When Disney Epic Mickey hits the Wii next fall it won't rely on the console's latest technology to deliver its visionary experience.
Instead the reinvention of Disney's animated world will strive to both entice children and enlighten adult with a meaty, moralistic story, famed game designer Warren Spector told Kotaku today.
In Disney Epic Mickey, gamers take on the role of an edgier Mickey Mouse, using the Wii remote to wield magical paint and thinner to reshape around them. Mickey uses these abilities as he fights his way through a cartoon wasteland in what Disney describes as an "adventure-platforming game with light role-playing elements".
Spector says that the game won't support the Wii Remote's MotionPlus technology because the technology became available to developers too late to the studio.
"We played with it and I think that it would be a great fit for our core mechanic, but the best I can say is that in the future we'd love to do more with it," he said.
In the game's fiction Yen Sid, the sorcerer first seen in 1940s Fantasia during The Sorcerer's Apprentice, creates a Cartoon Wasteland for Disney's forgotten and retired creations. The first inhabitant of this wasteland is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney's first cartoon star created in 1927.
As the years pass Oswald starts to resent Mickey's growing fame. When Disney's mouse accidentally warps Oswald's Cartoon Wasteland by spilling paint thinner on it, Mickey is drawn into the warped world.
"Having Warren combine creativity and innovation with one of the world's most famous characters takes Mickey back to his creative roots and allows fans to deepen their engagement with him as a character — especially in video games," said Graham Hopper, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios.
Spector says that he was drawn to the idea of working on this tale of Disney fiction both because it was a chance to "mess around with one of the world's most recognisable icons" and a chance to tell a story that is interesting to both children and adults.
"We are telling a story in this game that is more sophisticated than save the princess or you are the last space marine on Earth," Spector said. "I think what you will find is that there is some commentary about consumerism and what is truly important in life."
"If I went much further than that it would be the height of pretension."
But, Spector admits, there are some allusions in the game to T.S. Elliots's modernist and deeply influential poem The Waste Land.
In the Waste Land a hero is drawn to a kingdom made sterile by the wounding of its king. To restore the king and the land, the hero must go on a quest. The concept of the poem draws on prevalent proto-themes like the Grail legend.
And while Spector, who started his career as an academic, admits that he's aware of the potential connection, he doesn't want people to draw too many connections.
"You have to throw in literary references every once in awhile," he said.
What seems to have influenced Spector more is a children's book author who deals with heady ideas like theology, philosophy and John Milton's Paradise Lost.
"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.
In December 2007, Spector wrote on his blog about how much he would love to create a game based on Pullman's Golden Compass. At the time he was already in the midst of working on Disney Epic Mickey, he said.
"I had my first discussion with Disney in September 2005, then boring business stuff happened and then we did concept art and then we separated for awhile and came back together," he said.
In September 2007 Disney acquired Spector's studio, Junction Point Studios, which was well into game concept work.
I asked Spector if creating a game based on such a beloved and widely known character had satisfied the itch he expressed in his blog about Golden Compass.
"To some extent it did," he said. "But if you ever stop itching it's time to retire.
"I think getting the opportunity to play in the playground that Disney offers, that is what this opportunity is really about for me."
"When you say you're messing with Mickey Mouse people's eyes really light up."
While Spector's vision of Mickey seems to be darker than the character's most recognisable appearances, there are still lines the game won't be crossing.
"There are lines, lines you don't want to cross," he said. "When you talk about Mickey Mouse, people are like 'Give him a gun, give him a knife,'" he said. "I don't want to do that. Why would you want to do that?
"There are lines you don't cross. I discovered there are lines that (Mickey Mouse) used to cross that are now uncrossable. He did some pretty crazy stuff, but nowadays times have changed."
What Mickey will be doing in the game is allowing gamers to make moral decisions about how to change the world around them with paint and thinner. Those decisions will have consequences that affect the environment, interactions with other characters, and even Mickey's appearance and abilities.
"The core of this game is the idea of choice and consequence, and how that defines both the character and the player," Spector wrote in a prepared statement. "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."
The initial concept for the Wii-exclusive game was born at Disney Interactive Studios' Think Tank, Spector told Kotaku.
"The idea of a wasteland with lost characters, Oswald's return, the Phantom Blog — that stuff existed, that core was there when they pitched it to me," Spector said. "They were all sitting there showing me this stuff in Power Point saying 'You don't have to do all of this, you can ignore it' and I thought 'Why would I ignore this, it's fantastic.'"
While the heart of the idea came from the Think Tank, the way the game and its look evolved is all Spector and his team.
The team spent huge amounts of time in Disney's many vast archives, pulling concept art and files.
"I'm a research junkie," Spector said. "I started out as an academic and film historian so I had shelves and shelves and shelves of books and articles. I came into this with a good background. But Disney has amazing resources. I spent a bunch of time out there digging through files."
During one of his earliest visits Spector was shocked to have one of the archivists apologise for having only scanned 90,000 images so far.
"Honestly, you could spend days digging through the stuff we dug out of the archives."
One thing that surprisingly didn't inspire Disney Epic Mickey was Square-Enix' hugely popular role-playing game Kingdom Hearts.
"I played the Kingdom Hearts games, but they weren't much of an inspiration," Spector said. "They treated the Disney characters much more conventionally than I wanted to.
"They are not reintroducing or reimagining as much as they are offering these characters as folks you are going to interact with in a new medium."
Spector was coy about how much inspiration the game developers are drawing from the Disney theme parks.
"You might sort of, kind of recognise some scenes," he said. "I don't want to give too much away."
The designer, best known for making games like Deus Ex and Thief, said that he wasn't worried about moving from typically adult-themed games to one that may be viewed as being more for children or families.
"When this opportunity arose I had to decide, do I want to keep working on this original stuff I've been doing or do I want to mess around with one of the world's most recognisable icons," he said. "The opportunity to work with something this recognisable and profound comes around once in a lifetime. The decision was pretty straight forward.
"I'm not making a game for kids, I'm making a game gamers will be happy with."