A cybernetically enhanced secret agent with a sniper rifle. A mouse with a paintbrush. You'd think those two things couldn't have less in common. But Warren Spector, who has now created games starring both of those characters, would tell you that they're more similar than you may realize.
This past weekend at PAX, I sat down with Spector to chat about his upcoming adventure/platforming game Disney's Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. He walked me through a short demo of a fort-infiltration section where Mickey could chose to fight his way in or use his magic paintbrush and paint-thinner to knock down trees and climb up and over the fort's walls. After the demo, we talked about a whole range of things, among them the fact that, as Spector has said before, he sees Epic Mickey as fundamentally similar to his classic PC action/RPG hybrid Deus Ex.
The games may look different from the outside, Spector said, but really they just have a different coat of paint. "All it requires is, gamers have to accept that they're not wearing sunglasses at night, they're not wearing a trenchcoat in the middle of summer, they're not carrying a big gun. They're playing as a mouse."
"Gamers have to accept that they're not wearing sunglasses at night, they're not wearing a trenchcoat in the middle of summer, they're not carrying a big gun. They're playing as a mouse."
We started talking about the similarities when Spector described the rhythm of Epic Mickey 2, how it wasn't quite open-world but rather organized around hub-zones where players were free to poke around and test the systems. "It gives [the pacing] a sort of herkey-jerky kind of feel," he said. I pointed out that that sounds very similar to Deus Ex.
"Here's the thing," Spector said. "Everybody asks me, 'When are you gonna make another game like Deus Ex?' And [With Epic Mickey 2], I am! From a structural standpoint, from an underlying design philosophy standpoint, the directives I give the design team, it's the same."
I asked what he thinks people are really asking, then, when they ask him when he'll make another game like Deus Ex. His answer was pretty great, so here it is in its entirety:
I think it's a perfectly natural thing to say. When we think about games, it makes perfect sense that what we think about is actions. What you do. Games are about verbs, right? It's about what you do.
And so I think when players [play Deus Ex] they think, "I am shooting a gun. Kids don't shoot guns. I am in the real world. That is an adult situation." They look at the content, and confuse content and action.
But the reality is, what makes a game mature is not, "I got a gun, I curse, that woman is naked…" that's adolescent, it's not "mature." It's the opposite of mature. I find it so ironic that we get that so completely backwards. We give mature ratings to the most immature games. In Disney Epic Mickey, it was about how important family and friends are to you. And [Epic Mickey 2] is about, "Do you believe that there is evil so profound in the world that it's beyond redemption?" In this game, you have to decide who to trust. That's maturity!
I think the real reason is that they think about the kinds of choices they're being asked to make: Do I kill that thing or not? Do I fight or sneak? And in this game, the tone is completely different, the choices you're making are completely different, the consequences are completely different. The kinds of game genres we're mashing up… that's what I do, I'm not a blank-screen kind of designer. I'll leave that to Will Wright and other people who I admire and wish I was more like. But Deus Ex was literally, if you boil it down to first principles, it was literally 'Let's take a shooter, and a stealth game, and a role-playing game and mash 'em all up and see what happens.'
And those are typically thought of as adult genres. And in the first Disney Epic Mickey and in this one, all we're doing is taking Mario, and Zelda, and pick your favorite role-playing game, and mash 'em all up and see what happens. Because I think that could be kind of interesting. You know?
I think that we took genres that are more typically associated with kids, mashed 'em up, put 'em together, but the end result is that the gameplay is as deep, the choice and consequence, especially in the second game, are as deep as anything I've ever worked on. All it requires is, gamers have to accept that they're not wearing sunglasses at night, they're not wearing a trenchcoat in the middle of summer, they're not carrying a big gun. They're playing as a mouse.
Sometimes I feel like no matter how eloquently Spector says it, or how true it may be, the fact that the game is about Mickey Mouse instead of badass J.C. Denton (who was actually super goofy and not that badass) means that a subset of people will just never play Epic Mickey. Even if the sequel is more polished than the first game (and it certainly looks that way!), a lot of people will never give it a chance. We'll find out soon either way.
I'll have more from my interview with Spector, including more of his thoughts on that last point, later this week on Kotaku.