An Epic of Epic Epicness?

Epic Mickey is probably the most fascinating game I’ve never bothered to play. I mean, the creator of legendary PC mix-‘em-up Deus Ex digs into the nooks and crannies of the Disney Universe? League of Extraordinary Gentlemen + House of Mouse? That is some Alex Spencer catnip, right there. But you can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of compromise mixed up in there. Compromise of a few different kinds – the necessary sacrifices of working with Disney, maybe, and the necessary sacrifices of making a game that can reach kids and adults, and of making a game for the Wii, and of making a mainstream game at all. That makes a sequel, which has the benefit of learning from all the mistakes its older brother already made, a very attractive prospect. Especially when you start throwing words like ‘co-op’ and ‘musical’ into that formula. So I found myself sitting in Disney’s London headquarters, listening to Warren Spector – aforementioned head of the Deus Ex family – chat up both games, and hoping… …and then, inevitably, being let down a little. Spector opened with a stream of marketing-research buzzwords – Mickey was ‘cool’ now, he said, he was ‘surprising’ – and a back-of-the-box bulletpoint list of improved features. The camera’s not broken any more, the characters can actually talk now, and there’s even more persistence. Which admittedly, are the kind of fixes that make this sequel sound like a good idea, but when you’ve got one of gaming’s most interesting brains up on stage, talking about a pretty great concept, it’s not exactly what you’re hoping for. But slowly, Spector moved off script a little, and the interesting stuff started to come out. The history of Oswald the Rabbit – who Walt Disney created, and had Simon&Schustered away from him, before Mickey was so much as a twinkle in his eye. What Disney said no to – notably, a series of rejected Tinkerbell designs he wanted to se as a gaggle of jealous sisters for the fairy. The way the games intertwine the real and fictional history of Disney – its theme parks, after all, being the kind of places which feature secret underground bars, and its studios being the kind of places which feature secret underground tunnels. Enemies which meld an animatronic outer shell with a inkblot doodle centre. The kind of stuff which makes the Epic Mickey concept deeply fascinating, essentially. Again and again, Spector kept coming back to that persistence thing – the importance of choices in how you play the game, and of their consequences later on. It’s the connecting thread through all of his career and output, and the thing which makes Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey a fascinating prospect. …and then I got to play the game a bit. Admittedly, it was more or less a tutorial level, and I was feeling the pressure of a dozen onlookers while I got stumped by a game designed for children, but my fifteen minutes of game didn’t bear out any of those virtues. There were no quirky characters or settings nicked cheekily from ancient Disney lore – the game is a thing of beauty, in a way that doesn’t come across in screen shots. It’s as fluid as a cartoon, and Mickey’s jump animation deserves poetry written about it. But it didn’t feel like a world cobbled together from the debris of eighty years of animation history. The brooms from Fantasia danced around the margins of the level I stumbled through, and looked absolutely lovely doing so, but what was at the centre felt a little generic. Nor did I get any sense of the Guaranteed 100% More Persistence we’d been promised. The narrator reliably informed me that it really did matter whether I chose to use the game’s paintbrush mechanic to paint or erase, create or destroy, but it didn’t seem to change the way the game played. There certainly weren’t any of Deus Ex’s trademark alternative routes or self-created puzzle solutions. There was nary a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft in sight. It was that feeling again, of the compromise necessary to gain access to the Disney universe and its fictions, of shackling a sharp and inventive mind to the dulling influence of something like the Disney corporation. So here I am again, sitting and hoping. This time, I will buy the game, will bother to play it. And hopefully at least some of that potential and some of those ideas and passion and weirdness will make it through into the final product. Let’s hope.

The Incredible Inflating Head of Alex Spencer: Disney-Colo(u)red Death

I had a list of dreams for 2011 that I made in the early months of this year. Amongst them were making some money whilst dressed in my bunny onesie, and writing for the Escapist, a games-orientated website showing the breadth and quality that games writing can, and should, consist of… So that’s two birds with one stone, then. Disney-Colo(u)red Death is me taking a look at Bambi, The Lion King and Up and their tear-the-still-beating-heart-from-your-chest moments, and then applying any patterns I spot to the world of videogames. The title is theirs, not mine (which were all as long and unwieldy as emo album track titles), and much better for it. It’s also my first ever piece of professional journalism. As first times go, it could be a lot, lot worse.

Transformers 2 – You know, nothing actually rhymes with ‘Gaming Room’

The Summer Blockbuster, it seems, lives or dies on aesthetics. There’s more: tapping into those primal male reactions to violence, explosions, and the female body, but for that to work the aesthetics have to succeed. And Transformers is a very very ugly film. Look at that subtitle: “Revenge of the Fallen”. The dialogue is painful: the clever one-liners generally consist of using the cliched one-liner voice and swearing; there are trite pop culture references that are already going out of date. The film’s main McGuffin is named ‘The Matrix of Leadership’. At one point in the film, someone literally announces “I am crying: this sucks!”Ugly, ugly, ugly. We are presented, for our delectation, a shot of two dogs having sex. This is echoed later as a small robot humps Megan Fox’s leg. There’s a point in the film where, for no apparent reason, the camera continues to rotate around the two romantic leads. They chat, on and on, so not only does the camera reveal its presence to the audience but its genuinely, pointlessly dizzying. There’s no sense of reason behind any of the decisions; aesthetic ugliness can be a brilliant (and, to use that most hackneyed of film critic phrases, ‘brave’) move, but here it just seems a result of the way the film was made. Ugly. I concede that this doesn’t apply to everyone, as they’re the film’s major unique-selling-point, but even the eye-candy robots are aesthetically unappealing and, again, in some cases, plain ugly. The two comic-relief characters in particular are designed in a way I can’t believe is unintentional. These characters are the film’s worst excesses personified- they use a black hip-hop-culture stereotype that is not only ephemeral in its appeal (hilarious phrases like “oh snap”) but in some cases seems sub-Walt Disney racially sensitive. Most of all, though, they’re just painfully unfunny, in that unique way that comes from trying hard to force funniness on the viewer. But I’m being unfair to the film. It escapes these trappings later into the film (particularly the awful attempts at humour) as it tries to become a more straight-laced action epic and becomes a better film for it. The ugliness of the first half an hour seeps away, and by the end there are even glimpses of lovely cinematography.The film has many more upsides than I’m giving it credit for (the score has some wonderfully attractive moments, and I’d be hard pressed to suggest Megan Fox is anything less than aesthetically appealing; there’s also what appears to be a giant Alan-Moore-bot), just as it has more problems than I’ve talked about (primarily, the horrible comedy/serious drama clash). I’ll say it again- Transformers II (I’m not giving that awful subtitle the attention it so obviously craves) isn’t a bad film. It’s just often so very very ugly. Confession: I was really trying hard to do one a day. But my Tuesday plans went a bit awry. And technically, it’s not even Wednesday any more. There will be 7 posts this week, I promise (to myself).