When I first heard about Minecraft: Story Mode I probably reacted like people must have when some of the earliest licensed Lego games were announced. The idea of turning what I had experienced mostly as a set of open-ended creative tools into a more closed-off narrative-driven experience didn’t necessarily click, especially not considering the level of character development and jaw-clenching player choice that Telltale Games has come to be known for. This didn’t make me doubtful that Minecraft: Story Mode could succeed, but it did make me curious. Episode 1 satisfied that curiosity wholly, showing me exactly how that set of creative tools could be turned into a unique and appealing narrative experience.
That doesn’t mean that Minecraft: Story Mode actually delivers on that. It only showed me that it was possible.
If you have any familiarity with Telltale adventure games, Minecraft: Story Mode will feel like putting on a pair of comfy (if slightly overworn) slippers. In it, you’re on a quest with your friends to prevent the destruction of the world by reuniting a group of legendary heroes, and theoretically making some tough choices along the way. Sometimes you’re navigating fairly small levels in search of whatever will catalyze the next scene, but for the most part you’re along for the ride, keeping your WASDQE+Mouse fingers poised to respond to quick time events and timed dialogue prompts. It doesn’t feel like there are any substantial changes to the formula here, beyond a few button-mashing segments meant to encapsulate the feel of gathering resources or building in Minecraft proper. These sequences are cute, but they lose their charm fast.
It’s also peppered with minor errors that are easy to pick on. There are typos and character faces that animate when they shouldn’t or don’t when they should. Dialogue branches don’t connect as cleanly as they ought to; the tone will often be inconsistent from line to line, making it seem like a character is going through extreme mood swings mid-conversation. Sometimes a character will even get the player character’s gender wrong, or answer a question in a bizarre and roundabout way.
Here’s an example with some very early spoilers, so consider yourselves warned. Episode 1 kicks off with the emergence of the game’s Big Bad, and the main characters enlist a knight named Gabriel in trying to stop it. After a particularly disastrous run-in with said Big Bad, I ask another character what seems like a very straightforward question: “Did it get Gabriel?” She answers in the most roundabout way possible, saying, “I don’t know, I don’t remember, everything is a blur, the storm destroyed everything, it even got Gabriel.” So, evidently, she both knew and remembered pretty dang well. This is a common issue in these kinds of games, but it feels particularly pronounced in Minecraft: Story Mode, to the point that I just can’t forgive it as much as I have in the past.
It also tries to have little in-jokes that die-hard fans should lap up eagerly, but then throws all efforts at that wink-and-nod accuracy out the window whenever they become inconvenient. Sometimes objects behave as per the rules of Minecraft, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes characters act like experienced players, and sometimes those same characters say and do things that break from that completely. No one should be surprised that the adventurous resource-gatherer has a crafting table placed in her mine, least of all a character who has been a builder for years. Those take four wood blocks to make and are endlessly useful; it’s like being surprised that someone has a pen in their purse.
On the other hand, there are moments where this game really shines. It’s full of well-directed visual moments that absolutely impress, and I’m fond enough of Minecraft that the way this borrows from its UI did absolutely give me a warm, fuzzy and familiar feeling each time I played. The graphic style as a whole looks a great deal like Minecraft—or at least Minecraft with a decent shader mod installed—and uses that to great effect. The animated facial expressions of the characters are definitely jarring at first, but once you get used to them it’s easy to get over their initial uncanniness. The music also leans on a familiar Minecraft style but definitely distinguishes itself, which is exactly what it should do.
But it’s not enough.
The biggest question I had when I first launched Minecraft: Story Mode was whether it would hold up for fans of Minecraft alone, or whether it was aimed more at people who consume a large amount of Minecraft-based content. Not just Let’s Plays, but the narrative-focused videos that abound on Youtube, or the flimsy paperbacks popping up here and there in brick-and-mortar shops. Would a player be better served by a basic familiarity with the source, or by a level of comfort seeing that source used as a medium for something else? I’m still not sure I know the answer to that, because I’m not sure what Minecraft: Story Mode is actually trying to be. It feels torn between telling a story about Minecraft and telling a story with Minecraft. Initially, it felt like the aim was to replicate the feel of being part of a community within Minecraft. It introduces a series of characters each with their own skills and interest—the builder, the explorer, the redstone mastermind—then put those characters in a world that feels almost like a curated server, an idyllic multiplayer experience. Then it takes all that it’s established and directs it towards a pretty generic hero story that shrugs off a lot of the self-awareness that had been delighting me. When it could have taken a left—towards .hack or Cibele territory—it took a hard right and suffers for it.
Ultimately I can describe Minecraft: Story Mode in one word: Benign. I don’t think it’s outright bad, I don’t consider the time spent playing it wasted, but at the end of the day nothing that it’s done up to the end of Episode 3 has really moved me—and that’s not something that I can say about any other game in Telltale’s current lineup. Sure, they’ve had a hard time matching the runaway success of The Walking Dead, but even so Telltale has been responsible for some pretty impressive storytelling within the framework of several existing franchises. This isn’t even their first crack at someone else’s game world, either. Tales from the Borderlands is witty and interesting in a way Minecraft: Story Mode doesn’t even begin to approach.
And that’s where the question of its audience comes into play for me. While Telltale’s other recent games have very broad appeal, most of them are decidedly intended for a more mature audience. Minecraft: Story Mode feels like it’s aiming lower… in more than one sense. It’s incredibly easy to underestimate the complexity of material that younger audiences can handle, and it’s something that happens constantly. If you’re looking to introduce someone younger to adventure games as a genre, then this wouldn’t be the worst jumping off point, but unless they’re die-hard Minecrafters then there are dozens of more interesting experiences you could present them with. Minecraft: Story Mode has yet to take me by surprise or even throw me for the mildest of loops, because it’s settled into a path worn by countless TV shows and movies before it. It’s the piece of media that exists to sell your sugar-rattled younger self a line of toys, except it is that toy. It’s the spiritless thing appealing directly to your fondness for something else to snag a juicy bite of your allowance. That’s going to be a worthwhile exchange for some, but it’s not for me.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.