This September saw the sudden closure of Telltale Games: a studio that spent decades making point-and-click adventure games, found mainstream success with its Walking Dead series, and eventually over-extended its own formula. The studio's end meant the cancellation of several in-development projects, including a Stranger Things game, but one project that did get finished up by a small skeleton crew was the Netflix adaptation of Minecraft: Story Mode.
The game is Telltale's first – and now only – foray into presenting the studio's games on non-gaming hardware; players need only a Netflix account and a remote control or touchscreen input. Playing through the early sections gives some insight into the direction Telltale was heading before it had to close the doors, not least in how the experience has been smoothed-out and simplified for a more mainstream audience.
The first season of Minecraft: Story Mode follows a group of friends in the Minecraft universe who have to search for a collection of heroes in order to defeat a legendary evil. The original game featured a number of interactive elements to allow players to take part in the story. You could walk around the 3D environments, pick between dialogue options to branch the narrative, find (or miss) specific clues and items, and mash buttons to succeed at QTEs.
The Netflix version changes this up in some pretty interesting ways. First and foremost, there's a new introduction sequence aimed at giving non-gamers an idea of what to expect from this interactive experience as opposed to watching a TV show. It explains the concept of a Telltale-style choice-based adventure, laying out the parameters for when you will or won't be expected to make choices, and giving viewers early opportunities to play around and make sure they get the hang of things.
There are also a lot of changes here relating to visual clarity around when choices occur, and straight-out simplifying of mechanics. In the Netflix version, any time that a choice or interaction is possible, you'll see a border come up around the screen to show that player input is possible. There are no surprises here, no quickfire choices coming out of nowhere dependent on timing; everything's heavily signposted.
On top of this, several choices and interactions have either been streamlined or removed completely. Players now simply choose between a male or female character, with skin tone no longer among the choices (it defaults to one of the original's non-white skin tones). Button-mashing segments have been replaced with cutscenes showing success, while certain choices that ultimately lead to the same outcome have been removed and these scenes now play out automatically with one of the original selections. Parts of the game where you would walk around and have the option to find or miss optional items now play out with your character automatically finding the materials required. Oh, and all the combat sections have been removed, and replaced with cutscenes.
Put so baldly, this might not sound so good. But while this simplification strips away many gaming elements of Minecraft: Story Mode, I can't say I mind all that much. This was always an experience based more around watching a story play out and trying to manage character interactions, thinking about the big choices that you knew would upset someone or have consequences, and that core is definitely still intact.
Considering that this essentially amounts to a set of videos, with players clicking buttons to decide which video to watch next, it's somewhat surprising that many of Netflix's usual video control tools are conspicuously absent. You can skip back to a previous scene, but you can't jump forward to a later part in the story. There's no fast-forwarding to the next choice-based moment and no rewinding if you missed a moment of dialogue which, while in keeping with the games, may feel a little restrictive to an audience used to having more control.
Telltale's Minecraft: Story Mode on Netflix isn't really for me, but showcases what might have been: an interesting and considered approach to bringing a Telltale-style adventure to a non-gaming entertainment platform. It's worth remembering that, even though Telltale's Stranger Things project obviously won't be happening as envisaged, Netflix says it's "in the process of evaluating other options for bringing the Stranger Things universe to life in an interactive medium."
This is a good example of how that relationship could have blossomed, and something of a signpost towards where these giant streaming platforms may go with a certain genre of games. The Netflix version of Minecraft: Story Mode is designed not to intimidate players, and provide as smooth an experience as possible, while retaining that magical touch of feeling like you're changing the story. For all it streamlines, you still feel in control. There's a touch of melancholy here because this gets more right than it gets wrong but, even if Minecraft: Story Mode is successful in appealing to this larger audience, it's all-too-late for Telltale.