By Isaac Smith
As someone who composes music for a living, there’s a grudging acceptance of those who are in my field, but just make new arrangements of other people’s music.
And I have grudgingly accepted Telltale Games’ ability to make good games from other people’s franchises. It’s not that I wouldn’t prefer them to go off on their own artistic direction and create amazing, unique stories. But I enjoy the fact that they’ve made playable versions of stories in the universes of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and now Minecraft.
I have put more hours into Minecraft than all of my other indie games combined. I’m a fan, as are about 20 million other people. And, one could argue, that I went into this new game with unrealistically high expectations. I’d like to reassure you that it’s not true. The game never purported to be exactly like Minecraft, and even in its trailer seemed to focus more on the RPG aspect of the game, rather than its Minecraft-ness I appreciated that! The art style seemed a lot more similar to Slamacow, which has a much more cinematic, less purely functional style. Perfect for the medium! And there was voice acting, a fact which alone set my expectations clearly within the realm of, “Good, but very different.” I’m not even going to complain that it’s episodic. The formula works for Telltale, and hasn’t stopped them producing good games in the past.
But I was disappointed at nearly every turn. The art style differed from Slamacow‘s in one notable element: the mouth. It might seem small at first, but replacing Slamacow‘s regularly rendered mouth with 6 pixels and expecting to have the same depth or range of emotion was foolhardy of Telltale games, especially when you consider all of Slamacow‘s animations are silent, and Telltale had the added task of rendering the characters speaking. The mouths looked like the pixel version of a badly drawn (and poorly dubbed) anime.
Next, let’s talk about the level design. The camera is fixed, which obliterates (like the proverbial unseen creeper) the immersive, 3-D feel of Minecraft. What’s worse is that there are invisible walls everywhere. Crowds aren’t made up of actual people, they’re just animations behind the wall of the level that you can’t interact with or enjoy. The levels are often very linear, and exploring is punished as often as it is rewarded. I should mention that your character moves with maddening slowness without the use of the “sprint” feature, which seems highly irrelevant, given how rarely your character actually has anywhere to sprint.
Gameplay is also terrible. Interacting with objects is tedious at best, and frustratingly difficult at worst. Finding out exactly where an object is in 3D space when the camera doesn’t flippin’ move is a huge challenge, and not the good kind of challenge. There’s a significant delay between when you click an object and when you interact with it. Dialogue options have a timer on them, which makes you choose things without careful consideration and often suffer the consequences of simply not having enough time to think things through.
Keeping with that theme, literally all of the action in Minecraft Story Mode is in the form of button-mashing quick-time events. God of War has shown us that quick-time doesn’t have to suck, but in this case, the suckitude is at its maximum setting. The game makes no distinction between the arrow keys and WASD (and in fact accepts both inputs, even while sometimes displaying the arrows on the screen and sometimes letters). The reason this is problematic is because there are also clicking quick-time actions. I’ve failed at certain obstacles because I pressed an arrow key (like the game told me to do), only to have to click something else immediately after, not having used the mouse for several minutes beforehand. The quick-time mouse clicking also suffers from the same input lag that the world interaction does.
Through the sludge-fest that was the first hour of this game, there were some nuggets of gold. The first is the voice acting. Jesse (the main character) is voiced by Patton Oswalt as a male, and Catherine Taber as a female. Patton Oswalt is most famous for his voicing of the main character in Rattatouille, but Catherine Taber has mad video game cred. Both do an admirable job. There’s a star-studded cast, and the quick pace of the dialogue almost makes having timed conversation options justifiable. The game also sports a good sense of humor and doesn’t overly telegraph its jokes like many games involving voice actors.
In the title, I called the series a cash grab, and although it may not be completely fair, I’m standing by it. The game as a whole does benefit from the Minecraft universe. There are bits and pieces of dialogue, gameplay and easter eggs that people who’ve never played Minecraft (do those people exist?) wouldn’t latch on to. But for all the nostalgia and Minecraft lore that Telltale puts into Minecraft Story Mode, there’s a more compelling reason to make a Minecraft franchise: to use the most recognizable name in video games to sell a subpar game in a different genre to a huge audience who probably won’t enjoy it.