Q&A: Bringing back Mickey Mouse's dark side

Well-known video game designer will get a chance to show the world the mischievous side of the world-famous cartoon icon in Disney's Epic Mickey, a game for the Wii scheduled for a fall 2010 release.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

In a world in which Disney defines its brand and the content it releases under its own name as being aimed at the broadest possible audience, Mickey Mouse is known largely as a feel-good, happy-go-lucky cartoon character.

But that's not how Mickey was in the early days. Back in 1928, when he first hit the world stage, he was a very badly behaved mouse. And now, one of the best-known video game designers in the world wants to bring back a little of bit of Mickey's dark side.

And he'll get his chance to make that a reality. Warren Spector, the game designer behind the Deus Ex franchise, is working on a new game, Disney's Epic Mickey, which is being positioned, in part, as a "re-imagining" of Mickey Mouse.

Images: Mickey Mouse, behaving badly

See all photos

Planned for a fall 2010 release, Disney's Epic Mickey will be an adventure-platforming game exclusively for Nintendo's Wii. The story is built around a world--crafted by the sorcerer from The Sorcerer's Apprentice--in which a series of forgotten Disney creations live, and thrive. Among those characters is Oswald, Walt Disney's earliest cartoon star. As the years pass and Oswald becomes bitter at Mickey's success, Mickey inadvertently destroys Oswald's comfort zone in the cartoon wasteland and he must face the consequences of what he has accidentally wrought.

"It's a game where we remind (people) that Mickey is a hero who solves problems by dynamically changing the world around him and deciding how to interact with the people and places and problems he encounters in this strange new world," Spector said.

In 2005, Spector formed a start-up, Junction Point, which Disney bought when it commissioned him to work on the Mickey Mouse game. "I've wanted to work for Disney forever," he said, "so that was not a stumbling point for me at all."

And because Spector is a lifelong Disney fan and animation "freak," everything came together in 2007 for him and his Junction Point team to take on perhaps the best-known cartoon character of all time. On Tuesday, Spector talked with CNET News about the project.

Q: How did you get involved?
Warren Spector: I was out pitching a near-future science-fiction game and an enormous epic fantasy role playing game, and my agent suggested we talk to Disney. They turned things around and asked me if I wanted to a Mickey Mouse game, and I told them no, because I don't do kids games and Mickey's been kind of a kid property for a long time. But they said, No, no, we want someone to bring Mickey to a gaming audience in a whole new way and make him a hero for the 21st century. Pretty much at that point, I was in.

What was it like to get a chance to re-imagine Mickey Mouse?
Spector: How often do you get a chance to work with the most recognizable movie star character property on Earth? That's an opportunity most people never get. There was pretty much no way I could say no. Mickey touches everybody, and none of us will ever meet a human being who doesn't know about this character.

What's the best-case outcome for this game, in your fantasy?
Spector: The best case is to change the way people think about Mickey Mouse. He's not just your 8-year-old kid's best buddy, or a character who teaches infants colors on Mickey's Clubhouse. He's a hero again. In his early days, he appealed to every body. From 1928 to the mid-1930s, moviegoers around the world, everybody, men, women, old, young, you name it. Everybody loved Mickey. And the opportunity to bring him back to that place, where he's not just an icon on a watch or a T-shirt, but is actually a character that people care about in a narrative context, or want to be, to look up to as a character whose skin they want to inhabit for awhile, Boy, I can't think of a better (challenge) for someone who tells stories and makes games for a living.

The logo for Disney's Epic Mickey. Disney Interactive Studios

Why does Mickey need re-imagining? And why now?
Spector: There's these characters, like Mario and Link (from the Zelda games) and Sonic, and I don't know if it's true, but you've got to believe that those characters--who are three heads tall and cute and iconic--at some level were inspired by Mickey Mouse. So why shouldn't Mickey be at the top of the gaming heap? Mickey deserves to be at the top of the game hero pyramid.

What are some of the things you're doing to make this new Mickey recognizable for everyone?
Spector: I came into this with a pretty good idea of who Mickey was. I wanted to remind Mickey that it's okay to be mischievous and badly-behaved. For so many years, he hasn't been allowed to do anything remotely mischievous. But if you go back to those early cartoons, he was very badly behaved, and we've got to let him get back to that. And in his early cartoons, he was very cartoon-y, he squashed, he stretched. He could remove his tail and use it as a sword. That was the second thing. And the third leap was mischievous cartoon character made of paint. So we talked about what we could do if we gave Mickey control over the stuff that he's made of and let him paint and then use paint thinner to remove stuff.

Were there other things that were essential for bringing Mickey to this medium?
Spector: One major challenge was finding a look for him, especially a 3D look. With a couple of rare exceptions, Mickey's always been in 2D and the animators cheated all the time, with the way his ears work and the way his nose fits relative to the rest of his face. In 3D you can't do that, so I looked at the few previous 3D Mickeys and I didn't feel anybody had gotten it right. We went through probably thousands of concepts trying to find the right look.There are a lot of people at Disney who care a lot about Mickey Mouse, and so getting a look that people could get behind was tough. Rendering it in 3D was tough and then getting it to move like a cartoon character was a huge challenge and tons of fun, and you'll tell me if we succeeded.

Warren Spector, lead designer on Epic Mickey. Disney Interactive Studios

How much control did you have and how much control Disney assert?
Spector: I was really worried about that when I first started on this. There are lines you don't cross with Mickey Mouse, OK? But the thing that surprised me was how far out those lines were and how obvious it is where the lines really are.

There are people who say, 'Oh, give Mickey a big knife and put a gun in his hand, and then I'll like him.' Well, come on, nobody's going to do that. And you're not going to make Mickey evil, you know? And when you have an icon, where any combination of three circles defines Mickey Mouse for most people on the planet, you're not going to make his head square. I'd say it was a pretty easily negotiated deal, creatively.

Talk more about where the story idea came from?
Spector: During a meeting with the Disney guys, they showed us a PowerPoint with the concept of cartoon wasteland, a world of rejected and forgotten Disney creativity. And the foundation was making Mickey relevant to a gaming audience and a modern audience. It was funny because I watched this presentation thinking, Holy Cow, this is phenomenal and the seed of an amazing thing. And then all the execs were saying, Oh, you don't have to use any of that, this is just our think tank's concept. And I'm sitting there, going, Are you guys crazy. That's a great idea. Why would I not use all of that? I just thought it was so funny because they were trying so hard to make it clear that I had all this creative freedom, and I was like, No, I don't want it, I want this as my starting point.

Can you tell me something about working with these famous Disney characters that would surprise us?
Spector: I think the thing that surprised me the most is how easy it is to get these characters almost right. It's like, drawing Mickey or any other character in the Disney archives, they are so well known and defined and recognized and have such strong personalities that getting them 90 percent right is very easy. But that last 10 percent that just nails them, that's really, really hard. And that goes for how they look, and how they act and how they move, which is one of the reasons why I was so proud of my animators. I didn't tell them to do this. They came up with this idea on their own, of going back to the old cartoons, and rotoscoping them. They took the old cartoons and took our model and rig and then duplicated classic 2D animation, and composited our guy into classic Disney 2D cartoons. When you couldn't tell if it was our model or the original 2D animation, that was when I knew we had it.

Why only the Wii?
Spector: At the beginning, it was supposed to be on all platforms. I remember vividly how nervous I was about that. The idea was we were going to do a Wii port and I was never comfortable with that because the Wii really deserves its own design, something that takes advantage of what the Wii does best. We were talking about this one day and (Disney Interactive Studios executive vice president) Graham Hopper basically said, What does it take to ensure quality? I said, you can never guarantee greatness, but you need enough time and money to be competitive and it helps if you can focus. A single platform would be great. And it was an easy step from there to, Hey, we should do a Wii exclusive.

What about the Wii "stalling?" Does that worry you at all?
Spector: Yes and no. I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've had this saying, That I just need to sell one more copy of a game than is necessary to get my publisher to fund my next one. So I'm looking at this as, I've got a responsibility to Mickey Mouse and to Disney, and if I do something really good, commercial success will follow. I've got to believe that. And once you start talking about painting, people's hands (on the Wii) just immediately start moving as if they're holding a brush. It just totally works. I think we're on the right platform.