Wednesday, January 26, 2011

REVIEW: Epic Mickey for Wii

Epic Mickey
Wii: $50, Rated: E (Everybody)

Note: This is an expanded version of a piece called "Through a Glass, Darkly, With Mickey Mouse," which I wrote for the National Catholic Register, and as such not only tackles narrative and gameplay, but also offers a religious interpretation of certain themes.

Mickey Mouse didn’t start out as a pleasant, smiling corporate icon, but as a bit of a mischievous trouble-maker, and not above the occasional bit of anti-social behavior. He wasn’t the first child of Walt Disney’s craft. He was only created when Disney lost the rights to Oswald and had to start over. This time, he created a cartoon mouse, started his own studio, and the rest is history.

At least, that’s real history. But there’s also cartoon history, which is a little more interesting. In cartoon history, Mickey and Oswald are half-brothers, and Oswald felt forgotten and betrayed by Mickey’s sudden rise to fame. 

And Oswald’s not alone. Over their long history, Disney’s studios have created many characters who either never made it to the screen, or were forgotten when they faded from popularity. In his magical workshop, Yen Sid (the titular magician of the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in Fantasia) is working on a special place for these lost characters to call home.

This is the premise of Disney’s bold new Wii game, Epic Mickey. The story begins with a scene directly inspired by the 1936 short Thru the Mirror, as Mickey steps through a mirror into a magical dimension. He finds himself in Yen Sid’s workshop, just as the sorcerer is leaving. Mickey begins to play with the paintbrush used to create the new world, and in the process unleashes the Shadow Blot, who is obviously inspired by the Disney Comics character the Phantom Blot. Although Mickey narrowly escapes the Blot, the world for the forgotten is consumed by darkness. 

Mickey returns to his own reality, and becomes a famous movie star, oblivious to the destruction he has wrought until he Blot reaches through the mirror and drags Mickey back. The world that was supposed to be a haven is now called The Wasteland. Unloved and forgotten, no one in this land has a heart anymore, and even Oswald now hates his half-brother. The Blot wants to escape, and only the heart of Mickey Mouse can set him free.
Armed with Yen Sid’s magic paintbrush, Mickey embarks on a quest through this dark and ruined land in order to set things right and atone for his sins. With the brush, he can both create and destroy. When he uses it to spread paint, the world is restored, enemies are turned into friends, and things are set right. When he uses it to spread thinner, everything it touches is destroyed. The paintbrush is controlled via the Wii-mote, allowing the player to paint the world back into being, or tear it down with a flick of the wrist.

Guided by Gremlins (lifted from an unmade wartime movie collaboration between Disney and Roald Dahl), Mickey sets about rescuing allies and either destroying or converting foes. It’s certainly possible to play through with the thinner button pressed, washing the cartoon characters away to oblivion. But it’s more practical (and satisfying) to turn them into friends who might be able to help. 

Good Mickey, Bad Mickey?
It’s easy enough to ignore the pleas of characters who need Mickey’s help and take the easy (even cruel) path. But the game is designed to nudge you towards the higher road. It may be more difficult, but it’s almost always more rewarding. Help a gremlin now, and he may get through a sticky spot later on.

The ethical choices do affect the world: good choices restore it and make it bright and colorful, while bad choices degrade the world and sap it of color. Unfortunately, these changes aren’t permanent, and resuming a previous level resets the world to its prior state. This seems like an odd element for a game that stresses the importance of ethical choice.

The levels themselves are based on and inspired by various cartoon and theme park imagery, and overall they’re very appealing, with plenty of hidden details and attractive visuals. The goals for each level, however, are often rather perfunctory, and rarely lift the game above the level of a standard platformer/action game.

Part of this is almost certainly the result of the difficult balance designer Warren Spector is trying to maintain. The game was billed as a kind of dark, revisionist Mickey, and the initial concept art showed an amazing, complex world that would have looked wonderful rendered with, say, Unreal or Source.

But that really wouldn’t have been a Mickey Mouse game for the masses. Spector needed to create a complex take on Disney lore in general and Mickey in particular, while still providing an E-rated game that could be played by a 7-year-old. Amazingly, he succeeds, sounding depths you don’t usually find in this material, while also keeping things light and easy to play. In other words, the deeper levels are there for adults who tend to note some things, but kids can still fly through the game just spraying paint all over the place.

Technically, the experience is somewhat hampered by poor camera controls and finicky aiming. The camera never quite defaults to the best location, requiring fairly constant manipulation to get just the right angle on the action. There are places where it certainly seems like you have a clear line of sight at an enemy, but when you fire a stream of paint or thinner, it’s blocked by the scenery.

There are also some 2D platforming sequences that are used to link levels. These feel like filler, and are generally getting a thumbs-down from reviewers and games. I liked them, however. They draw heavily on old Disney shorts, which I adore, and provide a brief change of pace from the main 3D game. They’re not brilliant examples or 2D gaming—no one will mistake them for Super Mario Bros.—but they’re a nice way to link levels.

The Religious Angle
As the narrative proceeds and the relationship between Oswald and Mickey develops, it’s hard not to see Biblical themes emerging. Oswald feels forgotten and betrayed by his “father” (Walt Disney) and jealous of his half-brother (Mickey), whom he obviously feels is loved better. Oswald tries to kill Mickey several times, with fairly obvious echoes of the story of Cain and Abel.

The religious themes become more pronounced as the game’s central dilemma plays out. The characters in The Wasteland are not naturally cruel. They are literally “heartless” because they feel forgotten and unloved. Mickey shines a little brighter because of his big heart, which is why the forces of darkness are pursuing him. In the end (big spoiler alert) Mickey simply gives himself up to the Blot in order to save his brother and his friend, the gremlin Gus. The Blot takes Mickey’s heart, and destroys The Wasteland.

But as the Blot attempts to escape, Oswald, Mickey and Gus team up to destroy him and recover Mickey’s heart. With the Blot gone, the world can return to what it should have been before Mickey’s thoughtless act, and the Wasteland can flower into a kind of Eden for the cartoon characters. Since these characters are “dead” to the outside world, it’s almost as though Mickey has harrowed hell and brought them to paradise.

The story plays out like a classic tale of good versus evil, redemption, sacrifice, and the triumph of love. Mickey Mouse may well be one of the few fictional characters never to have been seen as a Christ-figure, but in Epic Mickey that changes. The world is saved by his redemptive sacrifice and his love: literally, by the blood of his heart. Determined to undo the effects of his sin, he “dies” and is reborn, and in the process makes all things new.

Were these conscious thematic elements on the part of the designers? That’s unlikely. The game industry, like the movie industry, is simply using the culture capital built up by 2000 years of Christianity. It is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s famous phrase, not so much Christian as “Christ-haunted.”

Yet in spite of itself, amidst all the cartoon silliness and Wii-mote waving fun, Epic Mickey reaches some real depths. A being of joy and light enters a world twisted by sin, and using all the colors of the rainbow he paints it back into existence, and in the process redeems the world and himself.


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