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.