How Epic Mickey 2 is like Deus Ex, and why Warren Spector’s happy staying in the house of mouse
Disclaimer: Disney paid for air and ground travel, as well as a two-night hotel stay. There is no way to experience Disneyland's Rainbow Caverns Mine Train ride and attraction today. The ride was closed in 1977, replaced by Big Thunder Mountain Railroad two years later, and pieces of the ride have been steadily demolished or removed since 1998. You can, however, experience Warren Spector's vision of it in Epic Mickey 2. It's nothing you would expect from Disney, Mickey, or rainbows for that matter. It's dark and oppressive in its atmosphere. It's closer to Tim Burton than Walt Disney. Spector has taken some liberties to create this world, but it's all done with an air of respect and love. Epic Mickey 2 is his world, even if almost everything in it belongs to Disney.
Living up to your own legacy
The pair of levels, appropriately named Rainbow Caverns and Rainbow Falls, take place early in the game. Spector was eager to show us this section of the game, and kiosk attendants were on hand to guide press through. As I sat and played, using a PlayStation Move and Navigation Controller combo, I thought of Spector's game design philosophy, and the importance of player choice. How could Epic Mickey implement the lessons learned from other games Spector has worked on, such as Deus Ex and System Shock? “First of all, the underlying philosophy of choice and consequence has nothing to do with tone, has nothing to do with content, has nothing to do with who your avatar is. It has to do with players being creative, and making choices,” Spector told the Penny Arcade Report. “There's nothing about Disney or Mickey Mouse that says you can't make interesting choices.” I played Rainbow Caverns twice: once to blindly stumble my way through and see what I would naturally do, and a second time so I could analyze and scrutinize each decision. My first big choice was when I walked into a room of three doors. One could be dissolved using thinner, another could have its lock broken with a standard attack, and the other at first seemed impenetrable, though nearby was a symbol for fireworks. The first time through, I took the door that could be dissolved. Behind it hid a batch of fireworks. I dragged the explosives to the otherwise-invincible door and used a context-sensitive command button to have Oswald ignite them. The door blew open and I ran through, shortly thereafter coming to a ledge overlooking a teetering rock. On my replay, I chose instead to take the obvious path by opening the door with the simple lock. This led to a more platforming-intensive section that eventually curved around, back to the same ledge and teetering rock. The change wasn't just scenic: I discovered a gremlin, one of the residents of Wasteland, trapped behind a rock on my second playthrough. I freed him, and in thanks he told me that above the teetering rock was a hidden ledge that contained a treasure chest. The style is similar to games like Deus Ex or Dishonored where, just by being observant, you could make your way to hard-to-reach areas. However, if you felt inclined to explore, the game would also give you hints or passwords. It didn't matter that I hadn't found the gremlin on my first playthrough, what mattered is that I solved the puzzle of the hidden ledge my own way, and the game didn't force me into an either/or situation, forcing me to choose how or if I could get there. The choices you make are also permanent; the kiosk attendant had to restart the game so I could re-experience the level like new, because if I had simply gone back the way I came, the door I had destroyed would have still been destroyed when I came back. That's another change from the first game. Spector referred to the choices made in the first Epic Mickey as “choice and consequence lite,” where decisions effected the world, but those effects didn't last. It might be strange to compare a Mickey Mouse game to Mass Effect, but that's exactly Spector's view. “Anybody who played Deus Ex or knows about games like Dishonored, Mass Effect, any of the other choice and consequence games, Fable, all that stuff, they're gonna find plenty that's familiar because choices you make have consequences and those consequences are persistent,” he said. “They last forever.”
The power of new
Rainbow Caverns is also the level that introduces one of Epic Mickey 2's new features, the inkwell. Inkwells imbue Mickey and Oswald with temporary abilities to help them progress through certain areas. Use the invisible ink to make yourself unseen and sneak past enemies, or coat yourself in indelible ink to gain extra defense or cross through thinner unharmed. The placement of these wells meant their use was required, at least for this level, but I saw hints that wouldn't necessarily be the case in future areas. One section tasked me with crossing a chasm that was guarded by enemies, and I could choose to fight them, try to run past, jump around, or sneak by with the ink. It's a nice way to give Mickey and Oswald some more variety in terms of what they can do while still making sense within the universe of Wasteland. Co-op has also been added to the game. Epic Mickey 2 allows for drop-in, drop-out multiplayer that can be activated at any time, giving second player control over Oswald. Oswald uses electrical attacks as opposed Mickey's use of paint and thinner, and they're not simple color swaps. Oswald's attacks are unique, and the kiosk attendant I played with often used a large AoE attack as a form of crowd control. The screen is split vertically as opposed to the more common horizontal split, but the process of a buddy joining in and dropping out at any time was seamless. This is all couch stuff though – there are no online multiplayer modes for Epic Mickey 2. It's interesting that a company as large as Disney wouldn't push for the inclusion of a marketable feature like multiplayer, but Spector said that no one at Disney has ever pressured him to bow to market research. “As I started interacting with more people at the studio, at Disney studios and at Pixar, what I started hearing was not 'Oo, target audience: teen girls, teen boys,' none of that marketing speak. What I heard over and over again was 'We make entertainment for families' or 'We make entertainment for everyone.' That surprised me,” Spector said. He described for me a scenario in which he and his wife watched the Disney movie Enchanted in the theater. They were surrounded on all sides by families of varying size and shape; a single father and his son on one side, an elderly couple behind them, a family of four in front. Yet here they all were, enjoying the same film. The Epic Mickey franchise has been Spector's attempt to translate that experience to video games. He's happy to do so now, but initially he was hesitant. “I think I came in with a lot of the same attitudes and preconceptions that I'm sure a lot of gamers have when they think about Disney. When Disney asked me if I was interested in doing a Mickey Mouse game, my initial response was no, because I don't do games for kids,” Spector said. “They said 'No no no no no, we don't want you to make a game for kids. We want you to make your Mickey game.' That was pretty intriguing.” The first Epic Mickey made a moderate splash in the press as a fresh take on an old character presented in a way that didn't pander to children, but as a Wii exclusive the title missed opportunities to expand its influence. Still, the game sold 1.3 million units in North America in the month of its release – low numbers when compared to powerhouse titles like Call of Duty, but far from terrible. Epic Mickey 2 is broadening franchise appeal by going multi-platform, and with mature presentation, credits which include a major-league designer, backed by a company with some of the deepest pockets in existence, it's hard to see a downside. For Spector, it's a combination so gripping that he doesn't see himself returning to the dark worlds he once created. “I didn't want to do a game for kids, I am totally into the idea of making games for everyone now,” he said. “Never's a big word, but I don't see myself going back and making a game for 18-year old boys, or 18-year old men. It's just too cool to know you're working on something that everyone can appreciate.”