When it was first announced that Telltale and Mojang were teaming up for an episodic game set within the Minecraft universe, you could almost hear the collective confused sigh. On one side, people struggled to see how such a freeform, expansive game could be corralled into a linear story-driven game. On the other side were the Minecraft doubters; unfamiliar with the game or actively against it for some bizarre reason, who saw this as another in a long line of Telltale licensed projects. After playing the first episode, both parties were right in some ways but very, very wrong in others.
First things first; this is very much a Telltale game. If you’ve played any Telltale title you’ll be familiar with the setup - dialogue choices, button-tapping QTEs and a branching path that eventually ends up in the same place no matter what you choose. After a string of games aimed toward older audiences, Minecraft: Story Mode is very much aimed at the emerging next generation of gamers - those weaned on Minecraft and Pewdiepie. This is no Game of Thrones, no Tales from the Borderlands.
Following protagonist Jesse - either male or female depending on your choice - and his friends as they enter a building competition at EnderCon, the story soon spirals into something more grandiose and spectacular. Compared to other series debuts, The Order of the Stone is actually pretty decent as an opener. It feels like an extended Saturday morning cartoon, albeit styled in the familiar blocky graphics of Minecraft. This is aided by one of the strongest cast line-ups seen in a Telltale game. Patton Oswalt, Corey Feldman, Paul Reubens, Billy West, Catherine Taber and Ashley Johnson feature among others - a heck of a recognisable group, especially to fans of voice acting.
The story itself would be simple enough were it not for the Minecraft context. Despite reviewing the original Minecraft console release, there were plenty of references, mechanics and such that passed us by. Telltale have added a few gameplay tweaks to retain some of the crafting that is synonymous with the game. At certain points you’ll be able to access a crafting table - a 3x3 grid - where you can craft items using your inventory. In this first episode there aren’t many options as your inventory is limited, but there’s scope for freedom as the game progresses. Handily, there’s a recipe book easily accessible for those like us who have no idea what two stone and one wood makes (it’s a sword or something).
As for the plot itself, what began as an unoriginal competition story that wouldn’t feel out of place on CBeebies soon ditched the smalltown antics for something with actual peril. The game has been marketed as a funny adventure but, aside from a couple of pop-culture references, it didn’t pass the patented Kermode Six-Laugh Test. Perhaps there were loads of in-jokes that flew straight over our head (most likely) but there were also some surprisingly downbeat moments sprinkled amongst the adventure. Nevertheless, the setting meant that it was hard to judge what was going to happen next.
Telltale have created the game to be as accessible as possible for diehard fans and newcomers alike. It’s easy to see how the game could serve as a gateway for confused parents trying to understand just why their children are so obsessed with this abstract, visually alien game. Minecraft: Story Mode recycles a lot of things from other Telltale games - there’s even a ‘choice’ situation that we’ve seen numerous times before. Perhaps this is because Telltale anticipate attracting a significantly newer audience while those who’ve played other series are less likely to pick this up. Either way, you’d hope this is just a first episode thing.
Visually the game looks bang-on, perfectly recreating the aesthetics of Mojang’s creation. Telltale have done an admirable job in creating some dynamic scenes - a minecart chase stands out - while also granting more freedom of movement to the characters. They still walk like goose-stepping robots, but at least they can now bend and stretch, along with talk. The music is an odd choice; composed by Anadel (familiar to anyone who has played The Walking Dead: Season 2 for their plaintive, mournful songs), at times it fits the cartoony action while at others it’s a bit too ‘noodly-guitar’, making the game seem a bit too hipster. Perhaps it’s another sign this game isn’t for the older age group, but veering between synthesized orchestra and reverb guitar did grate at times.
However, despite all this, Minecraft: Story Mode felt unique. Not unique in the chronology of Telltale releases, but unique visually and purely in subject matter. There’s no way for us to say whether a Minecraft fan would appreciate the game. Perhaps Telltale should have dealt a little closer to The Lego Movie in approaching the concept of creation instead of go down the ‘legendary hero’ route. It doesn’t matter. As a point of entry for parents it will go some way to explaining the phenomenon. For fans, it’s a new way to experience their favourite game. For everyone else, it’s a curiosity that could easily annoy as much as it could amuse. One thing is for sure - Telltale’s template is abundantly visible. Here’s hoping that the foundations are built upon as much as the visuals in the next episode.