For years now, Telltale has been the top name in narrative adventure games, reinvigorating the genre in ways few could have expected. Almost entirely, that brilliant spark has been due to mature, thematically intense games like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Game of Thrones. Now, with Minecraft: Story Mode that same great narrative formula has been used to create something that is just as fun and engaging as it is family friendly.
For all its internal complexity, Minecraft on its own is a relatively straightforward game as far as goals are concerned. Monsters come out at night, you build things to survive, and, somewhere, there is great boss called the Ender Dragon that you can kill. The writers at Telltale have done something surprising and wonderful, taking that simple premise, and molding an entire populated world out of it, complete with the legendary Order of the Stone, the only four people to ever find and kill the Ender Dragon.
In Minecraft: Story Mode you play as Jesse, a young man or woman, who looks up to the Order of the Stone, and even attends a convention called Endercon, meant to celebrate the Order’s achievement. And this is where the story begins, Jesse, his two friends, Olivia and Axel, and his pig, Rueben, entering a building competition where the winning creation will be displayed in Endercon itself. From there, back-alley dealings, past grudges, evil plots, and the grand call to adventure ensue.
For those that haven’t played Minecraft, Minecraft: Story Mode is an engaging story all on its own, the finer points of the world introduced quickly and dealt with as only the backdrop for the main focus: the characters and their story. In the case of those that have played Minecraft however, Story Mode is chalk full of fan service, nods to the game, its systems, and even jokes the game has spawned. Building and crafting are kept as fundamental elements of the world, a world where the ability to build things, and the guts to scour the wilderness for materials, are prized.
Like all of Telltale’s most recent games, Minecraft: Story Mode is first and foremost about the narrative and the characters. Taking advantage of the less than realistic art-style however, Story Mode is the first Telltale game is offer character options, with six presets available, three male, three female. While Catherine Taber and Paton Oswalt both do a great job as Jesse, it would be hard for anyone to hold a candle to the phenomenal dry humor Paton Oswalt brings to his voice work. Either way however, just the fact the player has a choice is refreshing. Outside of Jesse, though the entire cast of characters is well developed, each feeling just as distinct and nuanced as fans have come to expect from Telltale, the other standout is Petra, the tough as nails explorer played by Ashley Johnson. Overall, few modern games have brought as much life and humor to pixel block characters as Story Mode manages to.
While the characters and story are intriguing, it’s unfortunately the player interaction itself that comes off feeling slightly strained. Likely due to its more family-friendly tilt, most of the decisions throughout Story Mode just didn’t carry the same kind of weight and feeling of intense consequence that has sustained the likes of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. While this was largely remedied in the final few scenes of the episode, it still leaves room for improvement as the series continues.
Likewise, though utilizing the same control mechanics of other Telltale games, the actual player actions felt more limited throughout much of Story Mode. Entirely due to the stilted movements of the source material (every sword swing for instance being modeled after the chopping motion from the actual Minecraft game) more attention was drawn to the limited controls. For previous games, the crazy on-screen action is usually more than enough to distract from it, but here the animation and visuals in general aren’t quite flashy or fluid enough to achieve the same easy immersion. To be fair, this wasn’t a universal problem, a handful of scenes managing to reach a level of immersion capable of scratching that particular itch. But, much like the lack of heavy decisions, this will be something to look out for in the episodes to come.
Regardless of these hiccups however, Minecraft: Story Mode still presents an interesting world, intriguing characters, and enough exciting decisions in its later half to keep me anxiously waiting for the next episode. Telltale should be applauded for how thoroughly they have created a believable, lived-in world from the systems of Minecraft, all while dropping just enough hints to show the really exciting stuff is still to come.