Disney Epic Mickey is an Homage to Walt’s Creations, Spirit
“You must tell no one that I’m actually six years old,” Warren Spector joked as he stood with a mess of journalists in Walt Disney’s former apartment, hidden over the Main Street, U.S.A. fire department in Disneyland.
A few moments earlier, Spector, the creative director and president of Junction Point Studios and Disney Epic Mickey‘s main brain, had teared up as he was guiding a tour of journalists in Disney’s private studio apartment, preserved from the days when Walt lived there. One got the impression that visiting a place that had been so important to Walt’s life was pretty close to (if not exactly) the fulfillment of a childhood dream for the game designer. More than once, Spector expressed his excitement to have a chance to move through Walt’s personal spaces.
Warren Spector isn’t just a Disney fan — he’s more like an apostle.
It was clear from the outset of the day, in which Disney Interactive Studios brought journalists to Disneyland for some hands-on time with Epic Mickey and to wander around the park with Spector, that the man has a deep respect for the works of the famed animator. The game itself, which is heading to Wii on Nov. 30, is part love-letter to the Disney universe, part dark and irreverent reimagining of the lore of the world’s most beloved cartoon character.
Spector talked a lot about the inspiration for many of the game’s levels and zones, but it only became clear during his presentation in the Lincoln Theater just how deeply Junction Point researched Disney history to create the game. Just about everything has a real-life counterpart: the locales, the side-scrolling cartoon-based levels, every character — even the very conception of the plot.
One of the first slides Spector put up during his presentation showed a contract Walt Disney signed back in the late 1920s. It was the contract studio execs employing Disney pointed to when he asked for more money to fund the creation of additional cartoons featuring his extremely popular character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — Disney’s first real cartoon creation, and Mickey Mouse’s precursor. Oswald appeared in 26 cartoons over about 18 months, starting in 1927, Spector said.
The contract said the rights to Oswald belonged to the studio, not Walt, and the animator was fired. Disney went on to create Mickey and a global entertainment empire, while Oswald slipped into obscurity. Disney the company only recently reacquired the rights to Walt’s first major animation success.
Spector explained that Disney Epic Mickey is the first big story for the mouse in half a decade, and the first story returning Oswald to the Disney fold for more than 80 years. Those are two major animation milestones, and they’re occurring in a video game — demonstrating how far the medium has come in just a few short years, and Disney’s confidence in Epic Mickey.
“Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” Spector said.
It might have something to do with the kind of game Spector and his team at Junction Point are trying to make. Talking about Junction Point’s purchase by Disney Interactive, Spector said he was taken with the philosophy of Disney and its various companies and studios.
“One of the first things that happened when I signed on with Disney is, I started walking around the Disney studio lot in Burbank and talking to people, and I saw this movie, Enchanted,” Spector said. “I remember sitting in the theater watching Enchanted with my wife and I turned around and saw a family of four — mother and father and two young kids. I saw a grandfather with a grandson, looked like to me, and an elderly couple sitting behind us, and I said to myself, ‘Why can’t a game do this? Why can’t a game appeal to that broad an audience?’
As he spent more and more time speaking with people at Disney, one phrase kept popping up: “Entertainment for families.” Spector said the abridged version he heard at Pixar, “Entertainment for everyone,” became his goal for Junction Point.
And that’s where Epic Mickey shows up again. Listening to Spector talk about the inspiration for every pixel of the game, it’s as much an homage to the animation, cartoons and family experiences that Spector grew up with as it is anything else. The Disney universe is rich ground to till, but Junction Point spent its time digging for the lost portions of that universe. Wasteland and Disney Epic Mickey feels familiar, but Spector’s creation is, in its way, something wholly different.
Part of trying to appeal to a broader audience with Epic Mickey, Spector said, is encouraging creativity in play. Like Spector’s other games, player choice plays a big part. “Play style matters,” Spector kept repeating, and he meant it — how players move through the game and the way they deal with problems, either by choosing to erase elements with Mickey’s paint thinner, or create elements with this paint, will actually influence the game world on several levels.
Creativity on the part of the player has also shown that Disney Epic Mickey is more versatile, and perhaps more groundbreaking, than even its creators believed. Spector related anecdotes in which testers discovered ways to deal with problems that Junction Point never intended, just by using the tools they’d provided.
He told one story in which a player hit a situation in which they had to choose to solve a problem either using Thinner or Paint, with a specific reward given for either path — and discovered how to unlock both.
“For most developers, that would be a bug,” Spector said. But for Junction Point’s president and his team, it was the best development they could have hoped for.
Disney Epic Mickey is supposed to be a canonical work by the company, considered as important as any of its film properties, and Spector and Junction Point worked hard to make sure it fit those criteria by spending hours in the Disney vaults and trying to capture the Disney spirit, he said.
And more than anything, the hope is that Epic Mickey will also also function as Epic Oswald, bringing the long-lost character back to popularity after almost a century of obscurity.
“The thing I hope you take away from this game is, Oswald’s a terrific actor and a terrific cartoon character,” Spector said. “He deserves better than he’s gotten — he deserves to be a star as much as Mickey, so I’m hoping we can help make that happen for him.”
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