Telltale games make you feel bad about yourself. Whether it’s The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, the studio’s titles force you to make emotionally difficult choices. No matter what you do, it's typical for some lovable character to die anyway. What makes Minecraft: Story Mode so surprising is how it feels like a Telltale experience — it’s an interactive drama where your choices shape the outcome — but one wrapped in a family-friendly veneer, where humor is as important as action, and a gritty, violent world gives way to the thrill of adventure.
The game’s first episode, "Order of the Stone," launches today, and it lasts a little under two hours. You play as Jesse — who can be either a girl or a boy, voiced by Catherine Taber and Patton Oswalt, respectively — a young character who dreams of exploration. Her walls are plastered with posters of famous adventurers, and at the outset she’s preparing for a competition to show off her building skills. She and her small band of friends (which includes a pig) are a stereotypical ragtag group. They don’t fit in anywhere, but they desperately want to.
The game is about two different quests. There’s the history-defining heroics of a group known as the Order of the Stone, who slayed a dragon and went on to become world-famous heroes. It’s an event that helped shape the world the game takes place in. And then there’s the story of Jesse and her friends, who, after a terrifying monster is summoned, are forced into a quest of their own. They need to find the original Order and then, hopefully, save the world from impending doom.
It may be a totally different game, but Story Mode features the same rules as Minecraft
The whole experience has a real ‘80s adventure vibe, which is what Telltale was going for. "There was something magical about that generation of film before the PG-13 rating became commonplace," Telltale’s Job Stauffer told The Verge, "that bred an incredible body of inspiration for us." And that inspiration is obvious when you play the first episode. An early scene, where Jesse and her crew are preparing for the competition, feels ripped out of Rocky, only instead of knocking around a punching bag, you’re hitting a tree to harvest wood. Later on a character flies past the moon in a clear homage to E.T. This is a game for children, sure, but also their millennial parents.
Story Mode plays out largely like other Telltale campaigns. You’re primarily watching events unfold, as opposed to directly interacting, and every so often you’ll make a decision that will impact how the story progresses. But the game also integrates Minecraft in some clever ways. It may be a totally different type of game, but Story Mode features the same rules as Minecraft. At night, zombies and creepers come out, and in order to make a sword you’ll need two rocks and a stick. In order to solve puzzles you’ll often need to gather items and then craft something new. There’s not really much challenge, but it makes you feel more involved than in the studio’s previous games. (You won’t get to do any real building or customization, though.)
In fact, one of the best parts of Story Mode is how it uses the language of Minecraft to create jokes. At one point Jesse’s pig goes missing, and a chef threatens to punch him to make a porkchop; earlier on you see a fire spread, and the disaster feels lighthearted since everything is made out of voxels. The blocky visual style lends itself surprisingly well to the characters; their faces are distinct and expressive, which is especially important when you want to see how they react to a decision you made. Instead of feeling tacked on, the Minecraft elements are actually one of the best parts about Story Mode. Similarly, there are in-jokes for Telltale fans. At one point, after coming up with a goofy handshake, the game informs you that "no one will remember that."
Minecraft doesn’t have a story; instead it’s a sandbox for players to create their own worlds and adventures. But Story Mode proves that world is ripe with narrative possibilities. The debut episode feels like the perfect blend of Telltale and Minecraft, a game with equal parts awe and humor, action and quiet. For whatever reason, episodic gaming has mostly gone the route of gritty, violent dramas, whether it's Telltale's games or similar series like the time-travelling teen drama Life is Strange. (Some of Telltale's previous titles were family-friendly, but it wasn't until The Walking Dead that it stumbled upon its winning formula for story-driven games.)
With Story Mode, gaming's equivalent to HBO has finally made something you'll want to play with your kids.
The first episode of Minecraft: Story Mode is available today on Xbox One, 360, PS3, PS4, and PC, while versions for Android, iOS, Wii U, and Vita are launching later