So the deck was stacked when Telltale Games announced late last year that it would release a serialized story game set in the world of “Minecraft.” It seemed like the game could only be a more limited and charmless version of the powerful original. Improbably, though, “Minecraft: Story Mode,” feels like a success on its own and something that adds new insight to its source material.
Like other Telltale games, “Story Mode” is split into five episodes, each of which lasts around two to three hours and will be released, one at a time approximately every month through early 2016. The just-released first episode, “The Order of the Stone,” treats the world of “Minecraft” as a mythohistorical backdrop for a new group of adventurers for whom harvesting minerals, crafting new tools, and building structures is a time-honored tradition.
The game centers on a young crafter named Jesse, whose gender and skin tone can be set by players at the start. Along with three other friends and a pet pig, Jesse sets out for a building competition, but after a string of blunders he uncovers a grouchy man’s plot to conjure an ancient monster. To help prevent a cataclysm, Jesse and his group must seek out four mythic heroes who slayed the Ender Dragon. The dragon is the giant flying enemy Markus “Notch” Persson added to the original “Minecraft” to give players a sense of dramatic final conflict to game, and bring them back together for one last fight.
The narrative structure — leading a younger generation on an adventure that forces them into the mold of an older one — is an uncanny complement to Telltale’s play systems. “Minecraft: Story Mode” is similar to the studio’s award-winning “The Walking Dead” games, where each scene is rendered as an animated tableau, like someone has paused a movie mid-scene but the actors in it go about their business unaware. Players can move a cursor over every character or item in the frame to see what can be interacted with. While there are a few relatively simple puzzles that require you to craft a certain item to open up a blocked pathway, the game world is limited enough to make most solutions obvious.
The heart of the game is its conversation system, which repeatedly asks players to make choices that are not obviously right or wrong. It’s the interactive opposite of an item puzzle. In one early scene Jesse has to choose whether to chase after her pet pig at the cost of forfeiting the building competition, or stay and risk losing her pig. Later scenes ask players to make major choices about which teammate should go where, or with whom to side in a big argument. While these dilemmas feel dire in the moment, replaying the episodes reveal that many of these moments lead back to the same larger plot points.
If most games progress as series of didactic exercises that lead the player to greater certainty about how things work, Telltale’s games are at their best when working in the opposite direction, gradually undoing a player’s certainty about how things should be. The power of this structure comes not from consequences of the players’ actions but in the individual moments, which come into hyperfocus for a few seconds while the player wonders if he has made the right choice.
While “The Walking Dead” and “The Wolf Among Us” used this structure to set up sometimes horrific scenarios of violence and unforgivable deceptions, there is a special beauty in seeing these nested dilemmas dressed up in the colorful and guileless aesthetics of children’s fiction. From the game’s toy-like visuals to the soothing score that sounds like the musical equivalent of a sunrise, there’s a sense of calm wonderment to the game. There is a subtle self-awareness that every dramatic conflict and fearsome plot point has happened before and will happen again.
In “Poetics” Aristotle argued that imitating the patterns of tragedy and comedy allowed humans the pleasure of placing themselves within a historical or communal tradition, feeling like both an autonomous actor and one small part of a process beyond individual control. For Aristotle, “the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ ”
There’s an echo of this sentiment in the sweetly childish tones of “Minecraft: Story Mode,” a game that uses the mimetic architecture of storytelling to produce nodes of contemplation and self-inquiry. It’s a subtle and sweet work made with an awareness that the best part of a journey comes when you realize that you are the story.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
More game reviews:
Yoshi’s Woolly World review: A cute and fun diversion