"Minecraft," the video game that can essentially be anything you want it to be, is everywhere.
Everywhere, that is, except in my home. It's on laptop computers, mobile phones and video game consoles, and it's in toy stores, bookstores and even baseball stadiums. A Chicago Cubs-branded spongy bat, inspired by "Minecraft's" blocky, vintage video game graphics, accompanied me back to Los Angeles from a recent trip to Chicago.
I thought that foam bat was as close to the "Minecraft" phenomenon as I would ever get. Even though it's the world's most popular game, with global sales that long ago rocketed past the 50-million mark (more than 21 million people have bought the game for home computers alone), I was reluctant to buy in because there was one terrain the Mojang-created "Minecraft" had yet to conquer: the narrative space.
Sure, there are evil creatures called Creepers and Withers, and the core of the game involves gathering and crafting items to build a universe. But when it comes to a story, "Minecraft" is open-ended, leaving the particulars up the player. The freedom to build and explore can be liberating, but as someone who loves games with more auteur-created worlds, I've always found "Minecraft" downright overwhelming.
The Bay Area's Telltale Games wants to change that.
The company this past week released "Minecraft: Story Mode," available now for most major platforms, and it attempts to do the very thing "Minecraft" was created to avoid: construct a linear plot. It's a "Minecraft" for the rest of us, or at least those of us who prefer our games to feel a little more defined from the start.
Kid-focused, "Minecraft: Story Mode" will be told in five parts. The first, "Episode One: The Order of the Stone," plays out like an interactive TV show. It gets by on the charm of its characters — a ragtag group of geeky builders on their way to a Comic-Con-like convention called EnderCon — and it's the all-too-rare video game designed to be enjoyed by the whole family. Like other Telltale titles, it does away with competitiveness and control mastery.
But oddly it falters in the very spot it should be strongest. If the "Minecraft" universe is essentially a blank canvas, "Story Mode" opts to pull from some very recognizable sources of inspiration. As the two-hour opener reaches its conclusion, "Minecraft" starts to feel a bit like an episode of "Scooby-Doo" intermixed with bits of the "Indiana Jones" and "Lord of the Rings" franchises.
There's a three-headed monster on the loose, a scattered band of disparate heroes who can stop it and hints of an underlying conspiracy. "Minecraft's" popularity, and, in turn, its strength for many players, is that its world is full of endless possibilities — if you have the time to build something, go for it. Telltale, however, has decided that such a free-form world should look and feel like a rather familiar fantasy epic.
"Story Mode," in fact, is best when it's dealing with more mundane concerns, bringing bits of personality and character to "Minecraft's" vintage, rudimentary look.
Say, the effort to track down a missing pet pig, or the character reactions when said swine, Reuben, is dressed as a dragon. Strong, too, are the moments when the home team first arrives at EnderCon, a convention designed to celebrate famed adventurers. At EnderCon, the protagonists engage in a building competition, having to contest with their own insecurities and bullies.
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The world is also inviting, full of handy green slime, odd chicken traps and a crowded bazaar overrun with fans eager to meet a famed dragon slayer. Looking like an old cartoon from the '80s, there are engaging details, such as a hidden library filled with mysterious potions, which make the player want to learn more about this world and its inhabitants. All told, it's more fun watching the characters simply geek out than it is directing them to act like Frodo and Co.
The main character, Jesse, is someone to root for. Voiced either by Patton Oswalt or Catherine Taber, depending on whether you opt to play as a male or female (I chose Taber), Jesse is a confident geek who's excited by the possibility to build anything within the "Minecraft" world. Even when she's in over her head, such as when she's exploring dark caves with her cool and tough pal Petra, her nerds-are-rad, can-do attitude makes her come off as the world's biggest "Minecraft" fan.
That's important because Jesse is a gateway for those of us who haven't devoted countless hours to "Minecraft." I'm sure the game would have been funnier if I understood some of the in-jokes and the talk of Creepers versus zombies versus chicken zombies, but I never felt overmatched because Jesse is someone who wants to share her love of all things "Minecraft" with everyone.
Once the antagonist comes into play — the Paul Reubens-voiced Ivor, a creepily mysterious figure seemingly overrun with jealousy for those celebrated by EnderCon — "Story Mode" hurriedly introduces a world-consuming monster and a save-the-world quest for the unlikely Jesse and her friends. It all ends with a cliffhanger setting up a massive adventure with the team split up, but I wanted more time to get to know these characters and their lifestyle before the game went all J.R.R. Tolkien.
Ultimately, the success of the series isn't going to rely on whether an improbable crew can take down evil. Instead, it will be resting on the shoulders of Jesse and the game's message that there's no shame in fandom or hobbyist passions.
"Some us will never be cool," Jesse says early in the game about her love of building in the "Minecraft" world. It's a message worth rallying for, and "Story Mode" leaves us wanting to learn more about Jesse, Petra and her friends. Let's hope the Creepers and Withers don't get in the way.
'Minecraft: Story Mode'
Developer: Telltale Games, Mojang
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3, iOS, Android, PC, Mac