One of the first things Minecraft: Story Mode does is introduce The Order of the Stone – Gabriel the Warrior, Ellegard the Redstone Engineer, Magnus the Griefer and Soren the Architect. We meet them one by one as they work in their Temple. The camera’s at a low angle, set well back from the action; their names are in the foreground, disappearing as the camera zooms in fast on the members of the Order.
The shots last only a few seconds before the narrator (Billy West, sounding like a hybrid of Billy Bones and Professor Farnsworth) moves us on. It’s fun and snappy, but it’s also very familiar, quoting as it does Borges and Anita’s introductions in Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving.
Minecraft: Story Mode is many things. The one thing it never stops being is familiar.
Not that this will matter to the game’s target audience. Story Mode is a conscious break from Telltale’s adult-oriented output of the last few years, harking back to Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures in its tone and sense of humour. Your protagonist is Jesse, a dungarees- or suspenders-wearing nerd (I chose a dungarees-wearing woman for my Jesse because I’d rather not deal with Patton Oswalt’s voice for five episodes).
The story begins with Jesse and her pals – pragmatic Olivia, hot-headed Axel, literal pig Reuben – competing in a building competition at a regional EnderCon festival. Things quickly turn into a large-scale fantasy crisis, though, when a mysterious warlock initiates an Overworld-threatening catastrophe that can only be stopped by this gang of dorks.
Story Mode thrives on its anachronism, existing halfway between Hobbit-esque fantasy and contemporary kids’ adventures like Percy Jackson and The Goonies. It also takes some tonal cues from the original Shrek, albeit not so much with the pop culture references (before you mistake not so much for none, there are references to Babe and Thirty Flights of Loving in the first ten minutes).
Allusions to ComicCon and Swords and Sworcery (listen to that score and tell me it’s not there) sit alongside an old-fashioned underdog narrative and grand fantasy tropes like monsters and enchanters. But at the heart of it all sits Minecraft, the game’s ultimate pop culture reference. Telltale does good work trying to make the story accessible to outsiders, but beats lose their impact when you’re not familiar with things like withers and the Nether. Indeed, one early dialogue choice is pointless unless you have previous knowledge of how Endermen, Creepers and Zombies are all received by regular Minecraft players when they turn up in Survival Mode.
Story Mode’s priorities don’t lie in translating how Minecraft feels, though. This is identifiably a Telltale game, its systems designed to manage the story’s pace and direction. The quick-time events and timed dialogue choices that have come to define Telltale post-Walking Dead are present and accounted for; it doesn’t feel like there’s as many of them, though, and QTEs and third-person investigations feel easier than usual. (The pacing’s jankier, too, the story dotted with clumsy edits.)
Telltale includes the ‘crafting table’ as a nod to Story Mode’s origins, but in episode one it feels like a Telltale conceit – a narrative convenience introduced to manage the story and keep the player engaged in the ‘game’ of it. Story Mode doesn’t feel especially challenging or active, then, outside of a few key points. That might be different, though, for the six to eleven year olds that this game is designed for.
To its credit, Story Mode does a good job of talking to that audience without being condescending. It’s not just in its #brandidentification: it’s in its goofy sense of humour (“It’s like they say, if at first you don’t succeed...just...succeed later than originally planned”), its Saturday morning cartoon action, and its broadly-drawn characters who articulate their anxieties in simple, easy-to-understand ways.
Further, this first episode feels like it’s laying the foundations for an uncommonly nuanced conversation about what it means to be heroic. We’re two hours into a 10 hour story and characters are already talking about the contexts in which we call something ‘heroism’ and the ways that ‘hero’ narratives are written. Even though this stuff fills in the background of a story led by a garden-variety ‘be yourself to be your best self’ narrative, it’s heartening that it’s even present in a children’s game.
Story Mode’s on shakier ground with how it looks. The voxel-based aesthetic is more of a hindrance to the storytelling than an asset, and that’s particularly true of the character animation. The blocky Minecraft faces have trouble communicating emotion effectively, meaning that Telltale relies too often on telling us how the characters are feeling through simple dialogue and (charming, detailed) voice-acting.
Further, Story Mode often looks ‘appropriate’ and little else. There are moments when Telltale use the limitations of the aesthetic to their advantage – see the beautiful nightscape, with its glassy moon and chilly lighting, at the end of Chapter 5 – but designs often feel pragmatic and a bit drab, particularly when classic Minecraft textures dominate the landscape. It’s a shame they couldn’t do more with the aesthetic that Mojang’s passed on.
It keeps coming back to that word, though: familiar. Episode one of Story Mode should go over well with children, the audience it’s designed for. Characters are strongly-drawn, the dialogue is earnest and well-pitched, and it tells an uncomplicated story in a pleasant and accessible way. It won’t stress kids out and it should keep them coming back.
There’s little crossover, though, because so much of Story Mode is quotation, calling back to the things we’ve played and watched and read before. Kids don’t have to factor in the weight of the stories they’ve been told because they haven’t been told that many. Anyone older might wonder why they’re giving over time to something when they’ve seen it all before.