Narratives set within the universe of Minecraft aren't exactly new. A quick search on YouTube reveals thousands of people already telling stories using the world and aesthetics of the hugely popular game (some more successfully than others). But Minecraft: Story Mode has something those thousands posting videos don't: a pedigree in telling engaging, carefully crafted stories.
Minecraft: Story Mode comes from developer Telltale Games, a company that has played a more than significant role in the recent renaissance of the adventure game. This new game is a departure from Telltale's recent, adult-focused stories: you won't find murder, sex, or mutilated bodies here as you would in The Wolf Among Us, or get mired in the dark, oppressive drama of The Walking Dead. Rather, Minecraft Story Mode is squarely focused at a more general, family audience, offering a gentle adventure where the most pressing choice is which of your in-game friends to disappoint. This is certainly much more Goonies than Game of Thrones.
While the recent Telltale Games have hit the ground running when it comes to their narrative, this first episode of Minecraft: Story Mode feels like a slow start. The stakes, the characters' motivations, and all of the pieces for the entire series' overarching story only fall into place right at the end of episode one's runtime, making it feel like an extended prologue rather than the first act of a grand adventure. This episode stopped just when I wanted it to keep going.
That's not to say I didn't find any emotional investment in the few hours this first episode brings. There's some gentle humor here, some dashes of excitement, and a reverence for the world of Minecraft that fans will no doubt love. A lot of the game’s nuance will be lost on non-Minecraft fans, but despite the narrative delving deeply into the original game’s mythos, it’s certainly not inside-baseball enough to alienate casuals . Main character Jesse and her friends get embroiled in a mystery involving the famous Order of the Stone, a group that defeated the powerful Ender Dragon but has since split up under mysterious circumstances. (In a nice touch, The Order of the Stone was part of the original name for Minecraft back in its early days). I don't want to delve any more deeply into possible spoilers, but suffice it to say in this first episode alone, Jesse gets to interact with some iconic Minecraft creatures, visit a variety of locales, and even tangle with one of Minecraft's most deadly and powerful creatures.
It helps that the main character here--Jesse (who you can choose to play as male or female)--serves as a proxy for a typical Minecraft fan. Jesse is enthusiastic about the world she's in, excited about building complex structures from blocks, geeking out about going to Endercon-- (an in-game convention that features a building competition--), and in awe of anyone with courage enough to brave the hostile environment of the Nether. Jesse, in other words, is every 10-year-old who watches Minecraft videos on YouTube. The other characters are more like archetypes: Axel, a gruff but big hearted friend; Petra, an adventurer who’s not adverse to taking risks; Olivia, a cynical but loyal companion; and Lukas, a rival that may or may not be on your side. These characters’ interactions are pleasant enough, with some witty conversation, good-natured ribbing, and some Minecraft in-jokes helping give the episode a genial feel (what is scarier? A zombie or a creeper?). The cast that brings these characters to life are uniformally excellent, with both Patton Oswalt and Catherine Taber as the male and female voice of Jesse perfectly selling that eager, fan aspect of the character.
Everything in Story Mode--from the blocky visuals and menu fonts to the music and even the autosave indicator--looks like a direct lift from the original game. Aside from the characters having a bit more bend in their limbs compared to vanilla Minecraft, Story Mode looks, sounds, and feels like, well, Minecraft.
The gameplay, however, is typical Telltale: a mix of narrative choices (many of which have direct ramifications on how the story plays out), light puzzles, and quick time events. There are no major twists or turns in this first episode of Minecraft: Story Mode--it's an amiable journey for Jesse and her friends, and if you're a parent wanting to play this with a child, there's nothing here in terms of questionable content. Your biggest choices tend to revolve around which of your friends to support, or which character to help in given (albeit stressful) situations. Everything--so far--seems black and white: the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, although some much needed gray is injected right near the end. It's only a hint, but it's a clear indicator that future episodes will carry more narrative complexity than this first episode contains.
But while the narrative takes its time to get to the point, there are several engaging sequences that require quick reflexes, including (skip to the next paragraph if you want to remain completely spoiler-free) fleeing from that aforementioned Minecraft big bad and riding on a minecart through the Nether. There are some sequences, too, that tie in the mechanical, building component of Minecraft proper into Story Mode. You won't actually have to build anything as you do in Minecraft (all building is handled via QTE), but little tasks like creating a shelter when the characters find themselves outside at night and using a crafting table are nice touches that lend the game even more Minecraft flavor.
It's that flavor that helps propel this first episode of Minecraft: Story Mode along, even when the story itself only begins to hint at the scope of the adventure ahead. It's a pleasant start, packed with individual events but featuring little in the way of narrative propulsion. When I reached the end of this episode, I wanted more. I'm hoping that, like most outstanding Minecraft creations, Minecraft: Story Mode just needs a little more time to build.