The word Teotihuacán comes from the Aztecs and translates to birthplace of the gods. The ruined city was built in a hill-enveloped valley 2,000d years ago and collapsed around 550 CE. We know that Teotihuacán was the largest city in the Americas and one of the most populous on Earth in its heyday, but nearly everything else is a mystery. Who built it, what was their language, why did their great metropolis fail? The de Young Museum in San Francisco recently opened a show about the city titled Teotihuacán: City of Water, City of Fire. Objects form recent excavations are leveraged as a starting point to examine how the modern conception of the city is formed by surviving artworks. To build some buzz and expose more people to the show’s themes, the museum concurrently released a scale Minecraft map of the city. The map allows anyone with an internet connection (and $27 for a Minecraft account) to dive in and run around amid and within the unblemished splendor of the temples. In the words of the show’s curator Matthew H. Robb, “Hopefully that leads to a greater appreciation for the achievements of the people who built [Teotihuacán] in ancient times.”

Scene from the Minecraft map of Teotihuacán

The map makes a good first impression. You begin in a room of red stone, columns, and a few torches. On the wall opposite is the name of the show and the museum in pale blue-green. I’m a Minecraft novice, so the very first thing I did was get a primer from my brother-in-law about the controls and whatnot. It’s standard gaming fare: Run, jump, punch, repeat. I was warned that doing something dumb like jumping off one of the buildings or immolating myself in one of the fire pits would lead to my doom. Armed with this new knowledge, I set out to explore.

Beyond a couple nice vantage points for screenshots, there wasn’t much to see. I think I started on the Pyramid of the Sun and walked along the Avenue of the Dead, but those are just guesses. I was basically turned around and directionless after running in and out of a few temples. Inside one of the temples is a small pool that my character appeared to swim through, but it was difficult to tell. Alcoves and torches and flowers and trees appear ad nauseum. The only place to interact with the environment (that I found, anyway) was with the show title and museum name on the wall. I punched it just before turning off Minecraft, and it became a painting in my inventory. But … there wasn’t anything to do beyond that.

Gameplay left me with so many questions. What temple did I start on? What did they burn in the fire pits? What were the pools for?

Using Minecraft to map Teotihuacán was a great idea and I genuinely felt like I was in the city. The experience left me less excited for a museum show and much more excited about the idea of planning a trip to see the ruins in person. The museum plans to maintain the map as part of its holdings and (I hear) is readying a future release with murals and art objects in situ. But that seems like something which should have been ready for the initial release. Since one of the walls is already labeled with the show’s name, it’d also be cool to be provided with the names of the temples and some kind of explanation about their functions.

Scene from the Minecraft map of Teotihuacán

At present, the current iteration of the map rings a little hollow. Providing more opportunities for players to interact with the unblemished temples and bucolic environment will only serve to strengthen this ambitious and worthwhile project.

Wander the Lost City of Teotihuacán in Minecraft