A year before Kickstarter became a household name among video gamers, 2 Player Productions were comfortably successful in their attempt to use the site to crowdfund a feature-length documentary about the creators of Minecraft. Nearly two years on, a hundred minute documentary is the result. A mixture of montages and talking heads (and featuring some of the games industry’s most famous figures), it looks outward much more than it looks inward and is more a film about the reach and the impact of Minecraft than it is the game itself, or the studio that created it.
But is it good? And is it worth watching? Only if you’re a Minecraft fan, because The Story of Mojang feels like a film for fans and perhaps even by fans. While that satisfies someone like me, I don’t know if it’s going to convert you.
On the surface of it. the Story of Mojang apparently covers a year and a bit in the life of the developer, from the start of 2011, through Minecon and the official launch of “finished” Minecraft in November that year, all the way up to Notch handing control of the game to Jeb. But it’s not an exhaustive documentary that explains how the game was made, what it’s like to work at Mojang or how the team came to make the choices and the changes that they did. 2011 was a busy year for the development and expansion of Minecraft, with the addition of everything from villages to pistons to plain old beds, but you wouldn’t know know it from this film. In fact, you’d hardly even know how Minecraft is played.
You would know that everyone in the games industry adores it. Tim Schafer says so. Penny Arcade say so. The Yogscast duo say so. Between their stories of discovery and memories of their first times playing, we’re treated to footage of ever more elaborate Minecraft builds, or fan videos, or examples of what the community has been up to.
Meanwhile, Notch has much less to say about his game, but remains humble and perpetually surprised by a growing fan response wherever he goes, returning home from awards ceremonies with heaps of trophies and quietly hoping that a “few hundred” people might come to the first Minecon. He’s asked few penetrating questions and instead we get to see glimpses of him as he goes about the business of being the games designer we’ve all come to love, the diligent, introverted and friendly developer who simply likes to play and who, even after the game sells millions of copies, is still nervous about the reviews scores it will get.
We also get to meet some of Minecraft’s biggest fans, the players who built computers inside the game or who sculpted the USS Enterprise to scale, even the children whose classroom activities now include time playing the game. One of the film’s very best moments comes when a young girl tells her interviewer that her favourite subject at school is computers, something that really speaks for the positive influence this game has had.
There’s a lot to be said for documenting how far Minecraft has spread and how it continues to inspire and influence more and more players to share and create, functioning like some sort of pyramid scheme of fun. It’s transcended what we’d expect from a game and as Matt Needler of the FyreUK server explains during one of the interviews, “I wouldn’t even call Minecraft a game any more, it’s come so much further than that. It’s a platform.”
And there are moments like this when the film really shines, when someone has more to say than simply that Minecraft is a great game, but instead has a meaningful insight into what Minecraft really is and the impact that it has had. Perhaps the best of these moments belongs to Peter Molyneux, who gives two choice commentaries on what the game is and why it’s so remarkable. It’s the new “social Lego,” he explains, in the first.
“Lego used to be a creative toy, which I don’t think it is so much any more, it’s much more prescriptive,” he says. “Lego at the moment is like traditional games design: buy the box, open the box, turn to the instruction sheet, make the model, stick it on the shelf. That’s exactly like traditional game design: buy the game, go through the challenges… Lego used to be just a big box of bricks. You used to take the bricks, pour them on the carpet and then make stuff. That’s exactly what Minecraft is.”
The film whisks us away to look at some more footage of what people have built, or to listen to them saying how they’ve had a good time, but I was left pondering Molyneux’s comments, in which he credits Minecraft as showing the games industry as “complacent” and suggests its “desperately needs things like Minecraft to come along and slap us around the face and say ‘All those things that you thought were absolutely certain in your life, they’re not certain any more.’” Towards the end of the film, when he speaks a second time, he sounds almost emotional as he says the game is “far better” than anything he’s created, that it’s inspired him and that he hopes he has one more good game left. During the closing credits, the film even cites Minecraft as Molyneux’s inspiration for leaving Microsoft and founding 22cans.
And this was part of my problem with this documentary. By the end of it I had the feeling I knew at least as much about how Peter Molyneux felt as I did about how how Notch felt. The Story of Mojang is a light, fluffy feelgood documentary about a feelgood game that bounces from success to success, from endorsement to endorsement, but without ever really studying anything in detail or telling us very much that we didn’t already know. The result is a film that’s often charming, frequently sweet, but never particularly deep. We get to see how popular the game is and how inspiring it’s been, as if we didn’t know that already, but we get no sense of the hard work that has gone into it or much insight of the personalities and decisions that shaped it.
Even for a fan like me, a hundred minute documentary about Minecraft would never be enough. The game is too big, the community is too big, the potential is too big. The Story of Mojang is a respectable but cursory attempt to try and sum up everything that this game has become, but 2 Player Productions’ documentary spends much more of its time looking at effects rather than at causes. It’s much a story about where Minecraft has gone rather than where it has come from, and many of us know that already.