The happiest place on Earth has a doppelganger. It's called Wasteland. Its denizens are forgotten, dejected and resentful. But they're not seething with rage. This is after all still a Walt Disney Co. property, even if its moniker is a topsy turvy twist on the Disneyland theme park where no one really dies and fairy princesses always prevail.
This is Epic Mickey, a video game whose dark undertones and tale of redemption Disney hopes will intrigue teenagers and adults when it comes out Nov. 30. While Disney executives vehemently denied any attempt to remake the company's mascot, the game is garnering buzz precisely because it appears to offer an edgier version of Mickey Mouse from the beloved if harmless corporate icon he had become in recent years.
"Part of the game's appeal is the fact that it delves into the Disney canon and brings back some of the more shadowy, less pristine aspects of the Disney mythos," said Scott Steinberg, a longtime game journalist and founder of TechSavvy, a video game consulting firm in Seattle. "Disney is trying to take a family-friendly character, add a bit of suspense and darken the palette with the hope that gamers will see Mickey in a whole new light."
In Epic Mickey, an early Disney creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit rules Wasteland, a sad alternate universe of Disneyland. Its storyline picks up where "Fantasia" left off. In the 1940 movie, Mickey stumbles into a magician's lab where he picks up a wand and conjures music by bringing life to the objects in the lab.
The game (suggested retail price: $49.99) can be played only on the Nintendo Wii. IGN called Epic Mickey "one of the Wii's most anticipated games of 2010." Gamespot, another game review site, ranked it among the 15 likely most popular titles of the year.
Disney has made a practice of granting artistic license to A-list directors and other top-flight creative types who want to work with its classic characters, as was the case with director Tim Burton and his stylized, through-the-looking-glass interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland." Mickey Mouse, though, is arguably the most valuable (and venerable) asset in the company. The big cheese accounts for $6 billion annually in global sales of toys and other merchandise. He is a mainstay at the company's theme parks and on its cruise ships, and he and his longtime pals Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Pluto and Goofy reach 140 million viewers around the globe, on the Disney Channel's "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse."
Game developer Warren Spector is "absolutely playing with fire in trying to give Mickey a new dimension. It's a bold gamble for Disney," said Geoff Keighley, a longtime video game journalist and executive producer of MTV Network's GameTrailersTV. "But much like how Chris Nolan reinvented Batman, this could be a great chance for Disney to reboot Mickey in a way that appeals to gamers."
Five years ago, Spector was recruited to develop the game when the concept was hatched by a group of interns in the company's video game division.
Spector is a kind of developer's developer. At 55, he likes to joke that he is the nation's oldest game creator. Behind the graying beard, V-neck sweaters and wire-rimmed spectacles, however, is a person obsessed with playing on the edge of interactive entertainment. His games, including the Deus Ex trilogy and Thief: Deadly Shadows, were known for intricate, sometimes mind-bending, plots that let players explore multiple narrative paths. Deus Ex this year topped PC Gamer magazine's list of the top 100 computer games of all time.
"Warren Spector is like the David Mamet of gaming," Steinberg said. "His games don't speak down to players. They're known for being deep, erudite and sophisticated. For Epic Mickey, Warren will be as much of an attraction as Mickey Mouse when it comes to serious gamers."
It helps that Spector is a devoted Disney fan. During a company-sponsored tour for journalists of Walt Disney's private apartment at Disneyland two weeks ago, his eyes welled up as he blurted, "I've modeled my whole life after two people, David O. Selznick and Walt Disney." Spector was such a good fit that Disney purchased his Austin, Texas, studio, Junction Point, in 2007 for an undisclosed sum.
Asked whether teenage gamers would embrace Mickey, Spector, who teaches animation and film criticism at the University of Texas, replied, "The better question is, 'Why shouldn't they?' Gamers have no problem playing hours with a blue hedgehog or a cartoon plumber. Why would they have trouble with a mouse they grew up with? Mickey is a character that we all have a relationship with."
It's no easy feat making an octogenarian — and contemporary of Shirley Temple — hip to the modern teen. Yet historians say that Mickey has endured for all these decades precisely because he's so adaptable.
When he made his cinematic debut in 1928 in "Steamboat Willie" — the first animated cartoon synchronized with sound — he was an impish deckhand on a riverboat who delights Minnie by squeezing, pummeling and tweaking the barnyard menagerie on board to play "Turkey in the Straw."
Walt Disney modeled the mouse on silent film star Charlie Chaplin and cast him as an everyman who did it all. In the early days, he behaved in ways that today's audiences would find surprising, including the 1928 Douglas Fairbanks parody "The Gallopin' Goucho," in which Mickey smokes, guzzles beer and ogles Minnie as she performs a seductive Latin dance. "Initially, he's mischievous," said Robert Heide, co-author of "Mickey: The Evolution, the Legend." "Mothers would write in and say their children are behaving like Mickey Mouse, doing things they're not supposed to."
By the late 1930s, Mickey's personality softened. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould documented the transformation, noting how the mouse became progressively more juvenile in appearance as his behavior became "blander and inoffensive."
Art historian Garry Apgar, who has spent years researching the cultural impact of Mickey Mouse, said the character reached his apogee when he appeared as the Sorcerer's Apprentice in the 1940 animated film "Fantasia" and was virtually conscripted by the Allies as part of the World War II effort. Indeed, the character's name was used as the password for one of the most important briefings of the 1944 D-day invasion of Normandy.
The ubiquitous creature has appeared as the host of one of the most popular children's television series of all time, "The Mickey Mouse Club," which debuted in October 1955 on ABC; as a pop art subject for artist Andy Warhol in 1981; and on the runways of Milan in 2004 and again in 2009, as interpreted by designer house Dolce & Gabbana. His film career spans 143 cartoons, most recently in 2004's "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas."
Mickey's career in video games started in 1981 on a portable console from Nintendo called the Game & Watch. In his first game, called simply Mickey Mouse, players maneuvered him to catch eggs laid by four hens before they splattered.
Since then, he's appeared in more than two dozen titles. His scorecard, however, has been mixed. Two titles in particular, Castle of Illusion in 1990 and Kingdom Hearts in 2002, were critical hits, along with their sequels, according to a survey by Lucas Thomas of IGN. But he also had his share of bombs, including Disney's Hide & Sneak in 2003 and Disney's Magical Mirror Starring Mickey Mouse in 2002, which IGN called "painstakingly boring."
After those scathing reviews, the company hit the pause button on Mickey games. Graham Hopper, the head of Disney's video game unit, was intrigued when his interns presented their idea for a darker, more suspenseful game. Gone were the bright colors and the blithe but bland themes. Its characters, even the friendly ones, held grudges and had sarcastic streaks. And the monsters meant business. In one scene in the game, Mickey is strapped to an operating table as a machine attempts to extract his heart with a plunger. In this title, Mickey could let loose and kick some butt.
The plot also called for a return of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character Walt Disney created in 1927 but lost the rights to in a bitter contract dispute. Disney created Mickey Mouse the next year while Oswald mildewed in the filing cabinets of Universal Studios. Hopper persuaded Disney's chief executive Bob Iger to reclaim the rights to Oswald for the game. Iger did so in 2008, trading Disney's star ESPN football announcer Al Michaels for Oswald.
"We started with that canonical moment when Mickey puts on the hat and picks up the wand," Spector said. "That's where all of Mickey's essential characteristics come together. He leaps before he looks. He gets himself into trouble, and he has to figure a way to get himself out. He has this childlike sense of mischief and wonder."
As Mickey conducts, he accidentally spills magic ink that coagulates into an evil force in Wasteland called the Phantom Blot. In the game, Mickey must somehow correct his blunder and make peace with Oswald, who deeply resents Mickey's successes.
But how Mickey redeems himself is up to the player. Spector designed the game to give players multiple options, each involving a series of cascading consequences. "The game is tracking what you do behind the scenes," Spector said. "So if you're clever, you can create situations that even we as developers don't know about." In one scene that takes place in an area called Ventureland, players are confronted with a machine that turns pirates into animatronic monsters. Players can do nothing, destroy the machine or fix it so it creates cartoon characters.
Jim Hardison, creative director for Charter, a Seattle-based consulting firm that helped revitalize such corporate characters as Chester the Cheetos Cheetah and the Chick-fil-A cows, applauded Spector for finding a way to reintroduce some vulnerabilities to Mickey. "This seems to be a great opportunity to recapture conflict and energy around the story," Hardison said.
Industry analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Securities estimated sales could reach 1 million in December, if Disney does a solid job marketing Epic Mickey. But the game already has one important drawback — its graphics on the Wii look crude when stacked up against games developed for the more powerful Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 consoles, Keighley said.
"It's a shame, because the art and world for Epic Mickey is so dynamic and rich," Keighley said. "Can older kids see beyond that and view it as a legitimate game? The jury is still out on that."