More Clever Than Crafty.
Would you rather fight 100 chicken-sized zombies or 10 zombie-sized chickens?
That’s the question our hero Jesse is asked by his good friend Olivia at the start of Minecraft: Story Mode. Like those chickens and zombies, Minecraft couldn’t be more different than a Telltale Game. Minecraft has become the Legos of this generation. There’s really not much by way of plot, and what players (legions of kids) adore is being able to create entire worlds from scratch. A quick Google search will yield Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek all fully realized in blocky low-rez glory.
But is there a story in such a world worth telling? The easy answer is yes. Telltale Games have once again taken an existing property and made it its own with engaging characters, clever dialogue, and just enough gameplay. The longer answer is that Episode One, while off to a strong start, leaves a few things that Minecraft fans might not fully love.
Legend tells of The Order of the Stone, of four heroes whose greatest quest was defeating the Ender Dragon. Their story complete, they slipped away into the pages of myth. Naturally, Story Mode takes place in a world where that tale has past, and your character, Jesse, is a huge fan. In fact, he or she (you can choose your gender) is the typical modern geek about all things concerning the Order. So instead of heading out on a journey of adventure, Jesse and company set out to win EnderCon, the Comic-Con equivalent in matters of all things dealing with the Order of the Stone. Obviously, Jesse soon finds out that something evil is afoot at this latest Endercon. Joined by his two pals, a pig, and a few others, Jesse sets out on a quest to save the world.
Taking geek cred to even higher heights is the fact that players who choose a male Jesse will be treated to the voice of comedian Patton Oswalt (who narrates ABC’s The Goldbergs). Catherine Taber who was the voice of Padme in the animated Star Wars: Clone Wars is the female option. Both bring that sense of nerdy enthusiasm this type of tale requires.
Developer Mojang allowed Telltale to build their game in Minecraft code before transitioning to the engine used for the final build. The result, especially in the moments before the opening credits, feels a lot like you’re watching a fan made-video. I mean that in the best possible way: Locations and, more importantly, the scale of trees and other items feel just right. You’ll never forget that you're playing a Telltale game because of all the dialogue choices, but like Tales From the Borderlands anyone that is familiar with this particular universe will be amazed.
Then again, those hoping for more freedom—or at the very least more crafting—might be disappointed. There is crafting here, but it’s more of fun nod to the original series than actual gameplay. Jesse might come across a rock, flint, and string, and fans of the series will delight in knowing what combining them creates, but that sense of creativity is only window-dressing since, as is the case with a Telltale game, there is no "real" item-building; this is above all a Telltale Game, not a “build what you want” maker like Minecraft. The best way to think to approach Story Mode is as just that: a story.
The upside is that the story, or that portion that plays out in the two hours to complete Episode One, is quite fun. As expected, Oswalt is a terrific personification of our collective inner geek. His love of collectible posters, as well as his cosplay pig, Reuben, stand as examples. As with all Telltale Games you can tailor your responses, but Jesse is likeable not matter what choices the player makes.
Beyond Oswalt, the other three main characters are a good mix: the level-headed Olivia, who’s voiced by veteran actress Martha Plimpton; the kick-butt cool girl Petra, voiced by Ashley Johnson who kicked butt as Ellie in The Last of Us); and in an interesting pick, Brian Posehn (Community) plays hot-headed Axel. Posehn often plays shy, softhearted guys, but here he’s quite formidable as the muscle of the group. In fact, talking him down in a confrontation near the end of the episode was one of highlights. Dave Fennoy, who was so memorable as Lee in Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One has a great role here too, but to say more would spoil the fun.
Will Story Mode pan out? Will it stand as one of Telltale’s best? For now, the answer is… maybe. Episode One is a fun two hours with plenty of shout-outs to fans of the series while also a solid balance of gameplay and characters for those who’ve never combined flint, sticks, and a feather to create an arrow. As a "player choice via conversation" game, though, the plot so far is fairly standard.