I wake up in the morning. I hit a switch that clears and collects acres of farmland. I feed my forty dogs. I go beneath the earth, which has been hollowed out like swiss cheese. Classic Minecraft.
This is the result of me and my friends deciding to play Minecraft together over lockdown; exponentially, we grew more powerful. We created greater monuments to our strength: the artificial river which let us travers the neighborhood faster, the railway that carried us across the horizon-eating farm, the flaming altar filled with thousands of chickens (which crashed anyone’s computer if they looked directly at it). We had refined every means with which to transform the world into neat and orderly stacks, then arranged them for our perfect benefit.
As Dan Olsen has pointed out, crafting and survival games have a tendency to push players towards colonial outcomes. This isn’t part of the intent of the games designers, but the systems in play unconsciously drive you towards it. In Minecraft, you have infinite time and leisure, the only obstacle is the world itself. To progress you need to craft better tools, which requires you to gather rare resources, and since your tools have durability, you need to gather even more resources to supplement your advance. You reach a point where hoarding anything you come across is the best method. If you see something, you might as well take it, because you’ll probably want it later… And it’s not like it’s doing anything sitting there, you could easily find a better use for it.
The most optimal form of play is to collect, organize, and store everything you come across. Due to how these resources spawn you’re encouraged to annihilate the shape of the landscape. The fastest and easiest way to gain resources isn’t to seek out ravines and search for ore with minimal disturbance. Instead, you’re better off trying to hollow out the ground beneath you into thin veins, turning everything beneath the ground into a perfect grid of strip-mines. This type of thinking is prevalent throughout the survival/crafting genre: your goal is to amass resources, optimise, and industrialise, and then rule over your harmonious factory. Except… This doesn’t happen in Muck.
The sun rises. I sprint to a fir tree and start cutting it down before I realise I’m also hitting the nearby birch, so I step back and maneuver myself to make as little impact as possible. I then dash to the nearby clump of mithril ore. I only need one chunk. I only destroy one chunk. By this point the sun is getting low. Classic Muck.
Muck is a game best described as “Minecraft + Risk of Rain”. Mostly made as a joke by YouTuber and developer Dani, this roguelike survival game follows the same general path of Minecraft: you awake in an unfamiliar land (an island, in Muck’s case), monsters spawn at night, and to survive you need to make tools. You get wood, iron, and mithril, climbing the tech tree and then chopping it to pieces. However, the roguelike elements lead to vastly different outcomes.
Firstly, Muck is hard. It’s not uncommon to die within two or three in-game days or to lose a good run in one or two unlucky hits. Like Risk of Rain, Muck only gets harder the longer you play, with you constantly running against the clock and trying to outscale your foes. This fundamentally shifts your relationship to the environment. In Minecraft, there is no penalty for taking extra (beyond inventory space); it can only result in a net positive. This means that you do not need to make any calculations of value, all resources are generally equal. Muck, however, is ruled by one resource alone: time. You can’t gather extra iron or risk wasting precious seconds on a resource with little payout. You are constantly asking “is this worth it?”, trying to find the path that takes the least from the world and the least from your time. Where Minecraft guides you towards optimizing the world, Muck pushes you towards optimising yourself.
These changes add up and cause you to play Muck with a sense of ecological awareness. In their book Designing For Hope, Dominique Hes and Chrisna du Plessis encourage us to recognise that “eco-systems are not just a collection of species, but are also relational systems that connect humans, as organic systems, with animals and plants”. This is the fundamental focus of ecological thinking, decentering the human perspective in order to “stimulate an increased understanding that the world is fundamentally interconnected and interdependent”. The addition of roguelike elements transforms how you think about your relationship to the world. Being good at Muck involves wholeheartedly embracing an ecologically conscious perspective. Take only what you need and leave as little of a footprint as possible. Try to leave the island without fundamentally altering it. Muck, like real life, is a scenario where constant extraction and manipulation of the environment will lead to your death. Fail to curb your appetite and the world will eat you. Even more-so, adopting a playstyle where you try to care for and avoid harming the environment as much as possible will often save your life.
Muck is filled with terrible and powerful bosses, the most iconic being Big Chunk, an enormous, earth-shaking monstrosity that uproots oaks, shatters boulders, and crushes wildlife underfoot. Chunk’s might means he’s capable of killing you in a single hit. Luckily, this lethality can be lessened through careful cultivation. Every resource in Muck has HP, which also means that they can take blows instead of you. Chunk is best fought in dense forests, as these trees are able to absorb the impact of their attacks, stopping them before they crush your fragile flesh. If you leave trees and rocks undisturbed, they will in turn provide you with protection from Chunk’s house sized club. Care for the island, and it will care for you.
What makes these effects most pertinent to ecological thinking is that they aren’t directly turned into allegory through mechanics. If Muck were to, say, give you a +15% health bonus for every tree untouched, the relationship would fall apart. Giving an exact number or specific benefit to ecological play would direct players towards finding the optimal threshold, looking for the perfect point where you can instrumentalise the world “just enough”. By obscuring the ways in which you benefit from your environment in Muck, there is no “safe” level of engagement. You must instead follow principles of care and try not to deviate. The goals, benefits, and relationship you have to the environment are never explicit, so you must assume empathy as a default mode.
This captures another aspect of ecological thinking, empathy with inhuman agents. There is a tendency for environmental causes to be anthropomorphised in order to generate action. The perspective of “mother nature”, of the world as an extremely human-oriented place, that we should care for like a person. The problem here is that it makes the right to life and care conditional. It argues that our ecosystem deserves care because of its proximity to us, rather than asserting the importance of biodiversity for its own sake. Arguing that, for example, Koko the Gorilla is special because she could “speak” like humans, instead of acknowledging that the critically endangered western lowland gorilla matters regardless of language capacity. The environment in Muck doesn’t ask you to care for it through human-centered mechanics. It makes no clear statements and does not advocate for itself. In fact, the ecosystem of Muck is beautifully non-human: its cows stare at you with dead, vacant eyes and make no attempts of anything resembling human agency. They watch you like a silent jury and will not interfere (or even demonstrate anguish) regarding your actions.
I doubt that Dani intended for this to be the takeaway of Muck. In fact, there are several elements that complicate this reading. The Risk of Rain-style item chests that cover the island encourage you to constantly be opening them to out-scale your enemies, the gold needed to open them coming from ore or dropping from enemies. The constant hunt for gold ore or enemies to kill reaches the extent that you often need to summon enemies from shrines, which results in larger fights that destroy the environment around you. Survive for long enough and this accumulation of items leads to an exponential power creep, similar to the exponential gain of resources in Minecraft. The ecological care that fills the game is disregarded in the pursuit of wealth and power.
Even if the ecological outcomes of Muck are accidental and occasionally in conflict with other parts of the system, they still provide wonderful avenues to explore. The clash brought about by the roguelike elements produces a style of play that is unlike anything else in the survival genre I’ve seen. Part of the joy in finding these elements is because they are accidental: Muck unintentionally defies and denies the colonial DNA of the survival genre. It guides you towards a constant awareness of your place in the environment, which many other games try to silence. The majority of survival games create some kind of justification for your colonisation, the most common of these being the narrative of the stranded survivor (Subnautica, ARK, Don’t Starve, The Forest, Raft), where you must reclaim the wilderness in order to leave it and return to civilisation.
Muck shares this “narrative” (the only explanation of the situation being on it’s steam page, and a congratulation screen after beating the game), but never falls into justifying it. You do not need to instrumentalise the environment in order to survive. You can thrive without needing to transform the environment, terraforming it to your personal tastes. Even though Muck doesn’t take itself seriously, it provides an extremely serious critique of the survival crafting genre. What compels us to create games that reflect and incentivise colonial perspectives? More importantly, what compels us to play them? Muck shows us that the survival crafting genre can exist without these elements. More importantly, it shows us that a game without them can be goddamn fun.