Minecraft: Story Mode (opens in new tab) is Telltale's adventure spin-off of Minecraft, and it works like their other games—timed dialogue options, binary decisions, awkward walking, and mashing 'Q' to do things—which hasn't been novel since the first season of The Walking Dead. It's the writing and characters and art that make Telltale's games good. Well, crap. I didn't like Minecraft: Story Mode's writing, characters, or art.
The voice acting is good—it ought to be, with the cast it has—and there's a cute pig. I like the pig. But the dialogue isn't especially funny, and the world is about as developed as Minecraft's world. Our heroes are supposed to be young people (as if you can tell the age of one of these block monsters) going on a Goonies-like adventure, but I don't know anything about their lifestyle or society. Do they have parents? Do they live in cities or just in whatever block houses they can pile up in forests and caves? Do they work, or do anything but prepare for the yearly building competition? That's all they seem to know about: the legendary heroes who defeated the Ender Dragon and the big building competition. They even seem unprepared for Zombies and Creepers, which I'd assume are a common threat given that they appear constantly.
With such a bland world, the stakes seem to be that a well-populated Minecraft server (which everyone popped into a couple months ago) is in peril. And our heroes have no responsibilities and nothing to lose. The hero's journey formula is supposed to make leaving home for adventure a big deal—Frodo leaving the Shire, for instance—but they're seemingly only leaving behind a crappy tree house and a convention center.
As usual, there's a little bit of walking around, but it's awkward and uses invisible walls to contain you. And, also as expected, the action isn't very fun. It's just a case of walk towards a monster, swing your sword, or press WASD at the right time to dodge things. So I wanted to be impressed by the world and camera direction and funny quips, which is the stuff that makes Tales from the Borderlands' action scenes interesting, but I just didn't find any of the characters funny, or any of the scenes exciting. There's plenty of peril, but these Lego-heads are so clueless about their own world that I find it hard to believe they survive daily life. And riding a train track through the Nether doesn't feel big and adventurous because, well, it's Minecraft.
By Minecraft standards—where projects can be absolutely monstrous and shockingly detailed—the builds aren't all that impressive. But what can be done? Even when there is some nice architecture, it doesn't have the same effect it does in Minecraft. What's cool about Minecraft is knowing that someone in the world built everything you see. Everything here is just part of a static world made by a professional designer, and outside the context of playing Minecraft, it's just ugly and there's no joy to tank-walking around bookshelves.
Minecraft is beautiful because it's this vast, primitive blockscape full of potential, where distant mountains are an adventure and a sweet little valley is a cute place for a cabin. Story Mode zooms in on it, filling the frame with ugly pixel mosaics and blurry details. It's mostly close-ups on characters talking out of their hideous mouths and they're not cute—they're creepy smiley faces stuck to fingerless robot chassis. I don't feel like they should have human voices. And if Story Mode weren't based on one of the most popular games ever, would we really think this looks good? It works in Minecraft, but not here.
This is also the most technically flawed Telltale game I've played. It crashed four times, losing me progress, and at one point a weird glitch stuck a flickering black rectangle into a scene. But even ignoring that, I'm starting to wonder if it just wasn't a good idea to make a Minecraft adventure game. It's ugly, the world feels freshly made and without character, and there's no good way for it to reflect its source material's values. Minecraft's freedom and creativity don't exist in Story Mode, so when it winks at building and crafting, I just feel constrained, like I've been strapped to a camera dolly. I might be somewhere magical, but I can't turn my head to look at it.
Story Mode can get better, certainly, but Telltale usually impresses with its first episode—it has since The Walking Dead—and this was a drag. I'm in the minority on this, I'm sure, as Minecraft fans may well be delighted by more Minecraft, and Telltale fans get more Telltale. It's got building montages and a headstrong hero, goofs about chickens and a choice of who to save—Minecraft and Telltale, mashed together on a crafting table. But I found that the best parts of each are lost in the transmogrification.
Other than the pig—the pig is cute—Story Mode's first episode did nothing for me. It's out now (opens in new tab), but I recommend waiting for a few more episodes before committing to the whole season. At least, unless you're a diehard Minecraft fan and I just sound like a grumpy old man yelling at blocks.