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Warren Spector on making magic with Mickey in Disney's kingdom
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Epic Mickey 2: The Power Of 2 is a fascinating project – a game starring the most recognisable cartoon character on earth trawling through the shadowy archives of the giant creative factory- turned-multinational corporation of which he is the global symbol. The fact it's made by Warren Spector only makes it more intriguing – Spector, the cult game director best known for cyberpunk role-playing classic Deus Ex, who has a long and distinguished career making respected, groundbreaking games.
It is, externally and internally, a mixture of things which should not be mixed, unexpected elements thrown together to produce an intriguing, transgressive magnetism. And being totally honest, the fact it isn't very good makes it difficult to write the piece I had anticipated when I first contacted Spector to request an interview, the one about these unusual pieces fitting together to make some kind of magical whole. Instead the piece you're reading is about some of those things – Spector's experience working with Disney, the allure of fictional boundary-crossing – but also about whether a game (or film, or any work of art and business) must be successful in order to be interesting, whether it needs to be enjoyable in order to validate all the ideas and effort which went into making it.
A good place to start is how Disney and Spector came together. While their union initially appears an odd one, Spector, like many Americans born during the optimistism of the 1950s, has a deep and longstanding relationship with the Walt Disney Company. His father bought him a Pluto toy on the day he was born (“The Mickey ears came about five years later,” he says) and he credits three Disney movies in particular – Sleeping Beauty, The Shaggy Dog and The Nutty Professor – with shaping his tastes, interests and future (“…along with King Kong and The Seven Acts Of Sinbad”). Spector came of age at a time when Disney made distinctive live-action and animated features, and when the studio’s hopeful world-view was reflected in the nation’s surging post-war morale.
This might be enough of a hook on which to hang a pop-psychology hat – the foundations laid in childhood upon which eventual collaboration was built – but Spector’s interest in Disney only grew stronger as he got older. He ran film festivals as an undergraduate, meeting animation legends like Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, wrote his masters thesis on cartoons, and even taught history of animation courses at the University Of Texas. He describes himself as belonging to “an underground animation community,” approaching Disney and the whole industry from a “geekily academic perspective.”
Spector was, in short, the perfect guy to make a videogame for Disney, especially in 2005, having gained 25 years of industry experience and worked on a series of hits – Ultima, System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief. The strange thing is that Disney didn’t know this, and they approached him anyway. “To this day I have no idea why they asked me,” Spector says. “I had just created Junction Point [his games studio, bought by Disney in 2007] and my agent and I were going out to every publisher we could think of with a fairly traditional epic fantasy, and, what you might expect, a Deus Ex-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off, near-future dystopic science fiction game.”
Spector’s agent was the remarkable Seamus Blackley, a former development colleague who’d designed physics systems for Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Flight Unlimited before joining Microsoft and co-creating the Xbox. Now he was with the powerful Creative Artists Agency trying to bridge the gap between Hollywood and videogames, and he suggested Spector take his pitch to Disney.
“Seamus,” Spector recalls protesting, “I love Disney but they’re not going to be interested in this stuff.” Still, he relented and took the meeting, where he remembers “trying not to vibrate my way through the floor in excitement at being at Disney,” and not being surprised when the company passed on his adult-themed games. But then came the question that changed everything: “They asked me if I was interested in doing any licensed games.”
Spector’s initial response was yes. “Give me the Carl Barks duck universe and I’m the happiest guy in the world,” he answered, like only an animation geek could. Disney shot back, “What do you think about Mickey Mouse?” This time Spector said no – he didn’t want to make a game for kids.
But what Disney had in mind wasn’t for kids. One of Disney’s Think Tanks – creative programs through which promising young animators and developers work for six months at the company – had outlined an idea for something a little different. The outline was shown to Spector.
“It had three elements – there were three things which resonated with me and I went, ‘Holy cow, this is genius’. One was Mickey Mouse, the most popular and recognizable icon in the world, trapped in a world of rejected and forgotten Disney creative history where he doesn’t belong. [Second was] the return of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, Walt’s first cartoon star, and [third] the Phantom Blot as one of the villains.
"After the lights came up in this presentation all these Disney execs said ‘Hey, you don’t have to do any of this, we think this is cool but if you don’t we just want you to do your Mickey Mouse game.’ I just looked at them and said, ‘Why wouldn’t I do that?’ No-one’s going to make that game but me.’ You know – get out of the way.”
So Spector went to work with Disney (“It’s about time,” his mother remarked) and it’s hard to think of a Disney project that would have suited him better than this one. For an aficionado like Spector, the return of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit – lost to Universal in 1928 and traded back like a showbiz trump card for sports commentator Al Michaels in 2006 – was big news, and the concept of Mickey Mouse exploring a realm of discarded cartoons called the Wasteland meant an opportunity to trawl the Disney archives and work with many of the bygone characters he had spent a lifetime researching.
Epic Mickey must have appealed to Spector’s “geekily academic” side too. In offering a fictional account of the disappearance of Oswald and many others, the game creates a cartoon history for decisions that were often taken for colder, more pragmatic reasons. As a company Disney has for decades been characterized by a tight and shrewd control of its intellectual properties. The philosophy broadcast through its bright, altruistic programming is not the philosophy it abides by – one does not build a billion-dollar entertainment conglomerate by making business calls like Winnie The Pooh. Epic Mickey is a comment on this duality, an exploration of how a company that trades in memories and nostalgia deals creatively with its own past. The potential problem for Spector was whether Disney’s controlling side would restrict his ability to make the game he wanted.
“I came at this with a pretty solid understanding of how Disney operates,” he says. “It’s a mixed blessing, what you just described. On the one hand it shows how much Disney cares about the integrity of its properties, of its characters and creative efforts. But on the other hand as a creative person working with those creative properties I was really worried it was going to be non-stop agony and argument. Lots of ‘No you can’t do that, no you can’t do that, no you can’t do that.’ And it wasn’t like that at all.”
Instead Spector found a company willing to open the doors to its vast archives and let him wander around inside. I ask how my visualisation of this research process – Spector rummaging through the Disney vaults to find old toons and shouting “We’ve gotta have this one!” – measures up to reality. “It was pretty much like that, actually,” he laughs, describing how the team made use of the eight different facilities covering animation, consumer products and Imagineering that are collectively known as the Disney archives to find information on everything from Oswald’s original sketches to the look of the lampposts in 1930s Mickey Mouse cartoons. “We were digging through photographs, contracts, blueprints, colour studies, model sheets, background paintings, animation sketches, stencil sets, chocolate bar wrappers, plush toys, and gas masks in the shape of Mickey Mouse.” The archivists, who Spector describes reverently as “the keepers of the flame”, came to know the team so well they’d earmark materials that might come in useful. “Once they figured out that we were really serious – like, we’re Disney historians as much as we are game creators, we take that responsibility seriously – when they found something new they’d call us up and say ‘Oh, you’re going to love this!’”
As an animation expert Spector had entered production with certain characters in mind he knew he wanted to use. The Gremlins, characters from an aborted Walt Disney collaboration with Roald Dahl, made the finished game, and so did Spector’s idea for Mickey’s nemesis, Pete (“I got it in my head that around every corner our Mickey would run into another version of Pete that’s been rejected and is bitter about it”). He also planned to do something with Alice In Wonderland, before passing when it became clear he’d be competing with Tim Burton’s live-action blockbuster, and got excited about “a display of rejected Tinkerbells” he’d stumbled across at Disney World before deciding he didn’t want to cause any confusion with Disney’s recent fairy animations.
Crucially these were his decisions, not imposed by Disney. In fact, Spector says that there weren’t many rules, just a guiding expectation that he and his team would use common sense. “This is a terrible way to describe it, but I can’t think of a better one: if you think it’s appropriate to put a gun in Mickey Mouse’s hand, don’t make a Mickey Mouse game. Go and make some other game.” This is a funny line, but also close to certain truths. Spector points out the small team of a dozen or so working at Junction Point when the Disney deal was made had signed up based on his reputation, essentially to make the next Deus Ex. “And I had to come back and say ‘OK, guys! We’re making the next Mickey Mouse game!’” To avoid fallout from this creative culture clash Spector ran ‘Come to Mickey’ meetings to sell everyone on the studio’s new direction.
While Disney was more open than Spector expected, a few specific regulations were laid down. “The company is very sensitive to Mickey’s brow,” he says as an example. “If the black part of his face comes down too far towards his snout he starts looking too angry.” And if that’s understandable, there’s a pleasing corporate idiosyncrasy to Spector being told that he could not, under any circumstances, show Mickey’s teeth. “They’re shown constantly,” he says, exasperated. “Don’t even get me started. I have no idea why that was a constraint imposed on this game, but it was. But if that’s the worst someone tells you – sure, I won’t show Mickey’s teeth.”
One wider rule governed not so much the characters Spector could use, but the way he could use them. “Characters from different Disney universes do not co-exist in a single world,” he explains. “So you can’t put Simba and Belle in the same world. You can’t put Alice in the same world as Ariel.” The only exceptions to this rule are Mickey and his friends – Donald, Daisy, Pluto, Goofy – who are like a universal key to the many doors in the Disney archive. Spector acknowledges the debt Epic Mickey owes to Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts, an earlier crossover between Disney characters and the Japanese role-playing series Final Fantasy, which firmly established this rule when it came to videogames. “They blazed a trail for us and I’m sure made our lives a lot easier,” he says, pointing out that the story in Kingdom Hearts also acts as a mirror of reality and fiction, with the player’s mission to make sure the barriers between various independent Disney worlds aren’t broken down by the game’s villains.
Otherwise, Epic Mickey went through the usual Disney processes when it came to making sure the properties used in the game were consistent with their established identities. “There’s something called ‘on model’ and if you’re ‘off model’ you either have to get approval for it or you have to change it,” Spector explains. What becomes clear as we talk, though, is that there were certain things he was far more concerned about getting right than any of the gatekeepers at Disney itself. A peculiar thing happens in Epic Mickey when you turn Mickey around in the 3D world. His famour ears slide impossibly, almost imperceptibly across his head so that no matter which direction he's facing they always form the instantly recognisable Mickey silhouette.
“I told my team, ‘We are getting the ears right,’” Spector says. “No-one – this is true – no-one had ever gotten the ears right on a 3D CGI Mickey. If you look at the Mickey Mouse on TV now, they just model the character’s ears on his head, and they’re 3D ears. That is just… wrong. There have been three cartoons in Mickey’s history – Nifty Nineties, Little Whirlwind, and Mickey’s Twice Upon A Christmas, that I know of, where the animators modelled Mickey’s ears realistically. And it doesn’t look right. Go back and watch every Mickey cartoon except those three and Mickey’s ears are forward-facing. And I told my team ‘We are not getting this wrong, sorry’. They said ‘It can’t be done’ And at that point I knew it could.”
This is the unlikely core of the Spector-Disney relationship that I find enchanting – the corporation with an army of lawyers and a reputation for control giving a sophisticated creative figure like Spector more freedom than he imagined, only for Spector to bring his own checks and sensitivities to the process. In other words, the unlikely pairing flourished into a caring, two-way marriage, with Spector paying particular attention to the representation of his precious lead characters.
Epic Mickey was Oswald The Rabbit's big comeback vehicle. “We're still the only story-based thing that Oswald has appeared in,” says Spector. “Which I love, by the way.” Getting him right was a crucial, and Spector felt a weight of responsibility towards both Disney and to hardcore fans like himself. The answer was to take as much as possible from the original cartoons, which provided a lot of information about Oswald's physicality. “He had a distinctive way of walking which we tried to capture. Often his head and body would just jump right off his legs, and we took advantage of that. He was constantly removing his tail and his legs, and using them in interesting ways, which we were able to turn directly into game abilities.”
Spector and I talk for over and hour, and at no time does he sound as happy or as proud as when he's talking about Mickey Mouse, specifically about creating the right version of Mickey for the game. “There are things that have been true of Mickey from Steamboat Willie to today, and we wanted to play up those characteristics: smart, funny, loyal, enthusiastic, sometimes to a fault, never gives us, mischievous. If you look at all of those cartoons, and you look at all the films he’s been in, he’s kind of a guy who lives in youthful enthusiasm, and the belief that he’s invulnerable, and any trouble he gets into he can get out of. So he inadvertently gets into trouble, and has to get out of it. And that sounds like a great videogame character to me.”
Mickey ends up with a classic look in the game, but Spector says this wasn't a deliberate attempt to match the time-locked Oswald. “In fact we looked at doing some fairly radical redesigns on both characters, before I just decided 'Oh my gosh, I can’t do this to Mickey.' My favourite Mickey personally is what they call the Rubber Hose Mickey - very thin limbs. For about a year or two in the early thirties he had what we call Pie Eyes, little white triangular cut-outs for his eyes, you know, no eyelids, all that stuff. That’s the Mickey I loved, wearing the red shorts with the buttons on them and the yellow shoes and white gloves. That’s my Mickey. So we started there and then we made lots and lots of changes. He’s our Mickey. He’s not an old-school Mickey, he’s a Mickey that’s never existed before. And I love him - I think our Mickey is fantastic.”
This rush of memory and pride is touching, even if Spector undercuts it with a quip (“I’m prejudiced, of course”). Clearly he takes great pride in his work with Disney, even if it's not necessarily what fans of his existing games had come to expect. He sees a through line from his earlier work to this, then? “There’s more than a through line.” He's defensive about this – he apologises for it. He gets it a lot. “This is a well-rehearsed line. I say this to everybody I work with, I use the same words every time, I do it on purpose,” he explains, setting up what's become a defensive post-Disney mantra. “I make the games I want to make, the way I want to make them. If you don’t want that let’s part company now so we can stay friends.”
He continues, mock-weary as he bats away imagined accusations. “I have never been assigned a game, I have never made a game I didn’t want to make. I’ve never done anything just to make somebody some money.” And then he finds energy again as he hits on what are clearly closely held ideals. “I have never made a game that wasn’t explicitly about empowering players to tell their own story. There is no difference in that philosophy from Ultima VI to Deus Ex to Disney Epic Mickey.
No difference at all. In my own mind I have never deviated from that core belief – the only thing that makes games interesting and worthwhile and, frankly, art, is that we allow the player to become a creator, an author of their own experience.”
If we were dealing with Disney endings, then there's no doubt the game made by this warm, enthusiastic and articulate games designer and his clearly committed and hard-working team would live up to these ideals and be a triumph of player empowerment and interaction. But suddenly we're back in the real-world Disney of boardrooms, corporate strategy and occasional disappointments, because sadly this isn't the case.
This is where we came in, with me struggling to reconcile a killer angle on mismatched creativity with a final product that doesn't quite nail it. But there's something just as interesting in the process of loss and imperfection, in the fact that all this effort, passion and intelligence can be put into the production of a videogame but, through whatever inefficiencies of energy transfer the production entails, it's possible that it won't emerge in the correct ratio of wonder, satisfaction and enjoyment at the other end. I don't admire Spector's knowledge and drive any less, or find the internal workings of Disney any less fascintating. Fine work is not only done on good games, but bad ones and, as is the case with Epic Mickey, games which fall somewhere in the middle. And if that's not the Hollywood closure we were all hoping for, it should be at least more enough to keep Spector's hero from falling into the Wasteland.