Tuesday, 21 August 2012

An Epic of Epic Epicness?

Comparing tools

Epic Mickey is probably the most fascinating game I’ve never bothered to play. I mean, the creator of legendary PC mix-‘em-up Deus Ex digs into the nooks and crannies of the Disney Universe? League of Extraordinary Gentlemen + House of Mouse? That is some Alex Spencer catnip, right there.

But you can't help feeling that there’s a lot of compromise mixed up in there. Compromise of a few different kinds – the necessary sacrifices of working with Disney, maybe, and the necessary sacrifices of making a game that can reach kids and adults, and of making a game for the Wii, and of making a mainstream game at all.

That makes a sequel, which has the benefit of learning from all the mistakes its older brother already made, a very attractive prospect. Especially when you start throwing words like ‘co-op’ and ‘musical’ into that formula.

So I found myself sitting in Disney’s London headquarters, listening to Warren Spector – aforementioned head of the Deus Ex family – chat up both games, and hoping…

Some of that weirdness

…and then, inevitably, being let down a little. Spector opened with a stream of marketing-research buzzwords – Mickey was ‘cool’ now, he said, he was ‘surprising’ – and a back-of-the-box bulletpoint list of improved features. The camera’s not broken any more, the characters can actually talk now, and there’s even more persistence.

Which admittedly, are the kind of fixes that make this sequel sound like a good idea, but when you’ve got one of gaming’s most interesting brains up on stage, talking about a pretty great concept, it’s not exactly what you’re hoping for.

But slowly, Spector moved off script a little, and the interesting stuff started to come out. The history of Oswald the Rabbit – who Walt Disney created, and had Simon&Schustered away from him, before Mickey was so much as a twinkle in his eye. What Disney said no to – notably, a series of rejected Tinkerbell designs he wanted to se as a gaggle of jealous sisters for the fairy. The way the games intertwine the real and fictional history of Disney – its theme parks, after all, being the kind of places which feature secret underground bars, and its studios being the kind of places which feature secret underground tunnels. Enemies which meld an animatronic outer shell with a inkblot doodle centre. The kind of stuff which makes the Epic Mickey concept deeply fascinating, essentially.

Again and again, Spector kept coming back to that persistence thing – the importance of choices in how you play the game, and of their consequences later on. It’s the connecting thread through all of his career and output, and the thing which makes Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey a fascinating prospect.

Cutscene smooth

…and then I got to play the game a bit. Admittedly, it was more or less a tutorial level, and I was feeling the pressure of a dozen onlookers while I got stumped by a game designed for children, but my fifteen minutes of game didn’t bear out any of those virtues.

There were no quirky characters or settings nicked cheekily from ancient Disney lore – the game is a thing of beauty, in a way that doesn’t come across in screen shots. It’s as fluid as a cartoon, and Mickey’s jump animation deserves poetry written about it. But it didn’t feel like a world cobbled together from the debris of eighty years of animation history. The brooms from Fantasia danced around the margins of the level I stumbled through, and looked absolutely lovely doing so, but what was at the centre felt a little generic.

Nor did I get any sense of the Guaranteed 100% More Persistence we’d been promised. The narrator reliably informed me that it really did matter whether I chose to use the game’s paintbrush mechanic to paint or erase, create or destroy, but it didn’t seem to change the way the game played. There certainly weren’t any of Deus Ex’s trademark alternative routes or self-created puzzle solutions. There was nary a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft in sight.

It was that feeling again, of the compromise necessary to gain access to the Disney universe and its fictions, of shackling a sharp and inventive mind to the dulling influence of something like the Disney corporation.

So here I am again, sitting and hoping. This time, I will buy the game, will bother to play it. And hopefully at least some of that potential and some of those ideas and passion and weirdness will make it through into the final product. Let’s hope.
Mightier than the sword, etc.

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.