At first it seemed like an odd couple, with the fabulously popular open-world construction game and the talented writers at Telltale Games joining forces for Minecraft: Story Mode. Originally created by Markus Persson and further developed by Mojang before being released in 2011, Minecraft’s emphasis on exploring, crafting and building was basically narrative-free until Story Mode came along. But as it turns out, opposites do attract, as the episodic series brings Minecraft’s trademark color-saturated, angular gameworld to life with Telltale’s fast-paced, choice-driven dialog, Quick Time Events, and all-too-frequent combat sequences, along with a very light smattering of crafting tasks and traditional puzzles.
If you enjoyed Telltale’s earlier games but have been avoiding their later work because of its more mature and/or violent themes, Minecraft: Story Mode is your chance to finally see their new story-driven approach over puzzle-solving adventuring. This is a very family-friendly game, the only exceptions being the occasional use of mild expletives and some cartoon-style fighting. With the release of the fifth episode, it’s technically accurate to say that the “season” is now complete. However, it’s more informative to say that the main story arc really finished in the penultimate episode, with Episode 5: Order Up! taking the ragtag band of unlikely heroes in a new direction, anticipating three further downloadable chapters scheduled to launch later this year.
But before discussing how the series ends, let’s go back six months to where it all began. Episode 1: The Order of the Stone opens with the historical saga of four members of the fabled Order who once fought the Ender Dragon and then faded into obscurity. Flashing forward to modern day, a young team of builders is preparing for the upcoming competition. There’s Olivia the technically-inclined geek, Axel the diamond in the rough, Jesse the player character – bursting with enthusiasm – and Reuben, Jesse’s pig. Whether Jesse is male or female is up to you, as before you begin playing you choose the protagonist’s gender and appearance. While this does involve a different voice actor for the male and female Jesses, it does not alter events in the game. (Just get used to Axel calling you “dude” even when you’re the female Jesse.)
At the Endercon competition the gang runs into Gabriel, a famous warrior from the Order, plus the sinister know-it-all Ivor, who is bent on besmirching Gabriel’s reputation. When Endercon is suddenly disrupted by the birth of the ravening Wither Storm, it’s Jesse and pals who decide to reunite the Order of the Stone, hoping that these legendary heroes will have the smarts, tools, and audacity to stop the Storm. Surprises are in store as they locate the members of the Order, each sequestered in his or her own astonishingly-crafted town or citadel. Every new encounter expands upon the theme of heroism – what it takes to become a hero, what celebrity does to a person’s character, and how to deal with those who inevitably fall short.
If you haven’t previously dabbled in Minecraft, it’s important to know that the gameworld is constructed of tiny, unpolished cubes. The block-based locales start out modest with settings like a columned stage, a treehouse, and a basement full of artifacts. Later on, they expand to monumental structures in fantastical scenes, like an underground park with flowering plants and streams, caverns of rocks and lava, multi-level fortresses and temples, a canyon bridge with zombies at one end and creepers at the other, and a golden city amongst the clouds. The vision and creativity evidenced by these marvelous environments alone is worth the price of admission. Minecraft familiarity will add some context to the Story Mode experience; having already encountered the monsters that haunt these places, you will have an idea of what they are capable of, for instance. But it is not at all necessary to play the original game in order to enjoy this new series.
Like the gameworld, the characters in Minecraft: Story Mode are formed out of small, colorful bricks. They look somewhat like Lego figures, though less shiny-plasticky and more pixelated, like 1980s adventure characters blown up into high-res widescreen 3D. Individual faces are distinguishable by different skin and hair color, eyebrow shapes, hats and scarves. Facial expressions are basic but effective. The game is played from a third-person perspective, and body animation is reasonably smooth, given that the characters are made from blocks stuck together with a few joints. Adding significantly to the characters’ distinct personalities are the professional voice-overs, both from Telltale regulars and familiar Hollywood talent like Corey Feldman, Paul Reubens, and Patton Oswalt as the male lead.
The interplay between characters ranges from comfortable camaraderie (including silly jokes), to nasty asides on the part of adversaries, to tense disagreements and varied reactions in the face of stress, danger, and decision-making angst. Dialogs are lively and reveal much about personalities and motives. Sometimes I chuckled, sometimes I groaned, and sometimes I held my breath. New companions join the team, including Petra, a scavenger with piratical leanings, and Lukas, the leader of a rival gang. These temporary allies create conflicts and ambiguities that run their course one way or (if you play through again and make different choices) another.
Though the story becomes increasingly serious, the game still contains winsome bits of humor. In particular, Episode 3: The Last Place You Look takes on a comedic gloss with the addition of the most elusive Order member, who has a gift for satiric understatement. His recorded experiments with the freaky, often-enraged Endermen are well worth listening to. The story reaches a climax at the end of Episode 4: A Block and a Hard Place, with the revelation of how the original Order of the Stone fractured and fell apart. My reaction to this piece of history was, sadly, a blank stare and a big “huh”? At first I wondered if I had understood it correctly. The second time through, I looked carefully for the characters’ motivations and was able to accept it as at least semi-plausible.
Well-integrated cutscenes combine with gameplay scenarios to provide news of ongoing threats, discoveries about the environment, explanatory chats that provide background, and stints of plummeting, galloping, and fast-paced building. Distinctive ambient sounds – the zing of Endermen as they teleport, growls of zombies, the whisper of eerie voices, explosions, and Reuben’s squeals – contribute to the atmosphere. Similarly, the background music, consisting of drawn-out electronic tones and vibrations, violins softly mourning, and a touch of instrumental rock n’ roll during intense skirmishes adds greatly to the mix. There’s even a moment where a character bursts into a vaudevillian song.
Dialog choices are abundant; during group conversations they pop up every couple of minutes. You have a few seconds to read three lines of text options and choose amongst them as to what your character will say (you can also opt to say nothing). The frequency of these timed choices keeps you on your toes and feeling utterly involved. It also increases the pace considerably when compared to the lengthy passages often found in traditional adventure game dialog trees.
Certain conversational choices are salutary and don’t impact much. Occasionally, however, text pops up to alert you that the character you are talking to “will remember that.” I was never able to tell if this made a relevant difference, because there are so many dialog choices that it’s impossible to track their long-term effects, even on a second playthrough using different choices. I eventually came to the conclusion that the differing conversational options are simply a device for keeping you engaged, rather than impacting outcomes in any significant way.Continued on the next page...