American game designers don't come much more influential, respected, or renowned than Warren Spector. If you've been a PC gamer at any point over the last two decades, there's a good chance you've spent more than a few nights with his wares. Remember Wing Commander? Ultima? System Shock? Thief? Deus Ex? All his babies, to one degree or another.
And now a game about...Mickey Mouse? For Wii?
Disney handed Mr. Spector and his studio, Junction Point, the keys to its greatest icon four years ago, leading the famed designer come up with Disney Epic Mickey, one of the biggest games of the year for Nintendo's white box and among the most significant third-party releases the Wii has yet seen.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Mr. Spector when he came to Toronto in October. He and I chatted for nearly an hour while an assistant loaded up and played through various parts of the game.
It was a fascinating discussion.
He began by providing an overview of his new creation and what players can do in it before moving on to talk about emergent gaming, how working with Mickey Mouse brings his career full circle, how Pixar studio chief John Lasseter helped guide the direction of the game's story, and his obsession with getting Mickey's iconic mouse ears just right.
Perhaps you could start by telling me about the game.
Okay. Goal one for the project was to make Mickey a video game hero at the same level he's been in every other medium. He's been the most popular movie star in the world. He's obviously been a huge TV star. You go to the theme parks and he's the guy most people want to get their picture taken with.
But while he's had some success in video games he's never been a star at the level of a Mario or a Link or a Sonic or a Master Chief. I just thought that was unfair. So job one had to be to make Mickey a video game hero. The whole team rallied around that.
The game is set in a world called Wasteland, which is a home for all of Disney's forgotten and rejected characters, theme park rides...
Are these elements based on real work that Disney discarded?
It's all based on real stuff. Almost everything in the game is based on real Disney history. I don't want people to think about the game in quite these terms, but if you want a history lesson on Disney, we've got one for you.
Before we go further, let's roll the game's intro.
[Warren's assistant, Shawn, starts the game's opening cinematic. Mickey appears, and is transported into a mirror.]
This is a frame-by-frame recreation of a 1936 cartoon called Mickey Through the Mirror. Fans will totally see that.
[The movie continues, with Mickey now in a sorcerer's workshop.]
Anybody who's seen The Sorcerer's Apprentice will recognize this set. We've built it out as a 3-D space, which no one has ever seen before.
[Mickey begins monkeying with the sorcerer's work, a 3-D model of a fantasy world. He accidentally ruins it by creating a monster out of ink, quickly erases the monster with thinner, then escapes back through the mirror. Years go by, and we see Mickey enjoying fame and fortune. Then the ink monster returns and draws him back into the Wasteland world, where Mickey confronts the monster, a mad scientist, and a curious black rabbit.]
It's a brother story. The little rabbit you saw in there, his name is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He was Walt Disney's first cartoon star. Walt lost the rights to the character in a contract dispute in 1928. For about 18 months Oswald was one of the most popular and successful cartoon stars in the world. Walt was loving it. Then he went to the studio and said he wanted to make better cartoons and needed more money. But studio said, "No. In fact, your staff now works for us, and we own the character. Check your contract." I actually got a copy of the contract out of the archives, so I can prove this.
That's the heart of the story. Older brother Oswald hates younger brother Mickey for stealing the life that should have been his. If Walt hadn't lost the rights to Oswald, Oswald would have been the most successful cartoon character in the world instead of Mickey.