"Timeless" is among the dodgiest specimens of hyperbole ever to ooze from a critic's pen, but if any video game deserves the accolade, that game is Mojang AB's Minecraft. Its voxel-based visuals refuse to age, for all the efforts of middleware programmers and graphics card manufacturers to raise the bar—they're as delightful filling out a Microsoft HoloLens demonstration today as they were in May 2009, when then-jAlbum coder Markus "Notch" Persson published an alpha version of Minecraft on TIGSource.com. More substantially, Minecraft has weathered time's ravages because it isn't just a game but a means of making games, a randomized terrain playset that is as much the artistic property of its enormous player community as of Mojang and, latterly, Microsoft.
Minecraft both inspires nostalgia and surpasses it, seducing at first with its resemblance to classic construction toys like LEGO, yet offering experiences such toys never could—the chance to live (and die) in the landscapes you create, and share them online with thousands of like minds. Telltale's episodic narrative spin-off Minecraft: Story Mode, on the other hand, feels like a game with one foot in the grave. It too views the world through rose-tinted spectacles, turning in a plot that's effectively the tale of a chirpy greenhorn player getting to grips with Minecraft's props and tools, while harkening back to vintage Hollywood action-comedies like The Goonies and Ghostbusters. But where the original game's nostalgia is captivating, Telltale is held captive by it.
"Whenever we pick up a new license we don't say, 'Yeah we're just going to do whatever we did before,'" the developer's community manager Laura Perusco tells me after my episode one playthrough. "We look at it as a fresh thing, and try to figure out what's important about this license and how we can accommodate that." And yet, Telltale has chosen to tread water with Story Mode's first chapter, which relies on much the same devices as the developer's reputation-making The Walking Dead series, albeit softened a little for younger audiences.
In brief: You'll pick nice or nasty dialogue options within a time limit, scour small areas for highlighted objects, and hit buttons when prompted to avoid hazards such as arrows or fireballs (screw up, and you may simply be asked to repeat the scene). The "explore, hoard, construct" rhythms of Minecraft feature in a persistent but very superficial fashion: At intervals there are worktables where you have to craft an object to advance the plot, usually with ingredients you've literally just been handed by other characters. Elsewhere, "interactive" montage sequences in which you hammer a button to mine or assemble things are a pale shadow of the satisfaction that is raising a mighty edifice, block by block, over a verdant cuboid world.
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The easy objection to all this grumbling is that Telltale was never going to do more than scrape the surface of Minecraft. It and Mojang are polar opposites as creators, so marking one down for failing to entirely replicate the other's achievements is pretty harsh. Fair enough, but this could at least have been an opportunity for Telltale to evolve its methods. What we have here, instead, is a child-friendly dilution of them, with only one real puzzle to speak of and little tension when it comes to managing relationships with non-player characters. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting the Red Wedding. But something a little more grueling than deciding whether to share a cookie would have been pleasant.
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Story Mode's greatest strength is that it explores the culture of Minecraft, rather than just the technicalities. Much of the plot takes place in and around EnderCon, a tribute to the annual MineCon event. There are nods to cosplayers, a building competition, bustling stalls with trays of freebies, dudebro ushers, and stage cameos from Mojang AB employees. The script, meanwhile, finds time amid outbreaks of winsome goofball banter for the odd Minecraft in-joke that might rouse a chuckle from a seasoned player. But then Plot Shenanigans occur and you're plunged into one long, QTE-riddled escape sequence. Hopefully, later episodes will deliver their own little commentaries on other aspects of Minecraft society—the one that features "Magnus the Griefer" sounds like it could be especially entertaining.
Minecraft's lively creator community is worth shouting about—it solidly debunks the lingering cliché of the gamer as a destructive sociopath. Story Mode, however, is unlikely to convince anybody save those deeply in love with Telltale's school of interactive drama, of which there are admittedly a fair few. Perhaps episode two will pick up the slack, but right now this feels like a small step for Telltale, an even smaller one for Minecraft.
Episode one of Minecraft: Story Mode is out now. More information here.
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