When Minecraft: Story Mode was first announced, nobody was entirely sure what to expect. On one hand, you had Telltale Games, a studio with a track record of delivering amazing narratives centered around everyone’s favorite franchises. Then there was Mojang, creators of Minecraft… you know, the game that’s all about freedom and emergent gameplay.
Combining open-ended gameplay with linear storytelling would not be an easy task, but Telltale was up to the challenge. Today at PAX, I had the opportunity to get some hands-on time and see just how Telltale managed to merge the fan-loved game about building and self-expression with their specific brand of narratives. The end result (for the time being, at least) ends up being something a bit on the awkward side that is quite clearly focused on fans of the Minecraft universe.
The story places players in the shoes of an Endercon attendee who is about to get caught in a chain of events that leaves the entire world hanging in the brink. Creepers, spiders, skeletons, and more familiar baddies make an appearance to add some action to the affair, while familiar settings and items make up the world and interactions in Minecraft: Story Mode.
The story itself is actually pretty interesting. Minecraft: Story Mode is very self aware and uses that to its advantage. Instead of providing some type of intro to what is easily one of the most popular video games ever made, characters in the game are at Endercon and in awe of super weird and highly dangerous artifacts. Heck, Petra, a companion of the protagonist, tells the player how she plans on trading a skull for a diamond without batting an eyelash. The silly nature of pig pets, huge spiders, exploding enemies, and building of any and every thing is just a natural component of Minecraft: Story Mode‘s world.
However, it’s in the gameplay where cracks begin to show. The game tries to find a middle ground between the decision making that fans of Telltale Games have grown used to, and the crafting and combat of Minecraft. This leaves a stiff experience devoid of anything that makes either approach special. From the moment you first take control of your protagonist, their utter lack of speed is made instantly apparent. This slowdown magnifies the limitations of adventure that were present in the demo. There wasn’t anywhere to go other than forward, and there was no way to do so in a speedy manner. On top of that, every time I progressed to a new screen I was “treated” to a short scene of my traversal rather than being allowed to do so myself through some prompts or other means. For a game that is a combination of story and the epitome of openness, it felt like the most limited game ever to be released by Telltale.
Inclusion of Minecraft mechanics came in the form of puzzles. One puzzle had the player craft a stone sword without explaining the configuration of materials, only telling players they would need two stones and one sword. This is something that would take an instant for a seasoned player of the creative game, but may stump a new player. Another riddle required the character figure out how to activate a Nether Portal. Again, a mechanic second-hand to players, but otherwise makes for poor game design. Using the flint and tinder makes little sense to a non-Minecraft player, and figuring it out would require guesswork, not a coherent and valuable game interaction. It’s an interesting attempt that bridges the gap between the two worlds, but the experience seriously lacked that special feeling of discovery players get from learning the world of Minecraft. Every nod to the game came across more as an inside joke than a genuine game mechanic.
Choices in the demo seemed to lack that weight Telltale Games is known for as well. Granted, it was a demo, but the few times I was given a decision to make seemed superficial. The game feels extremely family friendly, which made the choices feel a bit pointless. (Spoiler) Choosing whether or not to have your pet pig run for safety led to a living pig either way. Granted, this particular choice led to a slightly amusing change to your pork companion (depending on how you view zombie-on-pig violence), but it definitely wasn’t of the same caliber of even The Walking Dead‘s most simple of dilemmas.
Combat also suffered due to it being overly simple, and the button prompts often feeling like suggestions rather than definite instructions. The left trigger was indicated as being the button to press in order to attack, but pressing face buttons served me just as well.
The combination of the two successful types of games is like oil and water at the moment. This isn’t to say that it has no chance to improve, but as it stands right now, they aren’t meshing very well. Minecraft: Story Mode has a fun interesting story going for it, which is what Telltale has proven to be able to deliver in the past, so it comes as no surprise. But the gameplay is at odds with itself as it tries to please two very different camps.