Minecraft: Story Mode simultaneously concludes and continues its story
With Minecraft: Story Mode, Telltale created a set of original characters, as well as a backstory, for the voxel-based world they inhabited. The mechanics were radically different from the free-form building of the original Minecraft game, but Telltale managed to capture the essence of it, particularly the distinctive look of Minecraft (and its many clones).
Minecraft fans who haven’t played a Telltale Games product before will discover that they cannot harvest and build as they please, and that there are no survival elements. Story Mode is an adventure game, heavy on the dialog, with very light puzzle-solving and a bit of combat. Players progress through the story, scene by scene, making dialog choices as they go, and these choices have a significant impact on how the story plays out.
Adventure game fans who aren’t familiar with Minecraft will be up to speed rather quickly. There are lots of references that Minecraft players will understand immediately, but there are also clear tutorials on things like crafting, for people who can’t figure out how to make a simple lever. No prior knowledge of the Minecraft franchise is needed to enjoy Story Mode (I am addressing you, the only person in the world who hasn’t played Minecraft yet).
This game does a few things that the developer hasn’t tried in their previous projects. Notably, players can choose the gender and physical appearance of the protagonist (who goes by the non-specific name “Jesse”). Each gender has several sub-options for Jesse’s appearance as well. Jesse has a group of friends who represent different archetypes of Minecraft fans. One is mostly concerned with building things, while another just wants to blow stuff up. This is one of the many ways that Telltale Games looks at how players create their own stories in a sandbox game. In Minecraft, the player can engineer elaborate buildings, or fight monsters, craft miraculous objects from rare materials, or just run amok destroying things. This is all reflected in Jesse’s companions.
The overall story is that Jesse must reassemble the great heroes of the world. The mighty Order of the Stone saved the world once, and now it’s in peril again. It’s up to Jesse to find the members of the Order and convince them to join forces one last time.
As a five-part episodic game, something odd happened at the end of the fourth episode — there was no cliffhanger! The whole story was neatly wrapped up, and players could just put down the controller and call it a day. However, a week before the fifth episode arrived, the developer announced that this episode would “bridge the gap” between the first storyline and a series of upcoming DLC episodes that would be available for an additional fee.
This rang of a bait-and-switch tactics, where two seasons of four episodes had been cunningly misrepresented as a five-episode story with a three-part DLC ambush. Last year, Telltale Games did something similar with their adaptation of A Game of Thrones, which ended with a fiendish cliffhanger that forced players to pay for the second season to see how things turn out.
Minecraft: Story Mode is not so heartless. The ending of the fourth episode is a satisfying one: the world is saved, bad guys learn their lesson, and there’s even a heartrending loss. The fifth episode picks up sometime thereafter, and it introduces the idea that Jesse and pals have access to a portal that can take them to other worlds. Each of these worlds, presumably, has their own adventured to enjoy. Again, this is a reference to Minecraft, and how players can visit other people’s servers, often coming into conflict with the local rules for how to behave.
The main adventure for episode five takes place in a floating city where an autocratic leader has forbidden her citizens to build things. Jesse and the gang will have the chance to help maintain this rigid society, or they can assist the resistance in overthrowing the powers that be. The episode also has a subplot that establishes Jesse’s new portal, and this is implied to be a key element in the upcoming DLC content.
Jesse’s group of friends changes slightly from the previous episodes. There is much more of the character Ivor (and his delightful voice actor Paul Reubens), who adds a great deal of comedy, as well as altering the tone of Jesse’s team. There is a death in episode four as well, and this likewise affects the group dynamic. Although Minecraft: Story Mode is a sweet and whimsical game, the death scene is just as emotionally evocative as similar deaths in Telltale’s previous games. It’s a credit to their storytelling ability that they can create such tragedy when a pixelated character vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Episode five is fairly short, under two hours for most players, with a bit of replayability due to a couple of either-or choices. The other four episodes are also short by Telltale’s usual standards. There is a reasonable amount of replay value due to the many story-based choices, but this game is particularly worthy of a second run because there is a different voice actor for male Jesse and female Jesse. Jesse has the same dialog regardless of gender, but the two performers have a slightly different take on the character, with Patton Oswalt being a huggable man-child while Catherine Taber is a bit more mischievous.
Even though this episode is the first part of a new story line, it does not end in a nail-biting cliffhanger that compels players to buy the DLC. It also does not feel like a complete story unto itself, either. There are enough plot threads left untied at the end that many players will feel unfulfilled. There is an inescapable sense that the narrative design for Minecraft: Story Mode was all part of a stratagem that was just as concerned with selling DLC as it was with telling a good story.