It managed to capture the same elusive charm that Tetris and Angry Birds built dynasties upon, consistently demonstrating an uncanny ability to make a fanboy out of anyone it touched despite its alien concept and mechanics. It wasn’t long before you could have a conversation with a fellow gamer and just assume they understood what creepers and redstone circuits were. Flashforward to 2011 and Terraria’s release. It’s impossible to argue that Terraria doesn’t owe its existence to Minecraft. Many mechanics are lifted directly from the earlier game, albeit flattened. Yet the title was applauded at release for these very qualities. Why were there no cries of plagiarism from engorged Minecraft fanboys? This is because Terraria marks the point where mining games ascended from a series of alike titles to a formal genre. The mechanics of digging, mining, smelting, crafting, and building were no longer seen as being possessed by a single game but rather as belonging to the framework of a single game type. Minecraft is to mining games as Doom is to first person shooters: a universal template to be forever reiterated. In the coming years, we’ll see more and more similar games hitting the limelight. Epic has already announced a Minecraft and Team Fortress 2 hybrid called Fortnite, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t half a dozen mining games bouncing around various development studios as we speak. If any of these games hold up to Minecraft and Terraria, we may be in for a renaissance of digital spelunking.

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By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer