The union of Mojang and Telltale is the kind of marriage that Auntie Maureen would charitably give six months, when she isn't gossiping about the groom's father buying a mansion or necking the free sherry. TellTale, who exclusively make interactive stories, have taken a world which has no story beyond what the player decides to do, and populate it with characters who have grand adventures, all the while tapping into the virtual Lego appeal of the original product with plenty of nods to its mining and crafting and endless tropes.
These characters live in an alarmingly convincing civilisation, although one wonders how society could actually work in a world where mass burglary requires little effort to pull off. During this first episode, I found myself worrying about the state of their economy. Which is a stupidly grown-up thing to do.
My children, however, had no such worries. They are huge fans of Minecraft. Indeed, my familiarity with it has almost entirely come to me vicariously through them. But they like Minecraft because they get to build castles and breed horses and keep a shed full of individually-named pet wolves. What possible appeal could this TellTale version have, I wondered, which doesn't have any of that stuff, but rather uses Minecraft's art style as a backdrop for Patton Oswalt quips and the occasional swashbuckle?
As it turns out, quite a bit. If Minecraft was around 20 years ago, this would have been the Saturday morning cartoon.
We played as a family, the three of us hunched over a keyboard and mouse, them shouting out which QTE buttons to press and dialogue options to pick, exploding with the kind of frivolous excitement that only children are capable of any time something happened that referenced the original game.
"It's getting dark and you're still outside!"
"Oh NO a zombie!"
"A NETHER PORTAL!"
They took great joy in pre-empting key moments, armed with their Minecraft knowledge, knowing exactly what the on-screen characters would have to do next - because it would invariably be what they would have done in the original game.
Telltale has played a blinder. By taking something particularly beloved by young children, and contorting it into their own Lucasarts-style adventure formula, they've created something with truly universal appeal. These kids couldn't pick Sam & Max out from a parade, but they'll play a point-and-click with diamond armour and Endermen.
Similarly, I couldn't tell you the crafting ingredients for a bow and arrow, but I found a lot to love about Minecraft: Story Mode. Tonally, it harkens back to pre-Walking Dead Telltale, the studio that made a number of forgettable, episodic sequels to Lucasarts games like Monkey Island and the aforementioned Sam & Max, a bizarre Back to the Future series and its disastrous Jurassic Park: The Game, before zombies happened made them a household name.
While Minecraft: Story Mode is evocative of old Telltale, it has clearly learned plenty of lessons from the later games that made it famous. The choice and consequence mechanics of The Walking Dead are front and centre here (they're even parodied, in a wonderful moment of self-awareness close to the start of the game), and despite the cartoon tone, there are moments of real horror and tension thrown into the mix. Minecraft itself had plenty of foreboding, but it's commendable that Telltale has been able to preserve it when one of their central characters is a small pig, and the other is Patton Oswalt (if you play as a male character).
For the first time, Telltale has given players a choice of protagonist, which amounts to male or female and a selection of skin tones, and it's a clever move. With the original game essentially being built around the idea of customising everything in the world, offering its fans the choice to play as someone they look like is not only a welcome touch of diversity but also one of the smarter nods to the spirit of Minecraft itself.
There's a lot to like about Minecraft: Story Mode. It's yet another testament to Telltale's ability to do wonderful things with properties that, on paper, don't suit their style. However, it is another Telltale game - mechanically, it's exactly the same as Walking Dead, exactly the same as The Wolf Among us, exactly the same as Game of Thrones. Same skeleton, different flesh. Adventure game fans may struggle to find anything to hold their attention here, and grown-up Minecraft enthusiasts who have things like "Redstone engineer" in their Twitter bios might not see the point of a Minecraft game that has no actual mining or crafting.
On a technical front, the presentation is mostly solid. There are bits which show up the creaking old game engine, such as an early moment where a glittering structure in the distance is a very obvious 2D image with poorer resolution than a Doctor Who season finale, and all those little pauses and bizarre framerate dips you encountered in their previous games are present. It runs smoothly enough on PS4, but on a decent PC there's little excuse for such foibles, considering the game isn't really doing much in terms of its visual spectacle. I mean, it's Minecraft's art, but segmented, chopped into scenes and shot with fixed camera angles. If this sort of thing bothers you, beware.
Perhaps the reason why the marriage of Minecraft and story works so well is that Telltale has kept things simple. It's the most basic of hero's journey plots. A band of young adventurers tasked with saving the world by an old mentor, the sort of story that's been told so many times in so many ways that you could conceivably fit it anywhere. But there's plenty of spectacle here, and such clever use of the license that I can't help but think of all the post-Walking Dead series to come out of the studio, this may well turn out to be the best.
For now, it's a very convincing start.
Version Tested: PS4 and PC