What does it mean to remind a cartoon character they're a cartoon? [We] came to the conclusion that cartoon characters are made of paint, you know they squash and stretch when they move, they're not subject to the same laws of physics that we are, and wouldn't it be cool if we gave a cartoon character control over the stuff of which he is made? And so that was Mickey - hey, let's give him control over his paint, his own paint.
--Warren Spector on his forthcoming game
At last year's GDC Choice Awards, I saw Warren Spector walk on stage sporting a puckish smile and a pair of mouse ears on his head. At that moment, a question was answered for me about Spector.
Why, I had wondered, would the man who helped bring us System Shock, Deus Ex, and Thief throw himself into a game featuring Disney's kid-friendly corporate shill? Was he mad, desperate, or both?
No, Spector's ebullience and child-like gleam suggested something entirely different to me. I've seen that look, and I know what it means. The forthcoming Epic Mickey isn't just another notch on Spector's belt or line on his vita. It's the culmination of a career devoted to games. Yes, a Mickey Mouse title for a console past its prime is Warren Spector's passion project. It's time to recalibrate our expectations.
Every artist arrives at a point in his career (painters and filmmakers seem to reach it around the age of 45-50) when he embarks on a project he's waited years to undertake. Spector, an avid collector of Disney memorabilia and self-confessed Disney animation nut, has described Epic Mickey as a dream-come-true opportunity to make a game starring the most famous cartoon character in history.
It's a natural fit, and nearly every recent interview with Spector has documented his lifelong Disney obsession (e.g. "He owns over 35 button-down shirts featuring Mickey.") But if you examine the broader scope of Spector's ideas, you'll discover his connection to the project runs far deeper than mere fandom. This game is Spector's passion project, not simply because he's working at the factory Walt built.
Epic Mickey is Spector's chance (with plenty of funding and creative control) to realize a series of design ideas he's been formulating for 30 years. I've been tracking Spector's aspirational comments about the game since it was announced last year, and I've followed Junction Point's "behind the scenes" developer videos since they began appearing last June. Call me gullible or hopelessly optimistic, but Epic Mickey is the game on the horizon I'm most excited to play.
Why? Partly because Spector sees Epic Mickey as an opportunity to reclaim precious material, restoring the character's original expressive animation and devious nature ("Mickey is an adventurous and rambunctious mouse."). Epic Mickey is a much-needed (and Disney-approved) reboot of a character who's become little more than a corporate logo to most of us.
When artists feel driven by a sense of ownership over material they perceive as detached from its defining vision - consider Christopher Nolan's reboot of Batman, for example - they often produce inspired work. It's creativity channeled through mission. It's personal.
Spector is similarly driven to restore Walt Disney's original creation, Oswald the Rabbit, to prominence. Epic Mickey will mark Oswald's first appearance in a Disney story since Walt lost the right to draw Oswald in 1928. To hear Spector tell it, featuring Oswald in Epic Mickey is about more than resuscitating an obscure Disney asset; it's about bringing Mickey's long-lost brother home. Again, it's personal.
Spector also feels an obligation to remain faithful to Mickey's early cell animation roots, while also placing him in a player's hands. "It's this exquisite balancing act between beautiful animation - expressive, emotion-filled, communicative animation - and the player's need for split-second control." During pre-production, animators at Junction Point went so far as to recreate famous sequences featuring Mickey - translating them to 3D game environments - to better understand his movement and expressions.
But Spector has other fish to fry besides restoring an 82-year-old rodent's luster. He's always been interested in storytelling, and his remarks on a variety of design-related subjects leading up to the release of Epic Mickey suggest he's continuing to refine the vision he began formulating back in the Ultima days. I'll let Spector do the talking for awhile.
The key to game stories is to recognize the place of stories in games. It's not about an author telling a story to a reader. It's not about a director conveying information to a passive audience that just interprets what they're seeing on the screen. It's about providing situations, problems that are personally significant to players that they then get to decide how to interact with.
...we knew where the boundaries were and since we helped to create them, we never felt particularly constrained by them - no more than you're constrained creatively in any endeavour. I mean, we couldn't put magic in Deus Ex and you wouldn't have a 747 land in the middle of Red Dead Redemption, would you? All creative efforts happen within constraints. Disney was an active participant, with the team and me, in defining where the lines were.
On "choice" in games:
I hope my games are known for allowing players to choose but, most importantly, showing players the consequences of their choices. Choice without consequence isn't worth the effort - it's tough making a game that isn't just about solving puzzles.
And so...when you say "real choices" and "real consequences" - which everybody says now - the only definition of "real", which is the important word, is something that effects the player's ability to do something in the game... There has to be a real tangible consequence for the player in the game, not just the fiction. So that's kind of the consequence that I think is important.
On good/evil morality games:
In Disney Epic Mickey, there is absolutely no good Mickey and bad Mickey, there is no evil Mickey and righteous Mickey; there is no morality system. There is "what kind of hero am I?"... "who should Mickey be?" That's all there is. If anybody sees a judgment in this game, it is an absolute failure on my part, and I don't think they'll find it.
If you go back and look at Deus Ex, in particular...anybody who can say there's a good way to solve problems and a bad way to solve problems was not paying attention as they play. There are just different choices and different consequences... I hate telling players what good and evil is, and I hate telling players what's right and wrong. What I want to do is throw situations out there, and let them explore for themselves, and come to their own conclusions about that.
On Epic Mickey as a mash-up homage:
One of the goals of the game was to honour Disney's creative history, as well as Nintendo's. I love the Mario and Zelda games and have been waiting a long time to make a game inspired by them.
Clearly the game has been pretty up front about the fact that this game is - my goal anyway - is that it be a combination of the best of platform games, the best of action-adventure games, and the best of Deus Ex-style role playing.
Talk is cheap and passion projects don't always succeed. Someday we'll hear Will Wright deliver a frank Spore postmortem, and it will undoubtedly be fascinating. Such projects, even when they fail, are inevitably full of ideas worth exploring.
Creative directors are expected to become full-time evangelists in the months preceding their game's release. Salesmanship is part of the job. Even so, Spector's fervid enthusiasm for his new game is hard to resist. Something about that gleam in his eye makes me believe he has something special for us, arriving later this month. See ya real soon, Mickey.