Did Minecraft need a story? Or course not. Building blocks are fun because they present you with a blank canvas to craft your own creations, and your own tale. But, well, Lego never needed a story, and that didn't stop Warner Bros. from constructing a damn fine story out of vaguely themed bits and blocks for The Lego Movie. Telltale Games - the veteran storytelling studio behind The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones - is following suit by creating its own fourth wall-breaking yarn within the confines of the ill-defined Minecraft universe.
At a glance, Minecraft: Story Mode may sound like a soulless cash grab, but that's not the case for Telltale. In fact, Minecraft represents something the studio has wanted to do for the last several years: return to making family friendly games. Before it relished in making people cry in The Walking Dead and cringe in Game of Thrones, Telltale made titles based on Wallace & Gromit and Bone, series appropriate for young and old alike.
"This is the first time since Sam & Max and Strong Bad that we're able to do something that's really for all ages," says Telltale's Job Stauffer. "This isn't a first for us, it's kind of a return to form. Entertainment for all ages is a big part of our DNA and a big part of our roots. It's really nice to work on something that we can play together with all our family."
That's not to say that Minecraft: Story Mode is just for children. Telltale was already huge fans of Minecraft and it was at the top of the team's list of crossover projects, right up there with Borderlands.
"Minecraft was a big favourite of ours around the office that presented an opportunity for much more of a blank slate [than Borderlands]," Stauffer says. "You can see that there's a huge appetite for fans that want to tell stories in the Minecraft world, you can see Minecraft fiction in bookstores, some of the biggest YouTube videos ever are Minecraft fiction or Minecraft music videos. Minecraft is so much more than a game. It's a cultural phenomenon."
Indeed Minecraft: Story Mode plays off that culture, building upon its source material by providing a story about a group of fans going to something called ElderCon, a parody of MineCon (but really a parody of all "nerdy" pop culture conventions). You're able to choose your own avatar for protagonist Jesse, with multiple options for race and gender (though only two voices: either Patton Oswalt or Catherine Taber).
"In Walking Dead it matters that you're playing as the girl, Clementine, because that's more reflective of the series. You can see how this girl is treated in this cold, hard universe," Stauffers explains. "When we create a story it's going to depend on the franchise we're working on, the universe we're playing in. And in Minecraft gender really isn't a part of it for these characters. It's a gender neutral story. And character customisation is super important to Minecraft fans."
So how does it feel to someone, like yours truly, who's never spent much time with Minecraft? Very good, it turns out. The PAX Prime demo I play is spread across two different scenes: one in which Jesse (locked to Patton Oswalt in this early build) is searching for their lost pig, Rueben, in the forest, and another where the city is under attack by a colossal beast.
The format is fairly typical for Telltale fare, so expect to make important decisions on who to save and how to address sticky situations, but it's clear that the studio has learned lessons from previous games to implement in here as well. Notably, the action scenes are a little more fluid than simply aligning your cursor and responding to QTE button prompts. While you still don't have full control over your character, a face-off with a gaggle of Creepers (the Minecraft version of zombies) lets you move forwards and back, choose who to target, and swing your sword at any time with a touch of a button. Another chase sequence has you dashing left and right with the analogue stick to avoid debris. It's hardly Cruis'n USA, but it's a step up from the intrusive arrow prompts we're used to and it's a fine evolution for Telltale's seemingly antiquated engine.
Speaking of which, Minecraft's simplistic, blocky visual style won't win any awards for aesthetics, but unlike Game of Thrones - which you can't help but unfairly compare to one of the best looking TV shows around - Story Mode looks seamlessly consistent with its source material. Actually, it looks better. Telltale has a good eye for how to frame its shots and even though it's limited to large pixelated blocks, some of its imagery is still rather striking. Sprinting through a forest ablaze against the night sky hearkens back to the eerily abstract glow of Proteus' angular landscape. The characters too manage to emote a great deal with only a few pixels shifting their expression, a trick no doubt aided by one of gaming's most star studded casts that includes Brian Posehn, Ashley Johnson, Martha Plimpton, Scott Porter, Dave Fennoy, Corey Feldman, and Pee-Wee himself, Paul Reubens.
As expected of a Telltale game, the writing seems on point as well. Your pig will remember whether you scolded him or offered unconditional affection upon finding him in a forest, while cutesy touches like a tutorial teaching you how to craft a sword using Minecraft's familiar grid UI really help sell the universe. Plus Ashley Johnson is always welcoming as kick-ass warrior Petra, who you can't help but want to go on world saving adventures with.
Telltale's always been great at selling people on franchises that they may have no familiarity with. As someone whose experience with The Walking Dead comic, Fables, and Borderlands is very limited, I've always been pleasantly surprised how accessible and inviting these series are to newcomers. Minecraft: Story Mode looks like it will keep up this tradition of offering smart spin-offs you didn't know you wanted.