Ghostcraft; or, how Minecraft can really be used to build anything

The extraordinarily popular building/survival game Minecraft by Mojang has revolutionized the very concept of a sandbox game. With its popularity, with its community, comes all the little things that enhance or corrupt society built by society’s own members — including myths and ghost stories.

Minecraft has been described as “LEGO for big kids”, a gigantic sandbox filled with materials that you can collect, and use to build whatever you’d like — a dirt hovel, a series of traps and defenses, a sprawling mansion, a plain old House, an elaborate train system, even relatively complex circuitry (at relatively macro scale). There are no real rules, only a gigantic overworld filled with procedurally generated trees, forests, oceans, lakes, caves and even abandoned mines and dungeons. There are two other realms you can travel to, and there is in fact a way to “win” the game, if that’s your cup of tea. You can travel to the Nether, the Minecraft equivalent of a lava-filled hell, and you can travel to The End, a strange realm from whence the Endermen enemies spawn, and you can do battle with the Ender Dragon to complete the game.

Most players just build things, though. Given the choice between playing in a sandbox, and doing battle with the neighboring town’s dragon, I can understand why the sandbox is a significantly less stressful objective. And there’s always the collaborative aspect of playing with other players on the same server — you can all work together to build great works of art, or you can compete for resources, destroy one another’s work, and steal what resources the other players have accumulated.

Given that aspect of the game is not for everyone, there’s always the option of playing a game entirely single-player, so nobody can undo all your hard work.

Except… was that another player off in the distance? He looked just like your player skin… only his eyes were entirely white. And when you went back to your home base, your accumulated treasures were missing, and all your torches replaced with redstone torches.

You thought you were alone here? Think again!

The story of Herobrine starts off simply enough, like most creepypasta (internet-borne ghost stories). A player claims that he noticed in-game a strange player sprite just outside his range of vision on a single-player game, and he posted about his experience on a forum but immediately had his post deleted by an anonymous mod. He tried again, and the post was deleted again, and he was sent a private message by someone named Herobrine: “STOP.”

Another forum member contacts him to commisserate over the events, informing him that a small cadre of other players had seen this person as well, and had discovered “man-made” features that don’t normally spawn in the game being created in their own single-player worlds. They do some digging, and discover that the name “Herobrine” was a Swedish gamer; they further discover that this Herobrine was Markus “Notch” Persson’s brother — Notch being the creator of Minecraft.

They ask Notch for information about whether or not he has a brother, and he replies by email: “I did, but he’s no longer with us.”

The players never see Herobrine in their games again.

The name Herobrine, for what it’s worth, is probably pronounced with a long I, like “hero brine”, owing to the “ghost’s” canonical nationality of Sweden — being Notch’s brother, and all.

So goes the original story, but then, of course, someone had to make the thing a little more real than a single static story gif being passed around.

Images of “Steve” (the player-character skin) sans pupils were being photoshopped into screenshots in hard-to-spot places. In an elaborate stunt on a live gaming stream being telecast by Brocraft (yes, really!) streamer “Copeland”, Herobrine was introduced into a live stream as a retextured painting on a wall in a room he had avoided up until then, on what was supposed to be a single-player world; Copeland encountered him suddenly, screamed and left the room (and also the stream itself), and redirected his viewers to this fairly disturbing animated gif and “corrupted” note imploring the watcher to “WAKE UP”.

The image of the player head, with black eyes with those frantically-rolling eyeball animated gifs you might have seen on Geocities twenty years ago embedded in them, gives you a nice little taste of body horror to go with your creepy ghost story.

Copeland removed the painting from the room, reverted the textures in the game, then returned to the stream pretending to be shaken up.

Others emulated this stunt, including another streamer named “Patimuss” who, during the stream at a point where he’d encountered Herobrine standing in a lava field, in an aside to his wife, told her that he was “trolling” them — evidently thinking at that point the mic was muted. This caused an outrage on the chat, and Copeland was evidently upset with him for blowing the story.

Meanwhile, though, Notch and other Mojang employees have been more than game to keep the legends going. Notch, for his part, answers alternately completely seriously (“there has never been any such thing as Herobrine”) or coyly (“He only means well, he’s looking out for you, trying to warn you of the dangers you can’t see”), often in the same breath. He’s repeatedly suggested they have no plans to add Herobrine to the game, while Minecraft’s other employees have alternately said he doesn’t exist or he definitely does. Joint developer Dinnerbone has stated categorically that Herobrine will never be added to vanilla Minecraft, and in fourteen separate changelog version entries as of this writing, Herobrine is listed as having been removed from the code. In fact, in the very first removal, what was actually removed was unused code that would allow spawning of Human characters in the game — effectively ending even the possibility that a Herobrine-alike could accidentally spawn.

But that doesn’t mean he was ever in there, despite all the “removals”. Mojang is definitely trying to keep the legend alive, recognizing its value in drawing people to the game. They have included Herobrine in official art, and have released a skin-pack for the Xbox 360 version of the game that includes a Herobrine skin, so now if you encounter him on the Xbox, chances are it’s actually another player.

On the PC, Minecraft is a very heavily-modded game. There are mod packs that can turn the game into a full-on RPG, add new realms, new recipes, the ability to build a rocketship and go to the moon… there’s just about nothing you cannot do in Minecraft with the right mod pack. So, naturally someone made a mod for Herobrine.

If you really want to face off against a malicious “ghost” player who’s got all the powers of a player in Creative mode (read: a “god” within the game, invulnerable, able to fly, and able to build anything or destroy anything instantly), with this mod, you can now craft a summon Totem and bring Herobrine to life. And yourself to a swift and ignominious death.

Herobrine never existed, but just by sheer force of will, the community made him real. And Notch, while lamenting how little actual control over the content he had with an active and excited community, egged them on.

Before writing this post, I had written about the Pokemon Lavender Town Syndrome myth, and someone told me on Twitter that their 14-year-old son had freaked out then composed himself and said “it’s only a story.” I asked her to ask him about Herobrine, and he proceeded to regale his mother with a long story involving basically every element of the plot I’ve related herein, short of the actual explanatory bits that paint him as one long, collaborative prank. I’d considered asking him to ghost-write the post, but I thought ghost-writing a ghost story might be too meta.

So, how about next I tell you a ghost story involving the already creepiest of the Legend of Zelda series, Majora’s Mask? And about a fan theory about the actual game that suggests that the protagonist, Link, is actually dead throughout the whole game? That’s only SLIGHTLY meta.

Ghostcraft; or, how Minecraft can really be used to build anything

11 thoughts on “Ghostcraft; or, how Minecraft can really be used to build anything

  1. 1

    Minecraft as a whole is terrifying. We wake up in this empty, pristine world, with no memory of how we arrived or where we came from. Yet our excavations reveal past explorations underground, and the undead hordes, the skeletons and zombies dressed like the player character that haunt them indicate that we are not the first to walk these lands. The indigenous people cower inside their homes as soon as the sun sets, never protesting when you shelter with them, yet stare at you unceasingly all through the sleepless night, as though they are familiar with people like us, and know what we will inevitably become. Those eyes have witnessed more that one lonely explorer come by this way. Our hunger is relentless, more than one miner-adventurer will resort to consuming zombie flesh in desperate times, hinting at their future. Then there are those tall, lanky, men of shadow, who go about moving blocks and reseeding cacti to serve their inscrutable purposes, who will tolerate neither water nor eye contact.Their teleporting is a problem, I once flooded the floor of my house to keep them out, only to wake up with one standing on my bed.

  2. 3

    I am looking forward to a treatment of Zelda, like you wouldn’t believe!
    Ocarina of Time was the first game I fell in love with when I got my Nintendo 64, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. The series has its faults, and it is probably heavily romanticised for me, because it was a big part of my childhood, but I am really excited about your writing on it. Majora’s Mask is fo sho a top contender along with Ocarina of Time, there is just something about the atmosphere and the characters, that even as gaming has moved along to more details and bigger systems, brings out the nostalgia like nothing else, for me at least.
    The franchise died for me when it arrived on the Wii though, I really really wanted to fall head over heels in love with Skyward Sword, but the wiimote gave me hours of frustration for 30 minutes of progress, it was really gamebreaking for me :/
    That was a big aside, just wanted to let you know I am excited as hell, and that I also really liked your exploration of this interesting minecraft phenomenon.

  3. 5

    I had to stop playing Minecraft all together. The constant anxiety and fear of turning the corner and running into something, the creepy feeling I’d get staying up late to finish a project, the weird sense of almost monastic loneliness…

    I love the game, I just couldn’t handle it anymore.

  4. 6

    It’s an example of Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, a copy without an original, which Butler explored as performativity. The godlike creative power we can exercise in virtual worlds makes this easier to realize in some ways, as we’re constrained by more-immediately affective forces (e.g. ontological inertia) in meatspace. A more relatable (though still probably not widely known) example might be The Laughing Man from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It is nice to have concrete examples of various elements of contemporary discursive theory/ies to point to when people try to claim it’s utter bullshit, or that the language is jargon constructed specifically to obfuscate the fact that the people using it have nothing to say or don’t know what they’re talking about (e.g. Alan Sokal proved nothing beyond demonstrating that a particular journal has a flawed review process, which is not a bug unique to ‘soft’ science journals).

  5. 7

    Ooh, I just remembered Paranoia Agent also has some similar elements, tying in the suicide element of the Pokémon legend from the previous post. The Japanese, by and large, rapidly embraced postmodernism for reasons similar to the French and especially European Jews – physical devastation and cultural schisms wrought by WWII – and the heavy crossover with tech culture in the USA has helped popularize the concepts here, especially online.

  6. 8

    @ John Horstman

    Yup. Laughing Man was exactly what I was thinking.

    I wonder if “removed Herobrine” will become one of those epic changelog entries / code notations / error messages. I love some of that stuff. I don’t know why… Values of β will give rise to dom!

  7. 9

    Learning about Notch from you and my son made me pay attention when Rebecca Watson posted about his new game “Drowning in Problems”, which made me play it, which makes me need to wallow in a pile of bunnies or something to feel better. (but really, it’s kind of cool).


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