Minecraft and “story” are not two terms typically associated with each other prior to Mojang’s partnership with Telltale Games. The entire idea of Minecraft is the freedom to explore anywhere and build anything you want. Stripping those core elements away to box the player into a linear story doesn’t necessarily sound like a good fit, but it does work. Story Mode tells a whimsical story that can appeal to all ages, and doesn’t exclude minors even when broaching somber topics. Minecraft, as source material, is used masterfully throughout. Split story branches are implemented here, perhaps more strongly than any other Telltale game, but that brings along its own baggage. Unfortunately much of the ending was just a set up future paid DLC, but it didn’t damper my investment in the story.
A hero’s journey
Minecraft: Story Mode is a Telltale adventure game set in the ever-popular world of Minecraft. Players control Jesse, who has different voice actors depending on the player’s gender choice, and guide his band of friends, and pet pig Reuben, on a life changing adventure to save the world. Along the way they meet new friends, encounter new rivals, and learn about their heroes, the Order of the Stone.
The Minecraft inspired sets encountered in all episodes are expansive and truly impressive. Every detail feels right at home, from falling hundreds of feet and landing safely because you found water, to killing a Ghast by redirecting it’s own attack, and creating a well of infinite lava. About once per episode players have the opportunity to use a crafting table to make an item for Jesse to use. Any object created will solve the present dilemma in its own way, but having even that small amount of control deepens the connection to Minecraft.
Much of the humor that did connect for me was the playful way these references were thrown in. I loved the idea of Boom Town. A town that consists solely of “griefers,” the term often used to describe Minecraft players whose goals are to destroy the creations of others.
Family-friendly, not child-only
Serious topics, betrayal and death among them, are addressed in a manner that doesn’t exclude the generally younger Minecraft audience. Lives are at stake, but everything is happening in an otherwise light-hearted universe. A personal sacrifice for the greater good is made in the Episode 4, clinched with a twist on the “will remember that” Telltale formula that I know would receive tears from my younger nieces. Overall the series does a good job raising the kind of issues you’d face in Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but importantly does so without taking itself so seriously that it forgets to be fun.
Careful what you ask for
Telltale makes real effort to create a truly branching story, most notably in Episode 2. Ironically, that episode suffers as a result and is the worst of the five. You are given the option of which of two characters you want to recruit. Your choice determines how the episode plays out, you don’t get a chance to play both sides without replaying the chapter and changing your decision. If you play the Telltale titles like me, your first playthrough is your own personal canon. The concept of two or more story paths is what I consider idea for this genre, but done in this manner it effectively halves the gameplay. This raises an interesting question. If a series is to be ten hours long, for example, would you rather have a ten hour story with little to no branching, or a five hour story with two distinct paths, even if you only ever see one of them? I’d probably sacrifice the variation if it could only come at the cost of 50% of gameplay.
A couple business decisions made surrounding Story Mode stand out in opposition to player enjoyment. A cliffhanger setting up the next series of episodes, notably not included with the season pass, feels cheaply tacked on. It would make more sense for Episode 5 to be the first episode of a second season, instead resulting in a pair of four episode seasons. DLC is nothing new to gaming, but to have this explicitly titled Story Mode and sell a “season pass” that now covers only five of eight episodes in the story, well it just comes off as nickel and diming your fans. Rushing out a physical version of the season pass was another dubious decision. On that disc is only the first episode. The remaining four must be downloaded, defeating the entire purpose of having a physical copy in the first place.
The Minecraft: Story Mode Season Pass told an engaging story full of family-friendly humor and entertaining winks and nods to Minecraft lore. Though I applaud attempts to create deeper branching stories, it didn’t always work here and mostly just resulted in a shorter game. The idea of releasing additional sequential episodes, not as a second season, and not included with the pass is an off-putting gesture. Taken for what it is, however, Minecraft: Story Mode stands among the best of Telltale’s body of work.