All singing, all dancing
At a Junction Point event earlier this week in Austin, Texas, company president and creative director Warren Spector had an unexpected, shocking revelation for the gaming industry. No, it wasn’t the fact that Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two exists—that, as Spector joked, was one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry. Instead, the big shocker was the fact that, in Spector’s words, Epic Mickey 2 will be the “first musical comedy game in the history of videogames.” So, was this a mandate from Disney to make the sequel more akin to something visitors might actually experience at Disneyland?
“Honestly, the impetus for making it a musical was this: I love musicals, and I run the studio,” Spector says with a laugh. “It took a little bit of coaxing to get the team on board, too—let me tell you. But they’re all on board now; they’re loving it.”
Though he’s best known for darker fare like Thief and the original Deus Ex, Spector reveals that the musical bug has always bubbled beneath the surface, just waiting for the right opportunity to burst out in videogame form—and Epic Mickey 2 is the perfect platform for him to finally unleash that dream.
“My mom started dragging me to musicals when I was 5 years old,” Spector recalls. “I saw Fierello! on Broadway. I saw Oliver! with the late, great Davy Jones; I saw Camelot with the original cast. I’ve been going to musicals all my life, and I love ’em. I mean, I’m an unabashed Glee fan; I watch Smash every week. If it’s got music in it, I’m there.”
So, while Epic Mickey 2 will feature similar platforming action as the first game—with improvements like a tweaked camera system and drop-in, drop-out co-op, as well as releases on all three consoles—the tale itself will unfold via full voice, song, and sometimes even dance, a stark contrast from the original game, which featured no spoken dialogue. Jim Dooley, who composed the first game’s soundtrack and also worked on Infamous and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, is handling the musical compositions, with Mike Himelstein—a veteran of Shrek and the upcoming Dorthy of Oz—penning the lyrics.
While Spector’s team wasn’t quite on board with the idea of a music-based narrative at the beginning of development, Disney thought it was the perfect direction for the franchise. “I just wanted to do it; I’ve always wanted to do it. But no publisher was ever foolish enough to let me,” Spector jokes. “When you go to Disneyland or when you think of the classic Disney films, you think about that great music—Alan Menken, Elton John, Tim Rice. Disney is in our heads and in our souls through music. So, when I told the folks at Disney I wanted to make a musical, they told me, ‘Well, of course. You’re making a game that honors 80 years of Disney history, right? Of course you want to have songs in it.’”
Spector only revealed the game’s opening song-and-dance number at the event, but it was an absolute doozy. The Mad Doctor, the main villain from the first game, arrives to tell the citizens of Wasteland—home to the “forgotten” areas and citizens of the Disney universe—that he’s a changed man. With ridiculously over-the-top insincerity—and a catchy, toe-tappin’ melody—he implores Wasteland to “help me…help YOU!” The entire production comes off a bit like the classic Simpsons musical number “See My Vest,” performed by Mr. Burns—appropriate, since that tune was a parody of Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” and a clever homage to the best Disney villain musical expositions like The Little Mermaid’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s “Hellfire.”
While the Mad Doctor’s amusing number was certainly on par with what one might expect from a typical Disney animated flick, one major question is whether the rest of the soundtrack can consistently deliver that level of quality. Associate producer Scott Green says not to worry—the other tunes definitely match the level of the opening act. “That’s another reason to keep playing,” he says. “You’ll want to see how the next song fits into the story.”
Spector also promises that players will see many more famous “forgotten” Disney elements while exploring Wasteland this time around—strongly hinting via a “no comment” that an animatronic Abe Lincoln from the Hall of Presidents might find his way into the proceedings somehow, among other special guest stars. But Spector makes it clear that players shouldn’t expect a Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band interface—this is an action-platformer through and through.
“Just to be clear, though, we’re taking baby steps,” Spector says. “In the same way that, when we introduced the concept of choice and consequence to kids and non-gamers in the first Epic Mickey, we had to do ‘choice and consequence lite.’ The music, the songs in this game, they absolutely communicate the story, and they absolutely tell you what the characters are thinking and feeling. But if I’d gone all the way and said, ‘The interaction is built around songs, and players are going to be using songs in a game-systems way,’ I would’ve been run out of this industry on a rail. So, baby steps. The songs appear in cinematics in fairly traditional ways.”
Spector and his team also aim to make Oswald the Lucky Rabbit—one of Walt Disney’s first creations tragically lost in a trademark dispute in 1928 but reacquired by the company in 2006—a far more integral part of the experience this time around, as the monochrome lagomorph will follow Mickey throughout the game as either an AI partner or second player. To that end, Junction Point and Disney also marked the announcement of Epic Mickey 2 with the first public showing of “Hungry Hobos,” an Oswald short from 1928 that had been thought lost or destroyed for decades.
In another strangely Simpsonian moment, the experience felt a bit like when Bart and Milhouse uncover the “lost” Itchy short “Manhattan Madness”—though it’s more than 80 years old, “Hungry Hobos” was surprisingly funny and featured a shocking amount of violence and mayhem that certainly wouldn’t fly in today’s family-friendly Disney fare, so it’ll be interesting to see how well Spector and his team will be able to impart that “anything goes” early-animation spirit in Epic Mickey 2. That’s especially important here, because the game gives Oswald a voice for the first time: Frank Welker, who features one of the largest vocal ranges in animation history and has voiced everyone from Fred Jones on Scooby-Doo! to Optimus Prime on Transformers to Slimer on The Real Ghostbusters.
Spector seems much more comfortable with the concept of Epic Mickey this time around as well, especially now that he can deliver the experience through the ultimate Disney expression: song. In fact, he hopes this is just the beginning of the all-singing, all-dancing incarnations of the franchise—particularly if it continues to sell as well as the first game.
“I have plenty of ideas about what’s coming next, but I have no idea if even Disney is crazy enough to let me do them,” Spector says. “But maybe next year or the year after that, we’ll be talking about some pretty cool stuff.”