Minecraft: Story Mode - Episode 1: The Order of the Stone

A Crafting Games Gets a Story and Loses the Crafting Part

Minecraft: Story Mode - Episode 1: The Order of the Stone
A blocky character walks past blocky ducks. Telltale Games

Pros: Interesting story, mildly humorous.
Cons: Inconsequential decisions, on-rails gameplay.

Any successful franchise in any medium will, sooner or later, produce something in a different, inappropriate genre, so it’s no real surprise that the crafting adventure game Minecraft’s popularity would lead to something other than a crafting game.  Enter Minecraft: Story Mode – Episode 1: The Order of the Stone, an adventure game from Telltale Games that creates an elaborate story from a game whose blocky graphics and build-your-world gameplay would seem like poor soil for raising a story.

And yet, the end result is, while very un-Minecraft like, rather enjoyable.

______________________________
Developed and published by: Telltale Games
Genre: Action-Adventure
For ages: 10 and Up
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: January 21, 2016

______________________________

The Basics: Square-Headed Adventurers Making Decisions

Story Mode follows a group of what I’ll guess are adolescents, beginning as they compete in a crafting competition. Your avatar’s search for a runaway pet pig leads to a partnership with an adventuress who has brought back a valuable artifact from the dangerous Nether. As is the way with most video game artifacts, this one is more trouble than it’s worth.

The ordinary kids on a grand adventure feels like a 1980s kids’ adventure movie; with cutesy humor, disparate characters getting to know each other, and even a musical crafting montage.

Story Mode is closer to a fast-paced Choose Your Own Adventure book than a game.

The first thing a character asks you is, would you rather fight chicken-sized zombies or zombie-sized chickens, and you can choose either answer, or none. Throughout the game you can take sides, soothe feelings, and make decisions, and a notification will tell you when those decisions will be remembered by your friends and enemies.

There are also brief moments of mild combat, action, or puzzle solving, but mainly you’re just asked for your opinion.

The Minecraft Angle: Square Heads and a Little Crafting

Anyone who has played Minecraft will recognize the blocky graphics, with square headed people and monsters and trees that are simple towers of square brown blocks under a canopy of green blocks. The primitive graphics made sense in the original game, which is all about using blocks to build objects, but would seem odd to someone not familiar with the source game. Still, it looks pretty good, and like the original game, can sometimes be surprisingly pretty.

The game does include brief bouts of crafting, although the do-what-you-want approach is not evident. Instead, you have a handful of objects and have to make one particular thing with them. 

The original Minecraft and this Story Mode version are opposites, with the first offering as little structure as possible and the second locking the player into a series of interactive cut scenes, quick time events, and brief moments of illusory freedom.

But while I can appreciate Minecraft’s structure, honestly, I enjoyed Story Mode more. Minecraft is less game than a virtual construction kit along the lines of Legos and TinkerToys.

And my days of enjoying TinkerToys are long past.

The Downside: The Illusion of Choice

You’ll make a lot of choices in Story Mode, but you will quickly realize that few of them matter. Insult your friends or praise them and they seem to like you about the same. Ask a leaving character to stay and they’ll still go. Choose to rescue someone and you’ll still lose them. And while you can die in the action sequences, you usually won’t, and if you do, the last checkpoint is a few seconds before you do, so that also feels inconsequential.

Episode 1 can be completed in less than two hours, so I decided to see what happened when I made different choices.

The story was virtually unchanged, as though you and a friend kept choosing forks in the road but never lost track of one another for more than half a minute before you were back together. In my second play through, there was only a single decision that was a true fork that changed the flow of the game for about five minutes. Overall, the game is a remarkably rigid experience that plays out like clockwork.

Telltale Games has specialized in these decision-making adventure games since the brilliant The Walking Dead. That game has also been criticized for offering a false impression of true choice, but the difference is, the decisions feel very important as they are happening. That is in part because the writing is weaker, but also because the decisions are more important; this family-friendly game can’t very well force its players to choose who will live and who will die.

The Verdict: I Kind of Liked It, But …

This first episode offers an engaging story and generic but likable characters, and as an interactive movie for kids, it’s not bad. The feeling of choice, while slight, is fun, and I’m looking forward to playing the next chapter; I’m genuinely curious how the story will play out.

And yet, it’s not really much of a game. There are a few moments, like a hectic mine cart ride or a final puzzle, that fully engage the player, but mainly you’re making conversational choices just to keep the story going.

Telltale has embraced the contradictory nature of creating a story for a franchise that is almost inherently anti-story. Perhaps that’s the only way such a crazy endeavor could make sense.