Why a Mickey Mouse platformer proved a surprise fit for a sci-fi fanatic and adventure gaming legend.
Warren Spector carved a name for himself with fantasy RPGs and stark sci-fi games that mixed roleplaying with first-person shoot’em ups years before Mass Effect - games with titles like “Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss”, “System Shock” and “Deus Ex”.
Not the first port of call you’d expect Disney to make when it came to making a new Mickey Mouse game, in other words. Disney though, has started taking the kinds of risks with games that billion pound multi-national companies usually aren’t known for - like missing The Avengers game's movie deadline.
Spector is a gaming legend, but his back catalogue of classics doesn’t reflect one thing: he’s been a lifelong animation fan, and a Disney one at that. Which made him just the person for the dark, demented universe of 2010’s Epic Mickey. A Nintendo Wii Mickey Mouse platforming game set in the Wasteland, a bleak realm of forgotten Disney characters from decades gone by, it was more Steampunk Mickey than Steamboat Mickey.
“We spent years - literally - generating concept art before homing in on the melancholy world of contrast that is Wasteland,” Spector tells Red Bull UK. And some of it, leaked online in the run up to launch, was spectacular: gloomy, windswept takes on the iconic Cinderella Castle, nightmarish clockwork elephants from the Dumbo dream sequence.
Epic Mickey 2, newly released, is more colourful and upbeat than its predecessor, though the core game mechanic - Mickey has to paint the world right again with his brush - remains the same. Spector says however that this only serves to make the Wasteland’s underbelly seem even more grim.
“We tried everything from dystopic steampunk looks to monochromatic cartoony stuff but ultimately settled on a look that's vivid and colorful in some places while dark and decrepit in others. That ‘world of contrasts’ was important to me and the team. We needed people to see hints of what Wasteland used to be, and to feel like they'd been there before,” he says.
Epic Mickey 2 isn’t just a rehash with the contrast turned up though. “We went into development of the first Disney Epic Mickey game with a pretty good idea of what we'd do if we were lucky enough to make a second one, so we didn't start with a blank screen and an empty hard drive,” says Spector.
First on Spector’s wishlist was to make Oswald the Lucky Rabbit the star. You’ve probably never heard of him, but to cartoon geek Spector, that’s the point: he wants to bring back all the Disney characters who’d never see the light of day again, namedropping characters like Aracuan Bird and Eega Beeva in our conversation - no, us neither. And Oswald was one of the very first Disney creations: Walt created him before he even set up his own studio. Disney in fact only nabbed the rights to him again in 2006.
“Beyond that, we had the advantage of having earned some credibility and trust with the first game. Everyone knew we'd be respectful of Disney's heritage, which is really what the Disney Epic Mickey games are all about,” says Spector.
There was some give and take however. While Disney execs originally pitched the twisted take on its universe to Spector’s game studio, Junction Point, they still had their limits.
“[Disney] weren't crazy about the darker, more monochromatic concepts,” he says. “We just had to find a visual style that expressed that idea to everyone's satisfaction.”
Spector, who immersed himself in the Disney archives preparing the games, is giddy at the prospect of all the old material still gathering dust in the company library.
“Oh man, there are so many aspects of Disney's history to draw from, we'll never run out of material. There are all sorts of forgotten characters, concepts from films that were never made, rides that have been retired from the Parks or never built at all,” he says. “We could map games for the next 80 years about Disney's last 80.”
“I should probably keep some secrets, but I'd love to do something with all the rejected versions of Tinkerbell [from Peter Pan] we saw in the archives – I think fans would get a huge kick out of that.”
Spector won’t say what he’s working on next, though he namechecks some classic Disney characters he’s itching to give the Epic Mickey treatment to.
“I'd love to see the Disney Epic Mickey series continue - there are plenty of stories still to tell about Wasteland and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse! I'd love to see some Oswald games, where he's on his own. He deserves a shot at solo stardom. Then there are the ‘duck’ games - Donald, Scrooge, etc - that are just waiting to be made. And a bunch of us at Junction Point have thoughts about Goofy and the Gremlins and a hundred others.”
Spector does drop one hint though, almost by accident, when talking about the Epic Mickey soundtrack - which changes on the fly as Mickey paints his surroundings. “We go a step further, changing the actual orchestration based on how you choose to deal with game challenges.”
With the second game, Spector introduced song and dance Disney spectacles, albeit with a Wasteland twist. And he wants to go a step further next time.
“They're not interactive - in THIS game - but using songs as storytelling tools seemed necessary for a game that claims to honor Disney's creative history.”
So that’s the plan for Epic Mickey 3, we assume. An interactive Disney musical from the man who made System Shock? Stranger things have happened.
Epic Mickey 2 is out now for Nintendo Wii, Sony PS3 and Xbox 360