For years now, masochistic Minecraft players have developed all sorts of ways to test their mettle against a merciless and unforgiving blocky world. Illustration: Angelica Alzona
For vanilla Minecraft, the core element of the survival challenge is Hardcore mode, which cranks the difficulty up to max by increasing the strength and spawn rate of mobs, but most importantly by instituting permadeath. This feature has been around since the 1.0.0 update, but before that, players developed their own rules for a hardcore mode, and these were based on an honour system rather than in-game mechanics. Eventually, Minecraft's actual hardcore mode stopped challenging more ambitious players and they had to come up with more inventive ways to add difficulty to the game.
In 2011, the popular YouTube channel Yogscast tried their hand at a Survival Island custom map, which spawns you on an inhospitable patch of dirt and tasks you with staying alive. The original map gives you the bare minimum that you need to survive — one tree, some food and a place to dig. Staying alive long enough to grow or hunt more food while dodging creepers and zombies is brutally difficult even on regular difficulty, and requires solid grasp of game mechanics and Minecraft lore. This map proved so popular that it spawned an entire genre of play, and it remains one of the most challenging ways to play even in 2016.
The popularity of the survival island gave rise to a growing number of survival-challenge maps. Many of these, like the ever-popular Skyblock (and offshoots like SkyGrid, OceanBlock and so on), tasked you with surviving on a tiny island in the sky with limited resources and challenged you to use your knowledge of Minecraft to combine materials to create the items you needed. This differed from Survival Island in that you couldn't just dig down to find more dirt and ore — you needed to use the items provided by the chests in very specific ways (like combining lava and water to create obsidian) in order to survive and thrive. Though these maps have fallen out of favour after years of mod madness, it's sort of amazing how difficult the game can be with a few self-imposed restrictions and limited resources.
Survival challenges have since thrived on YouTube — a search for any of the challenges I've mentioned above will yield at least one video to watch, if other people's suffering is your thing.
The Yogscast, again, has some of the best survival series around, including a set of videos about their crack at SkyBlock on Hardcore, a multiplayer series and one particularly hilarious game set on the back of a flying whale. Graser10 is also a great source of survival challenges, and he has uploaded intense videos where he races to kill a Ghast in 25 minutes, starting from scratch. SethBling has some videos worth checking out as well, including one of my favourites (to watch, not to play, because you've got to draw the line somewhere), The Floor is Lava.
One of the coolest long-running series is Mindcrack's Ultra Hardcore, which places a bunch of YouTubers on a limited map with natural regeneration turned off and player combat encouraged. The PvP element is at least as important as the survival element here, but if you want to see the most brutal survival mode that Minecraft has to offer, this is a great place to start.
It would be impossible to discuss anything about Minecraft without mentioning mods, and in this case, there are plenty that are aimed at the survival challenge crowd. Mods like Better Than Wolves makes the game more realistic and adds challenges like different move speeds on different surfaces, whereas mod Blood and Bones ramps the difficulty up across the board. Some mods, like TerraFirmaCraft, take the idea of "survival" to the extreme. TerraFirmaCraft actually closely mirrors the feel of Minecraft survival without adding too many extra mechanics. Instead of being able to mine and gather by punching things, in TerraFirmaCraft you have to painstakingly gather sticks and rocks to make tools, plant seasonally, eat from multiple food groups and agonisingly make your way up the tech tree in order to achieve the same security that you might reach in an afternoon in vanilla Minecraft.
I fancy myself a pretty hardcore player, but TerraFirmaCraft made me feel like a filthy casual. I starved to death almost immediately after starting the mod, because I had planted incorrectly and failed to lay up enough food for the winter. If you think you're Minecraft-tough, I strongly recommend you give it a try and test your mettle.
Even with so many mods and customs maps for Minecraft players, the most interesting survival challenges are the ones that the players impose on themselves within the restriction of vanilla Minecraft. Having to work within the constraints of the original game has produced some truly gruelling, inspiring and jaw-dropping challenges, many of which have been documented with screenshots or via YouTube. You could spend weeks digging through all of the challenges that players have set up for themselves and others, but I'll dive into some of the best here.
One thread from early in Minecraft's lifespan institutes a series of restrictions and milestones that must be met before advancing to the next stage, called the City Construction Challenge. This forces the player to slowly, carefully and deliberately build their settlement (rather than, say, digging straight down and making diamond armour right away). It's not especially unforgiving, except in the sense that it's time consuming, but it's fascinating how it produces a radically different result from most free-form Minecraft play. Other construction based challenges add increasing degrees of difficulty, like The Tree Spirit, which forbids you from ever leaving your home tree, or the no-craft challenge, which tasks the player with defeating the Ender Dragon without ever using a 3x3 table.
Survival challenges run from the simple to the irritatingly complex, but adding just one self-imposed restriction can radically change the way you play the game. A "naked" playthrough where you don't wear armour, or a fists-only attempt, or a vegan playthrough, or a pacifist playthrough, or a nomad playthrough, can feel like entirely different games (Logdotzip's nomadic survival series is a particularly awesome example). One of the most interesting restrictions you can place on yourself is limiting yourself to no mining — meaning that you only look for ore and gems in natural caves or ravines, rather than strip-mining everything (which is much easier and safer). This forces you to explore and encounter more dangerous foes, extending what many (myself included) consider to be the most interesting and exciting part of Minecraft.
Recent updates to Minecraft allow players to tweak settings which opens up even more brutal survival opportunities, too. One of the best ways to ramp up the difficulty of Minecraft (especially if you're playing in Hardcore mode) is to set the game to be always nighttime, vastly increasing your risk of running into mobs and removing any sort of reprieve from the onslaught. Turning off natural regeneration forces you into a sort of "Super Hardcore" mode — the only way to regain health is through Golden Apples or Health Potions, meaning that you need to know exactly what you're doing or you're going to die very quickly. From personal experience I can tell you that "always night" and "no natural regeneration" are not for the faint of heart.
These changes have also spawned an entire subcommunity of hardcore fanatics who hang out in /r/flatcore. These players know that setting the world to flat not only adds a whole new set of challenges to the game, it also works exceptionally well as a framework for adding other restrictions on top of that. The best variation that I have found is Swampcore, which places you on an infinite flat swamp with an eternal thunderstorm. The only place to get stone is from lava pools and the only way to find villagers to trade with is by curing the zombified ones who come after you.
Swampcore wrecked me when I tried it. I was repeatedly overwhelmed by zombies and creepers, carelessly dug into lava and was melted and generally had a rough time. It was madness. If you think that Minecraft is too easy, I strongly encourage you to give this a shot.
Though it rapidly departed from this vision, Notch initially conceived of Minecraft as more of a survival horror game. He described a much scarier, more desperate version of the game in a 2009 Tumblr post that envisioned a challenging scrabble for life in a hostile game world.
Over the years, the community proved to have a mind of its own regarding what Minecraft was "about", but thanks to the popularity of survival challenges, that original vision for a more gruelling Minecraft continues to live on through fans.