To quote the description that appears when you search for it online, “Minecraft is a game about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out, make sure to build a shelter before that happens.” For Telltale Games, this means that creating Minecraft: Story Mode has given them an almost completely blank canvas to work from.
And so you get to pick your version of Jesse from a small gallery of different genders and ethnicities. Pick a boy Jesse and you have Patton Oswalt‘s voice, while the girl is voiced by Catherine Taber. They’re backed up by a wide range of familiar voices and faces, from Dave Fennoy (AKA Lee Everett) to Ashley Johnson (AKA Ellie), with the likes of John Hodgeman set to appear in later episodes.
It’s the big day of the building competition at Endercon, as Jesse, their pet pig Ruben and two friends Olivia and Axel head out from his treehouse abode. Through dialogue and their general demeanour, they come off as serial losers as they head there, as a bunch of friends who like to have fun, but whose creative efforts have never really amounted to much and are looked down upon by their competition rivals – it doesn’t help much that they have a pet pig in tow.
Yet this unlikely band find themselves quickly whisked away on an adventure to save the world, to reunite The Order of the Stone and stop the huge monster that is tearing up all before it. Every few moments, you’re prompted to choose between several lines of dialogue – unhelpful silence is also an option – as you meet and befriend Petra and Lukas, as you fight alongside Gabriel the Warrior, and as you’re constantly engaged in the juggling act of trying to manage the various relationships in the game.
There’s more than a bit of action as well, with QTE-driven set pieces in a number of places, arcade-like obstacle dodging and some simple sword fighting when you come up against creepers and zombies. As always, you’re not really set up to fail any of these, and only on a handful of occasions did I miss a slightly unexpected prompt. The key is in the pacing of the story, and Telltale do a rather good job of blending character building moments, the moments of comedy, and action sequences in a fashion that can make the 90-120 minute run of the episode fly by.
It all still feels like it’s within the amorphous world of Minecraft. There’s the traditional blocky visual style, albeit with a few tweaks here and there so that there’s more refinement to the depth of field effects and more detail to the face models so that there’s plenty of facial animation for the game’s dialogue.
Crafting makes a few appearances through the story, presenting you with Minecraft’s 3×3 grid crafting table and giving you a handful of elements to play with in order to create a sword or a bow and arrow at certain points in the story. Those familiar with the recipes will be able to quickly create exactly what it is that they want, but there’s both a degree of common sense to making the shape of a bow out of sticks and string, and you can call upon recipes to show you what you need to do, if you’re a little stuck.
However, there’s no real sign of Minecraft’s sandbox creation in the game. Despite heading to Endercon with your compatriots at the start of the story and deciding on what you’re going to build, you have very little to do once you trigger the building cutscene other than to watch the trio construct a giant monument in a matter of seconds. It keeps you away from creating something of your own, or building something original to solve a puzzle, but while that’s a bit of a shame, the story holds plenty of opportunities to explore this in the future.
The final scene, as you would expect, features a major decision point that will seriously alter the start of the second episode, as you hunt for the trail of the members of The Order of the Stone. With those characters yet to appear and their legendary knowledge and creations yet to be seen, there’s plenty of opportunities for Telltale to spread their wings and add more ideas to the gameplay.
One final stand out for me is the music within the game. The overall sound was at times reminiscent for me of the adaptive soundtrack in Everyday Shooter, at times featuring piercing and keening sounds from guitars, other times a more subdued groove. Though it was maybe in the foreground a little too much, it does a pretty good job of straddling the line between being ambient background music and coming to the fore during action sequences.
Telltale have made a name for themselves by adapting the stories of others and creating tales within those worlds, but Minecraft: Story Mode gives you the best idea yet of what a completely original story from the studio would be like. There’s the Minecraft world and little in jokes that fans of that game can enjoy, but this is a story that can stand on its own two feet, about friends, rivalries, adversity and stepping up in a time of need. Minecraft might not have a story and lore of its own for Telltale to build upon, but that just means that a Telltale story can fit right in.
In a slight break from tradition, we’re no longer scoring episodic games on an episode-by-episode basis, but will instead score the story as a whole after the final episode has been released.