In the grand pantheon of things that annoy us about games, the hasty cash-in has to be the worst. It’s cynical, preying on the devout fandom of those who love something more than life itself. It’s bad, giving us a game that’s been in development for about three weeks (slight exaggeration), released as a buggy, broken mess. It’s frustrating, because it sells really well despite being awful.
Minecraft: Story Mode does not take a seat in this grand pantheon of cynics, cash-grabs and utter bastardry. What could very easily have been a licence fobbed off to ‘that company which makes adventure games’ has instead ended up being one of the biggest surprises of the year. In fact, Minecraft: Story Mode is nigh-on essential.
The basic setup will be familiar to anyone who’s picked up a Telltale game since The Walking Dead: it’s more focused on story than anything else; you choose what to say and it matters. You’re
also forced into difficult either/or decisions but there’s not a huge amount of control. If you want a different game where you are in direct control of a character and there are barely any cutscenes, other games do exist. The rest of us should be happy with this, though.
There are brief exploration sections, but this is otherwise very different from standard Minecraft.
Choosing your avatar from a selection of six, players make their way through Story Mode as main character Jesse – male or female, it’s up to you, and both are fully voiced. From there you begin your adventure in the world of Minecraft – everything looks almost exactly as it does in the game, down to the low-fi animations (though some are a bit cleaned up to make things look better) and endless appearances of chickens.
To actually explain what goes on would be to ruin it, so we’ll avoid details. Safe to say there’s crafting, à la pure Minecraft, but only when explicitly directed; there’s combat, with some actual real-time action at work; there’s quick-time events, and for once they’re not tedious; and there’s plenty of well-written, genuinely funny comedy and action that ratchets up as you progress through this first episode.
Sometimes you’re let loose to explore and interact with the world, but it’s of limited scope – it’s not the real thing, remember. But generally speaking it’s hard to classify – Story Mode is a mix of a few different styles, and it genuinely all blends together really well. With a focus more on an all-ages crowd, we wouldn’t expect to have to choose one friend or the other to die any time soon, but there are still some hard – and vaguely saddening – choices to be made from this opening salvo. Though fortunately we avoided giving the awesome Reuben, the pig, a black eye. Phew.
We didn’t take our time through the first episode of Story Mode, and it by no means speaks for how long any of the follow-up episodes will last, but it’s roughly about two hours. It took us one hour and 47 minutes to play through to be precise, but other reports are all around that magical double-hour figure.
You’ll meet plenty of companions along the way, but Rueben the pig was definitely our favourite.
That’s actually a perfect amount of time to play through; the sort of thing you can complete in a single sitting, with the company of others joining in the decision-making process or just idly watching. And you know what? Those not holding the controller will be just as entertained as the person actually carrying out those inputs.
And there you see another triumph in Telltale’s design of Minecraft: Story Mode. While it is fun to play alone, it’s actually a game clearly designed with more than one person watching/involved in mind. Action sequences relying on individual skill do pop up, but they’re far less frequent than those that can see input from other folks in the room – deciding what to say, what to do, what to interact with and so on. Previous Telltale games have felt like this, but it’s never seemed to be so clearly designed with this element in mind until this Minecraft tie-in.
That’s the big reason why Minecraft: Story Mode feels so fresh, even though it’s following the basic template laid down by many other titles from the same developer: it’s clear, concise and effective in its design. Rather than being a licence that has been handed off with strict limitations as to what can be done, or with the involvement of a creator who – however well-meaning – doesn’t actually do videogames, Telltale and Mojang have clearly worked together on a huge amount of Story Mode.
Tonally, it’s perfect. Stylistically, it’s near-flawless (albeit still blocky). And design-wise, Story Mode is spot on. For a first episode to hit the ground running like this is a huge surprise, and for us to be looking forward to the next four episodes as much as we are is totally unexpected.