Epic Mickey has lived a tumultuous life. The game’s initial debut trumpeted a chorus of expectations: a beautiful wrap-around cover in GameInformer presented a dark and foreboding landscape not seen in a Disney property since Chernabog graced the silver screen; the hero was assumed to be a long forgotten predecessor to Walt’s eponymous mouse, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose birthright was usurped thanks to the machinations of business interests; Mickey himself was thought to be a tyrant king, and we as players would fight to liberate ourselves from his oppressive, ubiquitous visage. It was a twisted romp through the fevered subconscious of Disneyana.
Quickly, though, we found that the prevalent expectations about gameplay and plot were founded on shaky grounds. Mickey’s mischievous meddling, not his ruthless control, would be the impetus for the world’s fall. The Phantom Blot would be the primary antagonist, with Oswald as a secondary henchman out to reclaim his former glory. The perverse patchwork enemies (known in-game as the “beetleworx”) were animatronic replications of Mickey’s friends instead of surgically altered minions. And Mickey himself was our fearless hero (or, perhaps, our self-serving villain).
Certis, Demiurge and I were lucky enough to get some playtime with a build of the game at E3. The game’s handlers, festooned with Disney pins and memorabilia, were notoriously tight-lipped about Mickey’s morality system. When asked why negative actions (i.e. relying on paint thinner to destroy) would be beneficial to the player, they couched it in the idea that destroying the world would make goals easier to achieve. What would the effect on Mickey be? They couldn’t quite say – though we already knew, from media exposé’s, that Mickey could be transformed from a shining beacon of heroism to a snarling, wicked scoundrel based on his use of the paint/thinner mechanic. We were told, however, that little colored sprites following Mickey would clue players in to how their actions were changing them.
It was clear the PR folks had a love of subject. They noted tons of classic Disney references in characters and settings as we progressed through the demo. It made me wonder if their veiled, protective replies were handed down from Junction Point's higher-ups ... and just how much of this was dictated by the House of Mouse.
This doubt was further prodded by the unexpected news that was making the rounds this morning. If the talk coming out of the blogs today is to be believed, the game no longer allows for the option to change Mickey into a nasty rascal.
It’s an interesting design choice, especially since the main reason cited for the decision seems to be that playtesters were against “changing” Mickey. (I'm not sure exactly how a gruff biker weaseled his way into that playtesting gig or, even if that's a demographic that's being courted by the game). Ironically, the idea that we would be exposed to a radically new Mickey Mouse was one of the primary reasons that folks were attracted to the idea back when the GameInformer teaser was featured. There’s a strong resistance to the morphing of popular characters into darker, grimier creatures. This probably speaks more to the public’s hesitance to alter iconic images. For gamers (at least for those old enough to remember), this is often classified under the “American McGee” effect.
But McGee's Alice (the game that prompted the Penny Arcade guys to lampoon the bloodening of characters and later earned them a cease & desist letter) made sense to me. The dark world that was presented in-game was a reflection of Alice’s own troubled psyche. Her world was colored by her bleak perceptions. Similarly, the state of Epic Mickey’s protagonist is directly influenced by his actions. For someone with a love of the character, twisting Mickey into a hideous wretch should be disincentive enough to keep them from drowning the world in a sea of paint thinner. Righteous actions, those that turn Mickey into a paragon of capital-G-Good, should be the primary motivator for Mickeyphiles. Without the ability to fall, there’s little reason to think about the world one toys with.
If we are to believe the reasons voiced for the alteration of the game, the reactions against the changing Mickey mechanic seem to be rooted in the character itself. Initial cries of joy over the game's dark terrain seemed to source from the way that Disney was being subverted. Mickey was an afterthought. Removing negative visual cues from the game promotes detachment from the environment and creates a game of choice with little moral consequence. It leaves us with no way to really consider how our actions shape this world and how they go on to shape us.At that point, players will just be going through the motions. It’s not much of an epic Mickey story if floating colored blobs drive the ethical makeup of our hero.
It makes me wonder if I would be as willing to compromise similar experiences with established game heroes if the changes were too radical.