Despite the overwhelming popularity of Telltale’s adventure games we tend to hear very little about Minecraft: Story Mode. I’m gonna say because, more so then any of their other properties it is explicitly a work of Young Adult fiction. Even though a fair argument can be made for Tales from the Borderlands being fairly kid friendly, and I’m sure the hands of Disney will guide Guardians of the Galaxy into a family audience, Minecraft: Story Mode tracks far harder toward the child market.
It’s sorta acts as an outlier in their output though, the structures and shapes that YA fiction takes are necessarily different to those of adult fiction. Most notably, formalist experimentation is de-incentivised as the author has to bear in mind a audience that is still learning how to be a conscientious reader. This presents a problem for Telltale, as many of the most successful moments in their recent narrative-driven work com from subverting traditional narrative. Minecraft: Story Mode realises this possible issue and so takes an alternate route in creating a meaningful story for the player.
Now, Telltale’s work usually operates in this nascent space that blurs the line between character and player intention. I demonstrate, Imma suggest something here that we’ll call Telltale’s sliding scale of character identification. Right about in the middle is Lee, the protagonist of season one of The Walking Dead, you are not Lee, the game is pretty clear in this regard. At the start of the game, Lee is a man headed to death row for murder, hell even in the first dialogue of the game it establishes his hometown and his familial situation that we ain’t all clued in on. However, as the series continues Lee’s objective, ensuring both his and his surrogate daughter Clementine’s safety, aligns with the player’s despite the differences in their opinion.
At the far end we have Rhys and Fiona of Tales from the Borderlands. First off, you’re controlling two characters, who start the game with goals that directly are in opposition. You are encouraged to take the position of a more objective audience, the game frequently noting that their subjective experiences do not always align with reality. Also, let’s take into account the tone of the game here, it’s a comedy, when means the objective of the player is to create comedic situations. Oftentimes this means pushing situations into places that the characters are unable to quite handle, because the natural result is one of humour rather than tragedy.
Minecraft: Story Mode exists in direct opposition to this. It wants you to be as close to your character as possible. It has a number of tricks that it works to pull this off. For the first time in a Telltale game, you are able to choose your character’s race and gender. Bear in mind that this selection screen does not present a default to be changed but a list of options to pick from; in presenting it this way it deliberately asks the player to take ownership of their character.
Now we come to the plot, which deliberately starts of very slow. Now this is understandable as Minecraft, unlike previously adapted materials, don’t have a real strong narrative base or concept to build off of so the writers, directors and designers here have to come build their own foundations. The begging of the first episode plays out as essentially an extended prologue. The event that will start to define the narrative arc of the series actually occurs right towards the end of the episode. Compare this to The Walking Dead, which has its zombie apocalypse start within minutes or The Wolf Among Us, in which the murder mystery conceit is unveiled after the first two/three scenes. Minecraft: Story Mode, takes much more time to chill out with its characters, acclimatise the player to the world before pushing them into high-stakes adventure.
So, what’s the beginning of this story about? Well, a group of young people amateur and aspiring monument constructors meet with a local group for a monument building competition, the winners of which will go on to a larger nationwide convention where they will meet a popular famous builder and holy shit; this game’s not about Minecraft is it? Cos its alleyway into the world is through the eyes of the fans. The lead characters are not Minecraft people, they’re Minecraft players, those whose desires and experiences at the beginning here directly relate to those of a new Minecraft player.
You might spend some time playing on your own, play with people you know, join an online server, make friends there, participate in huge construction projects, maybe go to a convention someday, maybe dream about it. We all been young, and sure, my experiences have been through different media, different modes of interaction, however, I get how this feels. I’m sure that it was designed so that the target audience also be feeling this. Even if it’s not consciously there’s gonna be a connection between the player and the character built as we see them progress through this journey over the course of an hour, remember, Harry don’t get to Hogwarts until almost halfway through The Philosopher’s Stone.
Also, check the treatment of the game world’s heroes. The game begins with a Lord of the Rings-esque history montage, catching the player up on the world’s mythology. Towards the end of the first episode, when you finally meet one of them, these heroes of yore, whose memory has faded into Legend, they turn out to be around twenty something. Because, of course they would be, the true heroes of Minecraft, those Youtubers and streamers are all that age too. A comparison made literal in later episodes wherein they actually invited popular Minecraft celebrities to join the voice cast.
It’s possibly too obvious I guess, but we’re working with a young audience here, I’m just surprised that we never really heard discussion of the amazing conceptual work done by this team when the game was released. I’m gonna say probably because the reviewing population are adults. I dunno, always seems hard for unapologetic YA media to get a fair shake just wanted to give this one its due.