Giving Minecraft a story

How Minecraft: Story Mode aims to blend a sandbox with a scripted narrative

Calling Minecraft a popular video game is an understatement — it’s more like a cultural phenomenon. Since its debut in 2009, the game has sold more than 70 million copies across multiple platforms and spawned countless forms of merchandise, from bestselling books about crafting to those blocky action figures lining your local toy aisle. It’s been used as an educational tool and a social hub, and last year Microsoft spent $2.5 billion to acquire Mojang, the studio behind the game. Creator Markus “Notch” Persson has become so wealthy that he recently outbid Jay-Z and Beyonce on a $70 million mansion in Beverly Hills. Along the way, players have not only crafted their own maps and items, but also their own stories. Minecraft is essentially an open sandbox, without a traditional narrative guiding you. Instead, the story of Minecraft is the one you make, the tale of how you and your friends play together, and the things you build.

But that’s about to change — sort of. Telltale Games, the studio best known for narrative-driven adventures like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, is working on a new title that aims to bring a more traditional narrative to the Minecraft universe. Called Minecraft: Story Mode, the first of five episodes is set to debut later this year, and it’s a completely separate experience from the main game. Telltale knows that, while this is the first official game of in the franchise with a narrative, it’s far from Minecraft’s definitive story. “The desire to tell stories in the world of Minecraft isn’t necessarily new, it comes from the community, and we’re huge fans and part of that community ourselves,” says Job Stauffer, director of creative communications at Telltale. “Collaborating with Mojang to tell a Minecraft story, and not the story, is perhaps just first time fans will get to see something done in a more official capacity.”

First announced last December, Story Mode is very similar to Telltale’s previous work. Since the success of the first season of The Walking Dead, the studio has been continually improving its very specific brand of interactive storytelling. Telltale games are almost like interactive TV shows: they’re divided into a series of episodes, released roughly once every month or two, and are more about making difficult decisions than conquering tough challenges. Games like The Wolf Among Us often have players making heart-rending choices, where other characters will die no matter what you do. Telltale games are regularly violent and shocking, so the news that the studio would be working on a family-friendly franchise like Minecraft came as a surprise to many.

The idea has been kicking around inside the San Rafael, California-based studio since 2012. At that time, Telltale was ramping up its work on the then unannounced Tales From the Borderlands, a story-driven take on the popular shooter series. That project led to thinking about which other video game franchises might fit the Telltale formula. Minecraft was near the top of the list. "Borderlands was the challenge of telling the story of what happened next on an existing canvas," explains Stauffer. "Minecraft was the challenge of telling a story for the first time on more of a blank canvas." Early talks with Mojang started in early 2013, and a year later work on the game officially began. "When we first announced this partnership, we think some fans thought this was the result of a partnership at Microsoft, unaware that Mojang and Telltale were working together long before that," he says.

Story Mode will put players in the role of Jesse, an in-universe character voiced by Patton Oswalt, who along with his friends idolizes the Order of the Stone, a group that famously defeated the powerful Ender Dragon boss. For reasons that we don’t yet know, Jesse and his crew are forced to find the Order in order to stop a catastrophe from destroying the video game universe. The characters are all designed to represent different kinds of players — some like to build things, other like to explore — and Telltale says that the tone of the story will be reminiscent of ‘80s films like The Goonies and Ghostbusters, which blend action and comedy in a family-friendly way. (Goonies star Cory Feldman is even among Story Mode’s voice cast.) "There was something magical about that generation of film before the PG-13 rating became commonplace that bred an incredible body of inspiration for us," says Stauffer.

Like the studio’s past work, Story Mode will hinge on making big, important choices that impact how events play out — but it obviously won’t be anywhere near as dark as games like The Walking Dead where characters are killed off with alarming frequency, often in gruesome ways. That said, the decisions will still be tough, and Stauffer says that you’ll be up against "absolutely devastating, perilous situations that might mean leaving one friend behind in order to save another." He adds that "while the presentation of a choice may not be as M-rated as you’d find in Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, the element of empathy and the pressures of guilt will still be present." The goal is to make a game that will appeal to both new players and Minecraft fans at the same time. Think of it like the Pokemon cartoon; you can enjoy it on its own, but if you play the game as well you’ll get a lot more out of it. You may learn tips for how to play, or even just see cool stuff you might have gotten to in the game.

"We know what it’s like to craft, to hunt, to build, to survive, and to play with friends and grow a community," Stauffer explains. "But imagining those ideas as happening through living characters in conversations — friends trying to stick together, aspiring to do something legendary, or simply trying to have fun building something together – it becomes a completely different way of experiencing everything you’ve already done in this universe, or perhaps even things you have yet to do. Not every player may have faced an Ender Dragon or journeyed into the Nether – but many of these characters have. In that way, certainly we’re shedding light on some things not every player may be aware of."

Story Mode doesn’t have a specific release date just yet, but the first episode is expected to debut before the end of the year. And it’s coming to a huge range of platforms, including the Xbox One and 360, PS3, PS4, PC, Mac, Android, and iOS. Telltale has also revealed to The Verge that the game will be coming to the Wii U as well, marking the first time a Minecraft game launches on a Nintendo platform. One of the goals is to reach outside of the Minecraft fandom, and introduce new people to the franchise. But with an existing audience of 70 million, Telltale also knows that keeping them satisfied is the most important thing.

"We’re tailoring this for audiences both existing and new," says Stauffer, "but Minecraft fans are really at the core of the themes here."

Read next: How The Walking Dead turned Telltale into the HBO of gaming

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