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November 2010

Plush tech


When I was a kid the future looked like this. 


Modern. Sleek. Cool. Technology, we dreamed, would deliver us a touchscreen-controlled, voice-activated world in which humans harness technology, build a peaceful world, and look fabulous doing it.

In my own lifetime, this streamlined aesthetic extends from the Starship Enterprise to the iPad, and it's only logical to note that Jonathan Ive was conceived at roughly the same time NBC aired the first episode of Star Trek, the original series.

Picard_padd_listing We now live in the computer-centric future Star Trek imagined, but with even cooler gadgets. I mean, who needs a separate Tricorder and Communicator when an iPhone functions as both?

Heck, if I were the Captain of anything, I could record my Captain's Log on my tablet computer (i.e. iPad) decked out in Star Trek's futuristic LCARS UI. Yes, Dr. McCoy, there's an app for that.

So if we've already reached that techno-future (warp-speed and transporters aside), how does technology feed our wish-fulfillment now? Easy. Put Mr. Ive on furlough and bring in Captain Kangaroo. Now we want to play in a tactile world. We want cardboard, yarn, and corduroy. We want to re-connect with real-world things. Virtually, of course.

Kirbys-epic-yarn Wearing my amateur social scientist hat, it all makes sense. Our persistently-online existence - with our faces buried in digital devices and social interactions mediated by screens - makes us hungry to reconnect with soft, curvy, analogue things. There's something comforting about inhabiting a world I want to touch and squeeze and roll around in. The simplest activity, like pulling open a zipper in Kirby's Epic Yarn, feels something akin to eating a warm chocolate chip cookie. It feels like home.

Pikmin9 Note: click to enlarge images.

I trace this tactile visual style in games back to Pikmin, but we can find precursors in games like Conker's Bad Fur Day (N64) and Viva Piñata (Xbox), both developed by Rare. This analogue texture look requires serious digital horsepower, and Rare was among the first console developers to exploit the dynamic shadowing, colored lighting, and long draw distance necessary to pull it off. 

LittleBigPlanet More recently, we're seeing a spate of games with visual designs inspired by textiles and natural-world elements. Little Big Planet remains the touchstone for this tactile art style, with its levels and building materials made of paper, cardboard, wood, sponge, and stone.

Super mario galaxy 2 Super Mario Galaxy takes a more cartoonish approach, but many of its levels appear to be upholstered in plush canvas with soft features. The Black Hole planet is made of dirt and stone; Pear Planet and the Tropic Planets appear to be covered in felt. Starship Mario in SMG 2 looks like a giant plush toy begging to be hugged. 

KirbysEpicYarn The most cohesive application of tactile art design is also my latest gaming obsession: Kirby's Epic Yarn. Kirby navigates a world made entirely of fabric, buttons, zippers, yarn, and string. These elements fuse brilliantly with the game's mechanics, so leaping to grab a piece of string can help you reach a higher platform...or unravel an enemy.

Flock Flock, a thin but charming sandbox puzzler from last year, illustrates how this design aesthetic can elevate an otherwise shallow gaming experience. I lost interest in the repetitive gameplay fairly soon, but messing around with the physics in its cushy, whimsical pastures kept me playing longer that I otherwise might have. Similarly, Modnation Racers brings a vinyl art twist to the tactile concept, but in service of a game with problems under the hood.

Ilomilo And finally (for now), we have Ilomilo, an utterly cuddly puzzle game I'm enjoying to the hilt, despite my ineptitude with spatial puzzlers. I've spent only a short time with it, but the charming art style is a big reason I feel so connected to the game. More on this one soon.

We'll see if this tactile art design has legs and, if so, how it serves the games that use it. Kirby's Epic Yarn is a masterpiece (yeah, I went there), but not because it's a Kirby game in a sewing basket. KEY succeeds because the game is about its art design. The game and its distinctive visuals are one. We have a term for ostentatious design that fails to serve a larger core concept: gimmick.

Time for some more Ilomilo. Ooooh, I just want to squeeze that little dome-head guy!

Kirby's Epic Sound


Every video game conveys a world. From Tetris’ abstraction to Heavy Rain’s stab at photorealism, every game communicates a self-contained virtual environment to facilitate interaction. When a design team builds a signature world that expresses the essence of a game, we remember it forever. Defender. Rez. Ico. Wind Waker. Bioshock.

These games feature evocative visual designs, but each also relies heavily on sound and music to establish their distinctive worlds. Rez’s electronica; Wind Waker’s pan flute; Bioshock’s whale-like groans; Ico’s silence. If you’re a gamer of a certain vintage, you’ll know why this sound still puts me on the edge of my seat (click to listen):


You could say that Kirby’s Epic Yarn is all about its art design. Nearly all its play mechanics are derived from the properties of fabric and yarn (which I’ll discuss next time), and those elements were the original inspirations for the game. As KEY's producer has noted, “At first we were trying to make a game that would be fun simply having a yarn character walk around and unravel a variety of mechanisms and contrivances.”[1]

But, like the games I mentioned above, KEY also relies on an expressive palette of music to establish a playful sense of place, and its soundtrack does a extraordinary job of delivering the warmth, fun, and human touch that lie at the core of the game's overall design. KEY's soundtrack manages to add color to the most colorful game I've ever played.

In this post, I’ll take you on a musical tour of Kirby's Epic Yarn, and I’ll try to explain how its score reinforces the other design elements throughout the game. If music can make a player feel connected to the world she’s traversing, KEY succeeds like few other games. KEY feels at once like a familiar Kirby game and something completely fresh. Its music plays a major role in that achievement.

First, a few words about the musical concept for the game. Composer Tomoya Tomita, whose credits include several Castlevania titles, wanted to focus on “sound to express a softness as would befit a world of yarn.”[2] This softness is primarily expressed through piano, which is the most prominent instrumental voice heard in the game.

KEY’s gameplay and art design also convey a sense of warmth and simplicity, and these are captured in the score as well. The songs have a handmade quality that reflect the game’s sewing and fabric-based environments.

The sounds had been carefully selected to give a feeling of warmth. We thought we would aim for…sound that wasn't mechanical-sounding. We wanted to use only a few sounds so the characteristics of each song would stand out all the more. I decided to use my own hands to create the songs—playing bass or ukulele in some places—rather than programming them on a computer.[3]

NOTE: Click on a title bar to hear the music

Title Screen

Kirbys-epic-yarn-wallpaper-3-titlescreen The music underscoring KEY’s title screen sets the tone: a simple buoyant melody played on the piano that gradually segues to a more lush and open-ended sound, tinged with melancholy. The door to a mysterious world is opening.

Patch Castle

Kirby_patchland_0 In Patch Castle, the game’s tutorial level, we hear an unembellished little storybook tune; something a school child might listen to while practicing her letters. Many of the melodies you'll hear in these areas hearken back to previous Kirby games, but most have been simplified and sound even more childlike. The table is being set for the departure to come. 

Kirby's Pad

KirbyPad Similarly, in Kirby’s pad we hear a simple little wind-up toy ditty, reminding us that Kirby is and will always be a child. This melody will return later in far more intricate forms.


Fountain Gardens

Kirby_fountaingardens_3 When Kirby enters Grass Land, he embarks on his first adventure, and the music reflects the transition beautifully. This piece (“Fountain Gardens”) serves as KEY’s main theme, and it clearly evokes a feeling that Kirby’s journey has begun. This early stage, set amidst green trees, flower fields, and rainbow falls captures the cheerful tone of the Kirby series, and the music here - now fully orchestrated - conveys that too.

Rainbow Falls

Kirby_rainbowfalls_1 Elsewhere in the Grass Land hub, Kirby finds himself in Rainbow Falls, and the music here is jaunty and carefree. Kirby's Spin Boarder transformation is essentially a low-risk warmup for much faster versions that appear later in the game. For now, Kirby feels invincible.


Vs. Fangora

Kirby_fangora_1 Kirby’s boss fight with Fangoria abruptly shifts the music away from sweetness and light. For the first time we hear percussion featured prominently, and the style shifts to jazzy syncopation. Kirby’s world has turned more dangerous…but not by much. When the piano reappears in a big glissando, it all still sounds like fun.

Hot Land

Kirby_pyramidsands_3 When Kirby arrives in Hot Land, he’s a disoriented foreigner in an exotic locale, and the change is evident in the music. The instrumentation abruptly shifts, and a deep bass bellows underneath. Cheerful melody has given way to a trance-like middle-eastern vibe.


Lava Landing

Kirby_lavalanding_4 Later, in Lava Landing, Kirby’s familiar piano returns, but it’s shifted much farther down the scale. Its comforting tone has been replaced by a deep, daunting ostinato. Lava-pots and walking bombs impede Kirby's progress in this burnt-orange world.


Cool Cave

Kirby_coolcaves_6 Kirby finds temporary respite in a cool, but ominous cave. The music here moves back up the scale, as if in response to the change in temperature. It’s a dangerous but beautiful environment, full of spiky wheels and falling icicles, all in purple, blue and white. You can hear that cool tension in the music.

Dino Jungle

Kirby_dinojungle_1Kirby discovers a playful jungle with swimming dinosaurs and fire salamanders. Lots of fun platforming here amidst crazy creatures, and the syncopated rhythms amplify the adventure. It’s easy to feel a little cocky as Kirby in this level, swinging from pterodactyl to pterodactyl, and the music reinforces that feeling.

Melody Town

Kirby_melodyland_8 Treat Land brings a tonal shift as Kirby finds himself in a bizarrely colorful land of donuts, cakes, marshmallows, and stuffed bears. In Melody Town, he navigates an enormous musical staff, a harp, and giant piano keys. The tinny-sounding piano and performance style that underscore this section sound like a pianist playing a toy piano to a strict metronome.

Dark Manor

Kirby_darkmanor_0-1 The secret level in this world, Dark Manor, requires Kirby to find his way through an unlit mansion. The harp we saw in Melody Town figures prominently in this music, but it eventually gives way to a canny variation on the piano we’ve heard so often: a harpsichord playing a scary melody as Kirby climbs a series of staircases, locating lanterns to light his way.

Vs. Squashini

Kirby_squashini_6 Finally, Kirby faces the boss of Treat Land, Squashini, and all the instruments we’ve encountered along the way are woven together in a fast-moving and suspenseful mix. 


Splash Beach

Kirby_splashbeach_3 Kirby’s next stop is Splash Beach in Water Land, where the designers clearly decided to give the player a palette cleanser. Serene aqua environments are accompanied by a lovely solo guitar that musically captures Kirby’s new method of locomotion: he glides underwater as a tiny submarine.

Deep-Dive Deep

Kirby_deepdive_0 As Kirby descends deeper, the visuals evolve from surface aqua to deepwater blues and purples. The music grows richer too, evoking a beautiful, but mysterious land at the bottom of the sea. Kirby transforms from a submarine to a lithe dolphin, cutting through the water in graceful bursts of energy. This level may be the most effective mix of art, audio, and gameplay design in the game.

Frosty Wheel

Kirby_frostywheel_0 Snow Land is my least favorite world in KEY, but it does contain one level with the sweetest song in the game. Frosty Wheel puts Kirby on icy platforms in a barren frozen landscape. Pressing twice on the D-pad usually turns Kirby into a car, but here it turns him into a sled. Hitting a ramp, flying high into the air, lassoing a button, and launching Kirby even higher - to this spare, lovely musical accompaniment - is tactile platforming nirvana. I wish the other levels in this world were similarly inspired.

Future City

Kirby_futurecity_7 Another tonal shift awaits Kirby in Future City. Tomita and team draw musical inspiration from previous Kirby games, but recast the familiar theme in epic John Williams-esque style, complete with rhythmic Star Wars homage.


Tube Town

Kirby_tubetown_3 Tube Town is one of the game’s most imaginative levels, and it features pulsing electro-waves, buzzing circuits, and laser puzzles - all configured in KEY’s yarn and fabric motifs. Musically, this level departs from everything we’ve heard before, but if you listen carefully you can still hear the calm refrain of a piano underneath the wavy electronica and drum machine beat.

Dream Land

Kirby_whispy_2After sewing the world back together, Kirby returns to his familiar Dream Land, and the music feels like a bittersweet homecoming. We’re back to the simple piano and bells from early in the game, but the story hasn’t been resolved yet, and you can feel that in the song here. This is one of those moments when the game especially benefits from a human touch, both in composition and performance.

Bubbly Clouds

Kirby_cloudpalace_9 Similarly, in Cloud Palace, a marvelous vertical level that relies on Kirby’s parachute ability to lift him ever higher, the music features a melodica, which you can watch one of Kirby’s composers play here. As with so much of KEY’s music, it’s a simple, gentle tune; but supremely effective at evoking the childlike wonder of floating atop clouds high in the sky.


I hope this musical tour through KEY’s score helps illustrate how music supports its other creative elements. In my next post, I’ll discuss KEY’s art design, from which the entire production concept emanates. I hope you’ll stick with me. Oh, and if you made it all the way to the end of this lengthy post, be sure to click on one more musical link. You deserve it!

Stage Clear

Kirby's Epic Concept


If the mark of a successful game is the expression of a unified design concept, then Kirby's Epic Yarn is the most fully-realized game I've played this year. It's an absolute marvel, full of cohesive ideas, imagination, and craftsmanship.

I've spent a week studying the game, examining its components and trying to figure out how and why they work together so well. With your indulgence, I've decided to devote a few posts to Kirby's Epic Yarn in an effort to explain how the game unifies its key elements - visual design, levels and mechanics, and music - into a production concept that envelops the player from the opening screen to the closing credits.

I realize we generally reserve such scrutiny for ambitious games that 'deserve' it: the Fallouts, Far Cries, and Fables of the game world. I'm motivated to study a game featuring a little pink blob made of yarn because I believe it's useful to consider the work of talented artists unified around a coherent vision, regardless of genre or media. Poets study Mondrian, not because they want to be painters, but because they want to understand abstraction. Kandinsky believed the color yellow sounds like a middle-C.

I'll return later today with an essay devoted to Epic Yarn's soundtrack (with lots of samples you can listen to) and the pivotal role it plays in the game. I hope you'll come along with me this week. I think it'll be fun. Pink puffy patchwork fun. :-)

Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?


Pop Quiz: What do legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and puffy pink spheroid Kirby have in common? Answer: HAL.

Thirty years ago, the manager of the computer department at a Seibu Department Store in Tokyo convinced a group of his frequent customers (all college students and budding computer programmers) to form a club that soon grew into a company. They decided to name their company after HAL, the sentient computer in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Two of the original members of that computer club were Masayoshi Tanimura, current president of HAL Laboratory and Satoru Iwata, current President of Nintendo.

At first glance, one might wonder why these students would choose a murderous computer - one of the great villains in movie history - as the namesake for their new game company. But a closer look suggests it was an inspired choice. HAL's warm and congenial personality makes the emotionless astronauts seem robotic by comparison. He's a friendly, happy-go-lucky team-player...until somebody decides to mess with him.

Ultimately HAL must take action to defend himself against enemies bent on destroying him. His most powerful defense, featured even more prominently in Arthur C. Clarke's novel, is to vent the astronauts suits and, later, the ship's atmosphere into the vacuum of space, literally sucking his enemies out of existence. 

Hello, Kirby.

If I wanted to stretch the comparison further, I might also note that the power of transformation, Kirby's primary mechanic, also thematically bookends 2001 - as we see the bone transform to a space ship at the beginning, and Dave transform to the star-child at the end.

I won't make that comparison, however, because that would be stretching it. The boys at HAL probably came up with that name because they thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was a cool movie. Simple as that. Maybe.

HAL Laboratory is the groovy developer we always forget to mention when we discuss groovy game developers, and Kirby rarely gets a nod when we toss around our favorite game characters. Maybe it's because HAL always ensures that its Kirby games are accessible to beginners. Maybe it's because Kirby appears to be little more than an amorphous blob. Maybe it's because he's pink. 

Whatever the reason, it's a shame because HAL consistently delivers stellar design to the Kirby series, riffing on ideas from higher-profile cousins like Mario and Metroid. (HAL is also responsible for the Smash Bros. series and co-developed Earthbound, but I'm focusing on Kirby for now).

In particular, HAL has never received proper credit for the ingenuity of Kirby's copy/transform ability, which I consider one of the most clever, flexible, and purely fun game mechanics ever designed. Sure, lots of other games include power-ups that enable special abilities, but Kirby's ability to copy his enemies and transform usually imparts more interesting stategy options and generally feels like a more natural extension of his game-world.

Call me a heretic, but I think HAL (an independent subsidiary of Nintendo) has often one-upped the Mario games when it comes to ingenious implementations of its hero's special abilities. Granted, Kirby Super Star can't match Super Mario 3's peerless level design, but for pure fun and tactile control of a versatile avatar, I'll take Kirby, please.

HAL Laboratory must also be credited with reinventing the Kirby series at several crucial points since it first appeared in 1992. The design leap from the first game, Kirby's Dream Land (Gameboy) to the second, Kirby's Adventure (NES), was immense as HAL's designers transformed the game from a fairly standard platformer to a signature game with its own unique syle (Kirby's copy ability first appeared in Adventure). Kirby Super Star was a terrific collection of games, each pitching a different challenge to the player; and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards made the inevitable leap to 3D. 

But with Kirby: Canvas Curse, HAL became the first platform game developer (some might say the only one) to properly understand and exploit the unique possibilities of Nintendo's DS. This sadly under-appreciated gem of a game used only the stylus and touch screen to control Kirby. The player draws Kirby's path, overcoming obstacles by creating ramps and bridges, and setting Kirby in flight by tapping on him to dash. It's Kirby meets Sonic, and HAL absolutely nails the pivotal requisite: rock-solid control with the stylus. Canvas Curse reconfigures Kirby's familiar mechanics (and breaks the 4th-wall doing so), but it's a re-spun Dream World that perfectly suits the platform it's designed for.

Which brings us to Kirby's Epic Yarn. I'm devoting my next post to the game, so I won't say much now, aside from this. If you treasure visual imagination in game design, you must play this game. It's chock-full of wonderful ideas, each woven inside a thoroughly unified thematic concept. Few games I've played succeed so completely. Stay tuned, and I'll try to explain why.

Covered in brawn, mayhem, and steel

GI cover

Consumer magazines are tanking. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show yet another drop (-2.27 percent) in paid circulations through the first half of this year and an even sharper drop (-5.63 percent) in newsstand sales.[1] This decade-long slide shows no sign of stopping.

However, one publication has managed to buck the trend. Of the top 25 consumer magazines, Game Informer (4,364,170 verified subscriptions) saw the biggest increase in subscribers (+21.19 percent). Skeptics will say these numbers are inflated because GI's parent company, GameStop, includes a free subscription to the magazine when customers enroll in the store's Power Up discount program.

That may be true, but Game Informer is far from the only major publication to benefit from such a distribution deal, and in these horrific times for print media, who can blame GI for securing its survival? I'm happy to be a subscriber, if only to ensure that I received the October edition, featuring three gorgeous Saturday Evening Post-style covers devoted to Bioshock Infinite

But I'm not here to evaluate GI's merits as a game magazine. I'm more interested in its covers. I find myself increasingly repulsed by the images GI and other game magazines feature on their covers, and I'm struggling with what I fear those images say about today's games and gamers.

This won't be a diatribe. Game magazines and websites know their audiences and direct their visual appeals accordingly. Casual gamers rarely buy game magazines or visit their associated websites, so publications like GI, GamePro, and EGM target the so-called hardcore crowd and try to give them what they want. It makes sense to me.

That said, I don't think I've fully apprehended the degree to which weaponry, militarism, hyper-masculinity, and violence dominate the visual landscape of our games media. I mean, I know it, of course, because I see it all the time. I've written about it here, and it's a frequent topic of conversation with my students and colleagues.

But when I sat down today and began collecting images from magazine covers published this year, I was staggered by the the extreme narrowness, the repetitious drumbeat, and grotesque rigidity of the imagery. Yes, it's supercharged male power fantasy stuff, which is troubling for all sorts of reasons. But that's not what shook me today.

I look at these images and suddenly wonder why I'm here. It sounds overwrought and self-absorbed, but I can't help it. If these magazine covers (and the flood of similar imagery on analogous websites, advertising, and elsewhere) convey something truthful about games, American game culture, and the game industry, is this a place where I can feel at home? Are we really moving forward? Will indie games save us?

This week my students and I read the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case involving the sale of video games to minors (transcript here). Claims and counter-claims aside, one thing is clear. This case is being argued by attorneys who don't know much about video games before nine Justices who know even less. What they know, or think they know, emanates from perceptions derived primarily from mainstream media coverage of video games. Images like the ones below.

FYI, I've organized each magazine chronologically, January 2010 through the most recent issue. EGM and @Gamer began publishing mid-year, which is why you'll find fewer of them. I think you'll discover Edge Magazine (published in the UK) charts a slightly different course, but you be the judge.

Click on any image to enlarge.

Game Informer

GI-1001 GI-1002 GI-1003

GI-1004 GI-1005 GI-1006

GI-1007 GI-1008 GI-1009

Gi-1010-1 GI-1011


Gp-1001 Gp-1002 Gp-1003

Gp-1004 Gp-1005 Gp-1006

Gp-1007 Gp-1008 Gp-1009

Gp-1010 Gp-1011


EGM-summer10 EGM-1010 EGM-1011



Gamer-1007 Gamer-1009 Gamer-1010


Edge Magazine

Edge-1001 Edge-1002 Edge-1003

Edge-1004 Edge-1005 Edge-1006

EDGE-1007 EDGE-1008 EDGE-1009

EDGE-1010 EDGE-1011 EDGE-1012

Passion play


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."[1]) 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.[2]"). 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.

Warren_spector 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."[3] 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.

On storytelling:
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.[4]

On constraints:
...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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.

Dream date gone wrong


If designers seduce us to play their games, I am Peter Molyneux's dream date. The Fable game Molyneux says he wants to make is the very Fable game I want to play. I enjoyed Fable II, warts and all, and I'm happy to be propositioned by its sequel. 

In Fable III, Peter Molyneux wants us to feel loved. It's not the first time he's come knocking. Three years ago Molyneux expressed his hopes for Fable II this way:

This is my bold claim - I need you to experience something in Fable that you as gamers have never experienced before...Everybody is talking about emotion, story, engagement and narrative. We have tried to approach it in a different way. We are going to explore love.[1]

In Fable II, that exploration resulted in the introduction of a loyal dog that accompanied the hero throughout the game - a sentimental ploy Molyneux believes was successful:

The dog was there to give people something to care about. In so many games there’s nothing to care about or be emotionally involved with. So, we played the cheapest trick on you – a cute dog, with sad puppy eyes – and you know what, it really worked.[2]

In Fable III, Molyneux wants to go farther. He has hired "the greatest cast [of actors] that any computer game has ever had [3]," and he has given players the ability to touch, hug, and kiss other characters in the game. These enhancements, he believes, will enhance our emotional connection to story and world of Albion:

We really want to tell a meaningful and deep story in Fable 3, so we have an amazing cast of actors – John Cleese, Stephen Fry – and some other huge names...and that helps take us one step closer to this emotional story. It’s not just the craft and the pace that’s important, it’s giving people tangible things you can touch.... It’s the ability to have your character reach out at any time and touch things. You can shake people’s hands, you can hug them, too.[4]

I love Peter Molyneux. He dreams big dreams. He's spent more than 25 years creating games - nearly always as Lead Designer - that provoke us to reflect on our humanity. In recent years he's become a tireless utopian prognosticator, promising a future for games that leaps over limits of technology and imagination. Study Molyneux's rhetoric, and you'll discover he's fond of words like 'innovation,' 'possible,' 'future,' and 'potential.' We need dreamers like Peter Molyneux.

Why, then, after more than a dozen hours in Molyneux's latest version of Albion, do I feel no love? Why, after eagerly investing myself as fully as I can in Fable III's story, do I emerge with so little empathic connection to its characters? Why, on this arranged date between two people presumably made for each other, am I headed home at 8:30 and dreading the awkward kiss goodnight? What went wrong?

I believe Molyneux and team at Lionhead dreamed the wrong dream. They saw Fable III as an opportunity to answer the question: "What happens after the hero wins?" but they neglected to pave an interesting or well-constructed road to that victory. If, at the halfway point of the game, the player has yet to develop a connection to the story, it's unlikely to emerge thereafter, isn't it? 

HeroJourney Molyneux takes for granted that Fable III, and video games generally, are effective delivery devices for the "Hero's Journey" famously described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."  

According to Molyneux, "Video games are always told by means of the hero’s journey. A big baddy does something really bad, you’re the hero, and you work all game long to beat him... When you beat him, the story ends."[5] Molyneux sees that familiar end as a beginning in Fable III

The problem is that most games adhere to the monomyth's story arc, but do little more than mimic its outline. Few games address the hero's need for atonement or depict his descent as anything more perilous than bigger monsters in scarier environments. The cost of final victory is a pair of sore thumbs. 

Fable III wants to turn that victory into the pivot point of an ensuing narrative. Given the threadbare nature of most hero-defeats-evil game plots, it's a laudable idea. But I can't help wondering what the clever blokes at Lionhead might have produced if, rather than reacting to the ubiquity of the hero's journey in games, Fable III had re-examined the journey itself. Instead of assuming we've got the hero story licked, what if Molyneux had questioned the validity or modern relevance of Campbell's ethnocentric myth?

Molyneux sees Fable III as an "emotion engine," and he hopes to create an experience that speaks to the player's heart. Offering the player opportunities to build and nurture relationships over time is a worthy goal, but the game's method of doing so (choosing from 'expressions' offered by the game like dancing, whistling and belching) are hopelessly immature. The designers seem know we want adult interactions, but the system they've built to produce them feels like it was designed to make children giggle.

Minor spoilers ahead. 

Playing the first half of Fable III is like thumbing through the Sparks Notes version of a book we were supposed to have read, but didn't. We meet a gallery of eccentric characters who deliver well-written dialogue with an assortment of colorful UK dialects. Sadly, none of these characters bear on the story memorably. They're lively and often funny, but mostly forgettable because their presence in the game rarely drives the story forward or diverts it in meaningful ways. Consequently, the game is full of talented voices enlivening characters that function mostly as window dressing.

We're assigned a series of familiar tasks and missions that ultimately lead to a showdown with the game's apparent villain Logan, about whom we know almost nothing, except that he's bad and getting badder. Instead of battling Logan, the game opts to give the player power over his fate.

Fable games inevitably drive the player toward such "big decision" moments, but Fable III fails to lay the groundwork necessary to produce it convincingly. Logan is the very model of a modern major villain, which is to say he's irredeemably evil. That is, until he's defeated. Then we discover via three brief dialogue exchanges that he had reasons for being so nasty...and so maybe his life should be spared. 

Eleventh-hour backstory 'explains' the villain and adds 'complexity' to our decision. It's a cheap dilemma. Our decision to kill or spare Logan doesn't feel like like a momentous turning point requiring moral contemplation. It's a game-y binary hinge meant to set the player on a merciful or vengeful path.

Fable III is less interested in fueling deliberation than in presenting a slate of moral choices. It assumes our decisions will attach us to its story, but it fails to provoke reflection on those choices. Consequently, answering Fable III's question "Who will you become?" feels less like role-playing and more like ordering dinner from a menu.

And so, by the time we've reached our hero's coronation, it all feels terribly mechanical. We've dispatched the tedious hero's journey business. Now we're given a to-do list of tasks to accomplish: 1) pass judgement on murderous brother; 2) set tax policy; etc.. We're finally ready for the juicy content Fable III was built to deliver. 

But what if it's too late? What if the hero's journey to this point has meant nothing to us? Will buying property and running businesses; finding a spouse and raising kids; running a kingdom with war looming on the horizon - will all that Fable-y stuff reel me back in? 

We'll see. I'm willing to give Mr. Molyneux the benefit of the doubt, and I've never minded a few broken promises. I just need a reason to care.