Zen And The Art of Terraria

As I considered entering a silent retreat to find Zen among cacti and burnt out hippies, a digital monastery rose out of my Steam library. I could find my center from the comfort of a chair designed for 250 and up. What was it? A game. Not just any game. But the kind of game that dances in dreams, tantalizes at breakfast, rings in our ears with each playthrough-puff. Through its world life’s worries became background noise. You already know what it is: Terraria, a nine-to-five vacation from reality.

Yes, I’m late to the retreat. Terraria released seven years ago since the day of this writing. Hindsight says, “How did I miss this?” My only answer is that plenty of gold slips through the canyon’s cracks and waits patiently to be stumbled upon. I stubbed my toe a little over a week ago, and it’s been glimmering for over 40 hours. The best happy little accident yet.

If I were to take someone by the hand, sit them in one of my crafted wooden chairs, and explain what it is I do in Terraria, the shape of the sounds coming out of my mouth would look like a YouTuber desperate for lost subscribers. “Well, you see… in Terraria you get to *twitch* mine cubes, make stuff, mine more cubes, make more stuff,”—ad infinitum, ad absurdum. “What’s the point?” That kind of is the point: to be a psychiatric patient coloring over the same lines again and again until you surprise yourself with a masterpiece.

What appears to be madness is in practice cathartic. Simple acts of repetition become their own reward, and Terraria replaces sitting mindfully with acting mindfully. There’s an old parable about a monk brushing his teeth. With each motion he brings the entirety of his consciousness to the bristles, the sensation, the moment. In Terraria I was larping as the monk. I didn’t just mine the blocks; I became the experience of mining the blocks, of transforming the world with my imagination.

Screenshots make it seem so simple, but Terraria is a homely face hiding a beautiful mind. What starts as a cute mining operation to put a roof over your head ends with alien invasions and Dragonball Z power-ups. It’s an absurd universe, one that constantly rewards you for persisting. Because what happens next is a surprise. “You can do that? Wow... what!” Expectations at the outset are subverted by the end, leaving you amazed and craving more. It’s a game worth knowing little about, which is why this gushing article is full of emotion and little substance.

What’s possible exists like a mirror until you shatter it with your pickaxe. This urge to test limits is what drives explorers like Ernest Shackleton to persist in a frigid wasteland. Is this not similar to what the desert retreat teaches? To go beyond the self, to watch as the horizon recedes. Afterall, the horizon doesn’t taunt the ship captain; it invites. It was an invitation to wonder that sent me to the depths of Terraria’s world to discover what devils call its center home. The answer? Me.

I wasn’t alone. Friends used to go camping, crack a few beers around a fire, throw a fish in the tent and laugh until the stink makes sleep a dream. Now, separated by thousands of miles, we crack beers over Discord and make a campfire because it gives a minor boost to health regeneration. Laughing still holds it all together. Terraria has been a coop experience that shows the good times only change their appearance with age.

Whenever I invest time in any task I have to ask, “Am I wasting my life?” (This is a good one for all you young-uns). A more philosophical way to put it would be, “If life is an eternal recurrence would I regret reliving this choice again and again—and again?” When you orient experiences around such a simple question, many of the distractions that occupy our time slip away into meaninglessness: things we can’t remember even hours after doing them. Still, what I can’t forget is Terraria. I have no regrets. The only constant when I’m not playing is astonishment that I found such joy playing.

Today’s gaming market is a world blanketed by flood. I try this or that but most of it is illusion and I end up back in the water struggling to swim. Amid this saturation, Terraria offers a 240 MB island paradise. It’s thrilling to find solid ground. To recognize that for the past week “life” has meant working together to defeat Lovecraft’s long lost moon lord son. It was an adventure in the same sense I felt as a child sneaking moonlight hours with my Playstation 2. An excited curiosity and longing.

This love letter started as a means of understanding why but it became a love letter in the best sense of the term, riddled with heartfelt hyperbole and analogy—giving me enough of a reason to know Terraria is a wonderful game, and I mean that. It inspires wonder, and it is clearly a work of love. Statistically, you’ve probably played it already. But if you haven’t, consider trying. It’s the best $10 you’ll spend this year. So on this day, I can only say, Happy Birthday Terraria. To celebrate, I’ll be playing.

From Mega Man II to Ape Escape, I've been playing games for as long as I can remember. I've spent months killing porings in Ragnarok Online and more recently lived a second life in Eve Online. I usually play as gUMBY, gUMBLEoni, or gUMBLes in-game.