Everyone recognizes Mickey Mouse, but how many can say where he comes from? For all his comfortable familiarity, Disney’s iconic disc-eared mascot has a murky mythology. Besides his wide-eyed sorcery-slinging role in Fantasia, he’s best known for piloting a steamboat, getting a goat to huff out “Turkey in the Straw,” and smacking around a cat, some baby pigs, and a goose. Before that, he flew a self-built plane (badly) in an attempt to woo Minnie Mouse (violently) before crash-landing. His signature saucer-ears appear on greeting cards, signs, hotel placards, backpacks, club hats, cookie cutters, and head bands. He’s beloved the world round, a wink and a smile in red shorts, white buttons, and yellow booties who’s somehow transcended calculated origin stories and canonical histories.
Enter Epic Mickey for the Nintendo Wii, Disney’s intrepid handover of its mainstream mascot to Warren Spector, a designer best known for his edgy, dystopian games like the conspiracy-obsessed cyber-RPG Deus Ex and its similarly skittish but less cohesive sequel. But Deus Ex was hardly Spector’s apotheosis. His better output includes Ultima VI: The False Prophet (one of the first games to grapple with racism), Wings of Glory (a creaky, wood-wonderful, zeppelin-flush World War I flight-sim to shame Red Baron), Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (the first-person RPG that beat id Software to fluid, fully-3D motion), and System Shock, a dread-spiked mash of William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke that design compatriot Ken Levine’s BioShock channeled to the masses–salt-and-peppered with Randian objectivism and philosophical determinism–over a decade later.
Spector’s last credited game was Thief: Deadly Shadows, the last installment in the medieval stealth series released in 2004. He’s been silent running since, popping up in interviews or on design panels, but MIA from the “published” scene for half a decade. His Junction Point Studios, formed in 2005, was snapped up by Disney in 2007 without a game to its name. Earlier this summer, leaks revealed Spector was working on a project for the Wii starring Mickey Mouse.
Purchased by Disney? A Mickey Mouse game? Sounded a bit sellout-ish for a guy with Spector’s creds. After all, Disney Interactive Studios describes Epic Mickey as “an adventure-platforming game with light role-playing elements.” Not exactly brainpan-blowing. How many riffs on Kingdom Hearts–already dark, ethically composite, and thoroughly Disney-fied–do we need?
Consider Epic Mickey’s premise, in which “a sorcerer named Yen Sid creates a beautiful, whimsically-twisted world where Disney`s forgotten and retired creations thrive.” Think back to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” slice of 1940’s Fantasia. Remember the bulge-eyed, blue-robed sorcerer who conjures vaporous demons and butterflies from a skull? Disney’s animators nicknamed him “Yen Sid” (think about the name’s letter order for a moment and its import should come to you).
In Spector’s version, Walt Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit–Disney’s first cartoon star created in 1927–is trapped in Yen Sid’s “cartoon wasteland” where he tends other neglected Disney toons. Why would Yen Sid torment these characters by relegating them to pen-and-paper isolation? Is Spector’s Yen Sid (think about that name again) a not-so-subtle jab at tactless commercialism? Who knows, but it’s all grist for Oswald, whose envy of Mickey’s popularity conflates with circumstances in which Mickey accidentally devastates Oswald’s world. The game subequently requires players assume the role of Mickey and grapple with the consequences of that unintentional, disastrous gaffe.
“Mickey is an adventurous and rambunctious mouse,” said Spector in Disney’s press release. “I want to bring his personality to the forefront, place him in a daunting world and connect his spirited character with video game players worldwide. Ultimately, each player decides for him- or herself what makes Mickey cool.”
Using the Wii Remote, players wield magic-tinged paint and paint-thinner to alter the world in positive or negative ways. According to Disney, painting represents “creativity,” while using paint-thinner has a “damaging effect.” Your decisions impact the world directly and alter your relationships with other characters, your appearance, and abilities.
Turning iconic character inside out became de rigueur ages ago. It’s a trick done with light and cameras, a way to make the familiar interesting by recalibrating the lens. Alan Moore’s themes in Watchmen seemed archetypal (matters of technique notwithstanding) only if all you’d read up to 1986 and 1987 were comic books. Likewise games, where we tend to mistake novelty or development within the medium for depth beyond it. At first blush Epic Mickey sounds like another edgy ret-con. But only at first blush.
“The core of this game is the idea of choice and consequence, and how that defines both the character and the player,” says Spector. “By putting the mischievous Mickey in an unfamiliar place and asking him to make choices–to help other cartoon characters or choose his own path–the game forces players to deal with the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, players must ask themselves, ‘What kind of hero am I?’ Each player will come up with a different answer.”
Will Spector’s Epic Mickey upend our expectations? Does it even need to? There’s already questionable buzz about the game’s ties to T.S. Eliot’s tendentious poem “The Waste Land,” not an easy work, and from a poet whose elite, inhibited views on aesthetics and theory ineluctably color his artistic import.
“You have to throw in literary references every once in awhile,” said Spector, in an interview with Kotaku, adding, however, that it’s Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials) that really trips his trigger.
“What Philip Pullman does is inspiration in everything I want to do,” he said. “You can make something that appeals to kids but is interesting to adults as well.”
A worthy challenge. We’ll have an early sense for how well Epic Mickey’s rising to it by next summer’s E3. The finished game should ship around this time next year.