'Minecraft' with a story isn't as weird as you'd think

A story-driven game about Minecraft, the block-building phenomenon adored by children and adults alike, might sound a tad contradictory. By design, Minecraft has little in the way of plot or characters -- the world is randomly generated and the best "stories" occur naturally based on what you decide to build and explore. The game's open nature is what makes it special, and it's also the reason why Minecraft: Story Mode, a spin-off title with a carefully crafted plot, has been met with so much skepticism. Minecraft works because it doesn't have a story -- is it possible, or right, for another developer to give it one?

Telltale Games is best known for adventure game adaptations of popular franchises such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Fables. Unlike Minecraft, these properties come with established stories, characters and mythology that the team can work with. Using its own game engine and a comic book art style, Telltale typically offers a game "season" comprised of five episodes. These are broken down into cutscenes, branching conversations, quick-time events and puzzles. Occasionally, you'll get the chance to walk through an environment, but there's little in the way of exploration or creativity. You want freeform building and crafting, like that found in Minecraft? Better look elsewhere.

Despite these enormous differences, Minecraft: Story Mode works. It's a charming celebration of the game that made Markus "Notch" Persson a billionaire, and its narrative and characters feel like they fit the world -- despite them never being mentioned in the original game. In episode one, you take on the role of Jesse, and unlike most Telltale games you can choose between a boy or a girl, as well as one of three different races. It's a nice touch and immediately gave me some sense of attachment to the character, voiced by either Patton Oswalt (best known for his roles in Ratatouille and The King of Queens) or Catherine Taber (you might recognize her voice from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Final Fantasy XII or Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker). With a small group of friends, you set out to win a building tournament at a Minecon-style convention called Endercon.

You won't find any reference to Jesse's treehouse, his or her pet pig Reuben or the Endercon competition in the original Minecraft game. Which could have been a problem, but Telltale quickly won me over in a few different ways. For one, Story Mode doesn't claim to be the definitive storyline for Minecraft. It's a different take on the blocky franchise and is set in its own, separate version of the Minecraft world. That gives the writers room to experiment, while also protecting the source material. Story Mode also weaves in countless elements that will be familiar to fans of the original game. Creepers, beacons and portals all appear in episode one, and are easily recognizable. When Telltale does introduce a new idea -- for instance, a colorful amulet used to locate important characters -- it doesn't feel out of place in the Minecraft universe. Story Mode is respectful to the original game by expanding, but never abusing Minecraft's established items and mechanics.

The pacing is a little slow to begin with, but once the Endercon building competition ends, the plot kicks into a much higher gear. At the very beginning, Telltale introduces a group of heroes called the Order of the Stone, which once defeated the Ender Dragon and subsequently faded into legend. The peril the world now faces is linked to these members, and it's here the developer sets up a few of the overarching mysteries for the five-part season. It's nothing exceptional, but I'm intrigued enough to play the remaining episodes.

Story Mode is supposed to be family-friendly, so there are some limitations regarding the writing and where Telltale can take its cheery characters. Other properties that it's adapted in the past, such as The Walking Dead and Fables (The Wolf Among Us), have given the team more opportunities to create darker and more unpredictable personalities with devious plans. These provoke stronger reactions in the player, trickier decisions and more complex relationships with the characters you choose to side with. Most of Story Mode's cast is likeable (aside from Jesse's friend Axel, who tends to be impulsive and self-centered), so I spent most of my playthrough just trying to be best friends with everyone.

That said, the characters are distinctive and have quirky, energetic personalities. All of them have clear motivations and desires, which makes it easier to predict the consequences of each dialogue decision. Previous Telltale games have suffered from occasionally stiff scripts and inconsistent pacing -- an inevitability, perhaps, with branching storylines -- but they've always made me care about the characters. The same holds true in Story Mode, which is a testament to the quality of the writing. Jesse's friends might be a little shallow, but they're also easy to root for. I really want my "Nether Maniacs" (early on, you get to choose your team name for the building competition) to survive and stay together, so I'm interested to see how the game tries to pull them apart in later episodes.

Even if you've never played Minecraft before, there's a lot to like in Story Mode's first chapter. It's a charming, if simple tale with interesting characters and a few memorable set pieces. In terms of game design, it couldn't be further from Minecraft, but somehow Telltale has managed to make it work. I'm putting that down to the quality of the writing and the way it cleverly integrates classic items, monsters and gameplay mechanics. Story Mode raids everything in Minecraft's toolbox to support its own storytelling, and ultimately it works to great effect. The game could have been a lazy and awkward cash-in, but instead it's a smart, respectful spin-off that celebrates Minecraft's special brand of creativity.