If you asked me today what the best game of the past decade was, it would be Minecraft. Easily. I’ve turned in hundreds of hours across a variety of servers mining, crafting, building, and destroying worlds populated with billions of blocks. Minecraft became a global phenomenon because it was the first MMO-style game that allowed for both the intimacy of your own projects and the ability to grow communities in a world that can be edited as much as you’d like. 2 Player Productions (Penny Arcade TV’s first season, the new Double Fine Adventure documentary) has been working on The Story of Mojang for years, having launched a Kickstarter to document the development of the game and its influence on the world and gaming culture. Unfortunately, its haphazard construction left me wanting.
As The Story of Mojang opens, we meet with Markus “Notch” Persson on a cold New Year’s Eve in his homeland of Sweden. The celebration, which comes just months after the initial explosive growth of Minecraft, serves as the beginning of a weak frame device that gives us a look into the development of Minecraft and the beginning of his company, Mojang. We watch as the game’s popularity has allowed Mojang to grow from Notch operating alone with the support of his lovely fiance to a batch of new hires amongst friends, complete with a brand new office. This alone could have been an incredible documentary, the bulk of which was represented in 2 Player Production’s initial pitch to investors, but somehow they get everything wrong. The movie follows Notch and the Mojang crew through the year 2011, including the first Minecon in Las Vegas, but these are not fine cuts of meat we’re provided. Within half an hour, I was bored of Notch and crew sitting around at awards dinners, sitting at tables in restaurants, or welcoming the latest hire.
There’s no arc here, there’s no exciting reveal or fantastic conclusion. There’s very little footage demonstrating how the game came to be, aside from a brief glimpse of an early prototype or a blurry image on a distant laptop. There’s no breakdown on why they made specific design choices. Subsequent content, like the massive Adventure add-on that released during the scope of the film, appears out of nowhere with none of the nuts and bolts that went into its development. The movie reminds me a lot of the documentary Startup.com in which an innovative startup is presented as a myriad of B-roll, completely out of context. If we watch it and understand it, that’s our own reward. The Story of Mojang isn’t quite as dry, but it’s underwhelming if you were trying to get a look into what makes Minecraft what it is.
So if most of the narrative was shot before the investors came in, what makes up the rest of the movie? Interviews. Lots of interviews and conventions. Tim Schafer, Peter Molyneux, the Yogscast guys, Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade, that guy who lead that crazy 1:1 scale reproduction of the USS Enterprise-D, and Mountain Dew-chuggin’ journalist Geoff Keighley all get camera time as they talk about Minecraft’s influence on their gaming lives and careers. We even see Minecraft used as an education tool in the classroom, one I would’ve loved to have been in, which teases at Minecraft’s permanence and value in society, a theme the documentary skirts. It makes the threadbare narrative more palatable, but not by much. At 104 minutes, the film drags worse than leveling out a mountain in the game with a single pickaxe. The film’s editor takes no chances with voiceovers as we’re given a lot of talking head time followed by rolling Minecraft footage and amateurish on-screen graphics that make the post-scripts almost unreadable. We see a snippet of the YouTube video that shows off a full 16-bit computer built in the game, then we fade away to an interview with the same guy and more footage of the calculator. Unnecessary. They could have cut half an hour out of this film easily. I should know.
I’m not sure how 2 Player Productions made such a boring documentary out of such a landmark game, but they did. The Story of Mojang, despite some clever insight, is a mess. There’s an interesting story buried in here somewhere, but we only get the coattails. They had every opportunity to learn from the fantastic Indie Game: The Movie and maybe they just didn’t have the footage to pull it off. Enthusiasts only need apply, so for the rest of you, just keep playing Minecraft.