Minecraft – Volume Alpha
Mojang – 2011
Truly “shared” cultural experiences can be tough to come by in an era of media fragmentation; however, the world-building of Minecraft, and its attendant soundtrack, have provided one such touchstone for those of “Generation Z.”
Few creations are able to transcend the limitations of their medium in their path to becoming cultural touchstones. Media works like Star Wars and The Simpsons have transcended beyond their original forms and become symbols of what it meant to grow up at the time in which they were at their cultural and creative peaks. For many born in between the years of 1997 and 2003, the cultural touchstones of the early-2010s are often looked back upon as a way to escape back to a time when life seemed much easier; and the most important of all early 2010’s touchstones is none other than the massively popular survival game, Minecraft.
Initially released in May of 2009, Minecraft was an almost-immediate hit amongst small online communities, and following its full release in 2011, it was quickly put on the path to becoming the most popular game of the past decade. It’s this specific time in Minecraft’s history that I look back at the most fondly, as a wave of “Let’s Plays” flooded YouTube, introducing millions of kids, including myself, to the world of the game. I often find myself revisiting the game nowadays, and while it’s been much improved thanks to a decade worth of updates, the original magic of Minecraft is just as present as it was when I first played it. The art style, gameplay, and characters all come together to create a game that is extremely simplistic on its surface, but incredibly complex and meaningful when you really pay attention to it. These factors alone stand to make a great video game, but the one element that really makes it an experience is the soundtrack, composed by German musician Daniel Rosenfeld, more commonly known as C418.
Minecraft is, at its core, a game about creativity and exploration in a world that can completely change at the whim of the player, and of course some of the music you hear throughout its first soundtrack release – Minecraft Volume Alpha – reflects this almost perfectly. The track “Moog City” personifies the vast world that is open to explore through an almost constant build up in sound and instrumentation that all the sudden drops away into the track “Haggstrom,” in which rhythmic mallet percussion sounds as if it is hammering away on a new house in the woods. These two tracks stand out to me as the main themes of the two modes in Minecraft: “Moog City” represents survival mode, where exploration and discovery are crucial; and “Haggstrom” represents creative mode, a “sandbox” experience centered around building whatever the player wants.
One of my favorite things about Volume Alpha is how it all flows together, virtually seamlessly. With the exception of the track “Death” – a collection of sound effects from the game that are arranged in a pretty fun way – the remaining pieces feel like they could be just one fifty-five-minute-long song. Of course, this is helped with well-executed fades and excellent carry-over transitions – evidenced from the tracks “Key” and “Door” – but it is really made possible by the consistent tones throughout each of the songs. There is a natural flow of emotion throughout, as you hear everything from uplifting melodies to moody ambient tracks.
Yet, when I think about this soundtrack as an album, the tracks that stand out to me are among the more melancholic offerings which make up significant part of the run-time. Perhaps it’s the inherent sense of melancholy that comes with nostalgia, or the sense of loneliness that can come from exploring a vast world – seemingly empty, aside from your character and a host of computer-generated monsters – but tracks like “Minecraft,” “Subwoofer Lullaby,” “Wet Hands,” and “Sweden” tend to drive my remembrance of Minecraft as a surprisingly sombre experience. These four songs are, in my opinion, the best that the entire soundtrack has to offer because they represent everything that I love about Minecraft. They start out with just a single melody line that, over the course of the song, is slowly supplemented by lush, considered arrangements that only make the melody more pronounced. In truth, they often remind me of the instrumental pieces from Brian Eno’s Another Green World, mostly because of their focus on the creation of an atmosphere.
Even when I’m not interested in playing Minecraft, I find myself listening to Volume Alpha on a regular basis. While the game itself has changed over the years, the music was all-present in those early days of Minecraft that I, and many others my age, look back so fondly on. But why does that specific period in a video game’s history hold so much power over young people? Perhaps it’s because it was a time when Minecraft was still an “indie game” that had yet to be bought by Microsoft; maybe it was a time when internet culture felt more innocent and exciting; or, maybe it’s just nostalgia.