Brace yourself for a scandalous admission: once upon a time, I wrote Minecraft fanfic. No, not voluntarily — I was paid to do it. But not by Mojang. ‘Twas pirate booty, me hearties: contract-work written under cover of darkness, and published by my client on the sly, in a way that cheerfully exploited Notch’s legendarily-apathetic stance on copyright to turn a profit.
The business model was brute but efficient. It consisted of pumping out Minecraft-related e-books as fast as possible, then selling them to an audience of kids-who-don’t-know-any-better. My client had identified an underserved niche, you see, and what she needed was someone to create a steady stream of “content” — and here I was, an unemployed novelist. Artistic integrity? Feh. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I took the job, and got down to churning out schlock.
The maudlin story of a sad creeper, who just wanted to make friends.
The thrilling chronicles of an expedition to the Far Lands.
An underdog sports story, set around the game of spleef.
Let’s be clear here: these books were cute and fun, but they were not good. (It’s for that reason, as much as the non-disclosure agreement, that I won’t name them or link to them here.) But here’s the thing: they didn’t need to be good. The name of the game was getting there first. These books had a short shelf-life, because there were thousands of others just like them — there is, in fact, a whole cottage-industry of unlicensed Minecraft media.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s a picture I snapped at work today, during a book-fair:
This stuff is almost as ubiquitous as Minecraft itself. The thing with these unlicensed works, though, is this: they have tiny profit-margins, because they’re only a blip on the radar for a few days before they disappear into the mists of obscurity. That means in order to turn a buck, writers have to pump out material at a breakneck pace, with little regard for quality.
And so I did.
While I’m ashamed of the stuff I wrote during that time, I have to admit there was a seat-of-the-pants thrill to doing so, and I think it infected the stories with a kind of manic energy. Maybe that helps explain why the books went over like gangbusters. Kids snapped them up with a fervor I found frankly astounding, and I watched these half-assed, fanficcy pieces of ghostwriting draw in higher sales and more enthusiastic reviews than all of my own books put together.
Flash forward. Years later. Telltale announces it plans to create a series set in the world of Minecraft, and the reaction from the internet is equal parts skepticism and ambivalence.
The big question bubbling to the top of every comments section is this: set alongside rich media properties like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, what the hell could Minecraft possibly have to offer? It seemed a narrative wasteland, and Telltale’s acquisition of the license (which no doubt carried a massive price-tag, under the yoke of then-new owner, Microsoft) seemed like the actions of a studio that had lost its mind.
But not to me.
Me, I had seen first-hand the hunger and energy of this audience. Telltale’s move, I knew, would not be some wild-goose-chase: it would be a crack-of-dawn deer-hunt, planned, plotted, and executed with the sort of zeitgeist market-savvy and sheer artistic competence which is always doubted in the moment, then deemed unsurprising after the fact.
Grab your shovel, and let’s dig into Minecraft: Story Mode.
The Power of Myth
What is Minecraft? The revolutionary work of a lone visionary, or just some lucky fluke of the 2011-era, arbitrarily struck by lightning and swept up in the emergence of “emergent gameplay” itself? Minecraft. Why does it matter? What does it mean? Muster your metrics, assail with analytics, recite the forms, and try to call down the lightning again:
Who gives a crap about this stuff?
The answer: an entire generation, you crusty old fart. Minecraft is for kids today what Pokémon was for people my age, and if that sentence makes you scowl with disgust, then congratulations and condolences, you are now officially an adult. All these esoteric words and shapes, these rough forms we shrug and dismiss, they’re real to the children for whom these games constitute the stuff of future nostalgia. There’s a reason you can buy creeper costumes in the Halloween section at Wal-Mart, friend, and “because they make money” is not the cause; it’s the effect.
Even more powerful than those recognized shapes and symbols, though, are the things which are entirely made up: community headcanon and creepypasta fever-dreams that, over time, wend their way into popular consciousness. Remember saving Aeris with 99 phoenix downs? Or catching Mew out behind the St. Anne? Okay: now why do you remember those things? After all, they never happened.
Because being fictional doesn’t make them less real.
If it seems like I’m taking a while to wind up for the review, it’s because I want to make sure we’re on the same page here. Minecraft: Story Mode has a lot of problems, but it’s not a facile adaptation, nor can it really be lumped in with any other Telltale game. It’s not a sequel like Back to the Future. It’s not a tonal doppelganger like The Walking Dead or Borderlands. It’s not an intricately-interwoven side-story like Game of Thrones or The Wolf Among Us.
It’s a love letter written in crayon and macaroni, from a place neck-deep in not only its source material, but the broader culture and community that surrounds it. This is Scooby and Shaggy making a weed joke. This is a panel of voice actors reciting fan-memes in-character. This is all the absurd ephemera that naturally coalesces around a major pop-cultural touchstone, gathered together, dipped in AAA polish, and brought to ridiculous life.
The result? Pretty darn good.
The Story of Story Mode
The world of Story Mode is one that its writers smartly assume the player already knows. Unlike, say, The Lego Movie, this is a world presented without commentary. People are made of blocks, zombies wander around at night, and everyone likes to build things — what of it? Let’s move on!
That approach deftly eliminates the need for world-building, and in the process, frees up precious time and oxygen for some frontloaded exposition. To that end, the intro cinematic (narrated by Futurama’s Billy West, in a tone of such grave importance it invokes the late Don LaFontaine) informs us that a long time ago, the big bad was slain by The Order of the Stone, a party of four legendary heroes consisting of archetypes that neatly conform not only to Minecraft player-types, but also Bartle’s Taxonomy. So there’s a warrior, a builder, an engineer, and a griefer — tell me, outlander, which star-sign do you choose?
Into this landscape enters the player, in the role of wisecracking group-leader “Jesse”, voiced by either Patton Oswalt or Catherine Taber, depending on the choice of gender. I will say that while I love Patton Oswalt and his comedic timing is solid, he does come across a little flat here. It’s not “that wizard came from the moon,” territory, but it’s worth noting. As with Jennifer Hale’s iconic female Shepard, Taber’s distaff version of Jesse is the better of the two.
Flanking our intrepid hero-or-heroine are Two Friends With Clashing Personalities whose names escape me (a fact that speaks for itself) as well as a Wacky Animal Sidekick, named Reuben. Together, the four of them compose The Order of the Pig, or whatever the player decides to name them, a gang of underdogs who “everyone” thinks are “losers”, because reasons.
But if the set-up seems hackneyed, it stops after the first five minutes, as soon as our heroes set out for “Endercon”, a building competition that takes both name and atmosphere from its real-world counterpart, Minecon. And that’s where the real charm of Story Mode begins, and the energy of the community begins to infect proceedings. Mojang staffers and (if I’m not mistaken) a few youtubers pop up in background cameos. Characters in the story explicitly reference “the farlands”, a moniker given by players to the Bizarro-world geology that used to show up at the edge of the Minecraft map, where the world-generating algorithm spooled out of control. At one point, a wither is summoned and behaves in a very strange, atypical way…but oh, wait, it’s got a command block in its chest. And what do command blocks do? Why, let you program things in Minecraft to behave differently, of course!
The metafiction lies thick here, is the point that I’m making, and it’s easily the story’s sharpest color. Oh sure, the base coat is fine — it’s a solid mystery/adventure story that reminds me a bit of The Last Airbender, tonally speaking. But The Weird Stuff is what ties the room together, and I hope to see a lot more of it in future episodes.
But enough pontification. Let’s talk turkey.
Mining, Crafting, and So Forth
If you’ve ever read the sentence, “If you’ve ever played a Telltale game before…”, then you know what to expect here: Tuff Choices©, branching plotlines, low-fat puzzles, So-and-So-Will-Remember-That, and more quicktime events than you can shake a stick at. Telltale dialed in their formula a long time ago, and while they might tweak it or draw certain elements for specific titles, the meat and potatoes generally stay the same.
Though I will say, in Story Mode, the amps have been cranked to 11. The tuff choices are tuffer and choicier. The branching plotlines branch more. The quicktime events fly fast and hard, in the form of a dozen different mini-games that pop up like WarioWare. Playing Story Mode reminded me, bizarrely, of playing old Final Fantasy games: it has that stream-of-consciousness, anything-goes sort of design that plays out like riding a roller-coaster, or watching a variety show. I think maybe there’s something to be said for a game that doesn’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel, and just builds a solid experience with familiar tools.
But what do I know? Story Mode seems dissatisfied with plain old competence, and so the big feature on display this time around is crafting, or some thin simulacra thereof. Like in Minecraft, you get component items, and you can use them to make things, but given that you can only make certain things based on what you’re given, it’s fair to say the toolbox is pretty locked-down.
Overall it comes across a little gimmicky, and I really doubt if the novelty will sustain itself over four chapters. That said, there was one good puzzle about halfway through the episode that impressed me: the game throws a problem and some components at you, then cuts you loose to craft your way out, with very little instruction. I remembered a recipe from Minecraft, threw it together, and to my surprise, it just intuitively worked. Okay, Story Mode; you got me. Well done. Good for you.
But doesn’t a focus on crafting kind of miss the point of what makes Minecraft fun? Crafting itself was never as interesting as the stuff that happened before or after. It was always the digging, the resource-gathering, the floor-planning, the building, the ten-story towers. Sharing creativity with friends is what makes Minecraft cool — yet in Story Mode, these things are relegated to the background. There’s building happening, but the player’s never really involved, and certainly not creatively engaged. Instead, we just sit back and watch as characters engage in time-lapse construction sequences that are uncomfortably similar to a LEGO game. The whole thing feels slightly off-center.
What else can be said, then? We all know the score by now. If you’ve liked/tolerated/hated the gameplay in past Telltale games, you will like/tolerate/hate the gameplay in this one.
Look, I won’t sugar-coat it: The bloom is off the rose. Telltale is no longer the fresh-faced underdog on the block, and I don’t think we owe them the benefit of the doubt any more. There are problems here.
The main character is boring.
The controls are often clunky and unresponsive, especially on a touch-screen.
Crafting feels gimmicky, and misses the point of Minecraft’s appeal.
The side-characters are thin, and feel yanked straight out of Telltale central casting.
It’s possible, I suppose, that these concerns will work themselves out in subsequent episodes. That being said, I do sometimes get the sense that other writers let Telltale’s weaker outings skate by on that very sentiment, only to abandon their sincerely-held misgivings after a series’ final episode, when it comes time to engage in the hyperbolic-box-quote contest.
But all of this is just nit-picking a game I respect a whole lot, and did sincerely enjoy. It’s a cool idea, it’s well-executed, and most importantly, it pays tribute to the hushed schoolyard whisperings of its player-community. I think that’s brave, and it’s worthy of recognition.
A friend of mine (indie filmmaker, game designer, author, and cracked-out savant M Dot Strange) once laid down a bitter truth that’s stuck with me over the years. He said if you ever meet someone who describes art as “content,” you should run far and fast in the other direction, or risk losing your soul. That’s a solid piece of wisdom, and the truth is, “content” is something gamers are pretty familiar with: it makes up 98% of what we play. Content. Stuff. Empty calories, covered in sprinkles and dyed bright pixel-colors. That’s truer on Android than anywhere else.
And it’s true of me.
Listen closely now:
If there are hackish sell-out artists who produce hackish sell-out art, well baby, I was one of them. I sold my soul, I wrote “content” fiction, and I wrote it about Minecraft, so I know what I’m talking about when I say, for a fact, Minecraft: Story Mode is not that.
It’s not “content”. It’s not empty calories. It’s not fluff. It’s totally, emphatically sincere. There’s love oozing out of every block, just as there was in The Walking Dead, and The Wolf Among Us, and every other Telltale game. It’s why the company’s games are so beloved, why they’ve achieved such popularity, and why even the most Hardcore© among us put up with their shallow shenanigans: because you can feel that every single person involved really, truly gave a damn.
And that’s as rare as diamonds.
Order of the Stone is light, breezy, and not particularly inspired, but it accomplishes a small miracle by distilling the culture of a community into a working piece of interactive fiction. Story Mode’s pilot episode is a heartfelt love-letter to players, which invites them to revel in sheer joy for their favorite game. If that’s not “hardcore”, I don’t know what is.