It's a tricky business, trying to talk about the indie building game without resorting to superlatives. Far too easy to offer statements like "one of the most important games of recent times", "an unparalleled creativity tool" and that sort of thing, but the truth is we don't yet know whether it will stand the test of time. That said, it's been around, in a public alpha and then beta form, for a good three years now, and retains what's tantamount to a cult around it and its main creator, Markus 'Notch' Persson. It's only just been officially "released", but has sold millions of copies prior to that. It's an industry phenomenon, the little game that could even as mammoth-budget games repeatedly crashed and burned in an increasingly trying marketplace. Why? What's so special about it?
Well, its goes hand-in-hand with the rise of user-generated content that appears the web over. Minecraft is, at heart, Lego: building anything you can think of from cubes of assorted colours, weight and physical properties. With cubes essentially the only shape in the game, a uniform, toylike-look is kept and, despite, being lo-fi in its graphics, oozes charm and personality as well being instantly recognisable. If you build a giant Optimus Prime, it will look like Minecraft Optimus Prime: there's no escaping it. But it adds to the wonder, the sense that the towering statues and dungeons and castles in the games were truly built, not simply rendered.
But Minecraft isn't as simple as selecting the blocks you want and getting on with it. The game proper takes place in an infinite, beautiful outdoor world packed with block types, trees, animals and roaming monsters. If you want a rare substance, such as Redstone or Diamond, first you'll have to hunt for it - generally by digging, digging, digging at the endlessly deformable landscape. Even though, you won't actually be able to mine it until you've built the right tools, using a simple but unexplained crafting recipe system.
Perhaps Minecraft's greatest flaw is that it still expects/requires you to find out these absolutely vital recipes from outside the game. It's hardly difficult to track down the information, but it speaks to the fact the game's development has slowed down in the time between alpha and release, with numerous promises un- or only part-met. As such, the released version simply doesn't differ enormously from the game people have been playing and talking about since 2008 - there are more features, more block types and a hell dimension to explore, but talk of storylines and roleplaying have gone largely unmet.
However, you will create your own storyline, for Minecraft's other great achievement is its survival mode. At night-time, the pristine cube-world is invaded by monsters - spiders, zombies, skeletons, exploding Creepers... You need to hide, or you must fight. If you fight before you've built the right weapons and armour, you will die. So it's best to build a hole in the ground, wall it up and spend the night building, building, building until you're strong enough to hunt down your hunters.
It's tense and unforgiving, but it means that the first hole in the ground you dig will almost immediately feel like home - a safe place that is yours, and only yours. Over time, you will improve it, add lights and fires and supplies, perhaps doors and windows and turrets and mazes and a statue of your mum. Whatever. And it can and only be your story. That's what makes Minecraft so powerful, for all its superficially simple sights and sounds.
It's also why it's been so successful - it doesn't impose the restraints that most games do. Its success and its development are almost an accident, the result of a developer working with and responding to his community to create a game that's for the people. It's a game that absolutely needed to happen.