My first impression upon meeting Warren Spector for the first time is that he'd make a fantastic uncle: the sort of uncle who'd make you presents rather than buy them, and they'd always be thrilling and unique and fun. When we sit down in the cramped confines of a Gamescom business centre booth late on the Friday afternoon of the show there are no signs of the back-to-back interviews he's been doing for the last two and a half days. He's jovial, animated, and keen to discuss Epic Mickey 2.
"You have to remember that Disney approached me to do this game, and they pitched an idea with three killer pillars that still form the core of Epic Mickey today, one of which was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit comes back," he explains. "And I just thought 'Holy cow!', I mean think about this as a foundation for a story, whatever your medium, whether you're making a movie or writing an opera or a novel or making a video game: Older brother, rejected by his father in favour of the younger brother who steals the life that should have been his. Can you say Biblical? Can you say The Human Story? What better basis for a story can you get?!"
His eyes light up as he says, clearly still excited about the prospect for seeing how players deal with the underlying themes and moral quandaries of his game because, as he puts it himself, it's really all about the gamers themselves.
"Estranged brothers, separated at birth, have to reunite and form a family again. If I were making a movie, I would say 'Here's how I forge a family, what do you think?'. In a game, what I say is 'How important are friends and family to you?'. Every choice, every decision you make is going to help you answer that question for yourself. Take what you learn back into the real world, my friend! That's what I kind of like about games. The new game is about the possibility of redemption, but it's not 'Everyone is redeemable, don't you agree?', it's 'Do you think everybody is redeemable, or is there evil so profound that it's beyond redemption?'. Is the Mad Doctor legit? Is he really a hero? You have to figure that out, go. You can wrench emotions out of that, and by forcing the player to make those decisions, you can wrench emotions out of them too. No other medium can do that."
Spector lives and breathes games, and it's clear to see that he's utterly in love with the medium. To hear him talk is to listen to a man who has spent three decades helping to craft some of the greatest milestones in our industry's history - Wing Commander, Ultima, Deus Ex, System Shock, and now Epic Mickey. Spector is remembered mainly for his work at ORIGIN and Looking Glass, and of course, Ion Storm, Austin where he rather helped keep the company afloat as Ion Storm, Dallas spent money on lavish excess and Daikatana. He left Ion Storm in 2004, after the release of Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, and set up Junction Point a year later, determined to once again make the games that he wanted to make. A consummate theorist, Spector has always championed the evolution of ideas in games, and the exploration of emotional responses through player freedom and choice, something that he would say has not changed.
It's for this reason, perhaps, that there's a slight sense of weariness when confronted with questions, from certain Deus Ex fans in particular, that run along of "What happened? You used to make games like Deus Ex, now you make games like Epic Mickey, what up with that?" Spector, to his credit, is still able to muster a laugh at what must be a fairly regular question, but his answer is simple: He's still making games like Deus Ex.
"You know it's funny," he says. "In one sense I don't see it as a big change at all. The tone and the content changed, but the game design philosophy beneath it all is still exactly the same. All of the games that I've worked on, all of them, are about mashing up different genres and seeing what happens. What happens if you take a shooter and a stealth game and an RPG and mash them all together? And that was Deus Ex. What happens if you take a platformer and an action-adventure game and an RPG and mash them all together? That's Disney's Epic Mickey.
"Deus Ex was all about choice and consequence. I'm not going to throw you a puzzle and tell you to figure out what I was thinking just to see how smart you are; that's not what it's about. It's about 'Hey, there's a problem. Get inside the Statue of Liberty and save those people!' I don't care how you do it, but I'll show you the consequences of the way you do it. And it's the same thing with Epic Mickey. Here's a problem: you can erase things or paint things. Solve the problem. Go! It's the same sort of thing, in a weird way. And I think there are a lot of reasons as to why people may have missed that the first time, that's something we're trying to introduce right at the beginning [in Epic Mickey 2]. Choice and consequence come back in a big way, let's just say that. I think we did choice really well in the first game, we maybe lightened up on the consequence side, but it's back from the sequel. Big time!"
But cartoons have always been a part of Spector's life as well. For him, Epic Mickey has been something of a homecoming.
"The other thing that's weird is that somewhere along the line in the video game business I got the reputation for being a super-serious guy," he says with a slight smile. "And I love cyberpunk fiction, and I love epic fantasy, I love all of that stuff, no question about it. But I've been a cartoon freak since I was a kid, and I wrote my master thesis on cartoons, and I taught animation history and production at the University of Texas, and the first thing I worked on in this business was Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game. So, for the folks who know me really well, when I said told them that I was working on cartoon game, they were like 'Well it's about time'. It was a return to my roots.
"So, I like a lot of things, and I was glad for the change of pace. After 25 years of making serious guys-who-wear-sunglasses-at-night-and-trenchcoats-in-the-summer games, I wanted to do something different, and I'm really enjoying working with the Disney characters right now. So it's a return to roots, and the gameplay philosophy is still exactly the same. I don't think I ever stopped making games like Deus Ex."
He's breaking new ground, again, in Epic Mickey 2, with the introduction of a swathe of musical numbers. The official reason, of course, is the celebration of eighty years of Disney's creative history, and, as Spector rightfully says, "how can you not have songs in your game if you're doing that?" There's another reason too, though; he utterly adores musicals.
"You can't help but think of things like 'When You Wish Upon A Star', or 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious', or 'Feed The Birds', or 'Someday My Prince Will Come', there are so many great Disney composers and lyricists," he rather gushes. "So we had this brief, but the real reason is that I love musicals. [Laughing] I've always wanted to make a musical game, and now I finally work for a company that gets how powerful music can be. So in the same way that this is the first step of working out how to make co-op storytelling games, this is also the first step in doing a musical game. There are certainly some folks on the team who've got some crazy ideas, and I myself have a whole bunch of crazy ideas, about how to integrate songs into game mechanics and in the future I hope we get to explore some of those things. But right now, gamers have to vote. They have to come out and say 'Yes, we like songs in games!' and they'll see plenty from Junction Point in the future."
It's clear that the relationship between Junction Point and Disney is one based on mutual respect too. Spector "genuinely loves these characters", and Disney knew who exactly who they wanted behind the reins of this celebration of their enormous body of work. There are no conflicts, as such, Spector revels, though that's not to say there haven't been one or two heated discussions along the way.
"I know the history of Disney pretty well and I genuinely love these characters, and I don't want to screw them up," he says. "But there are people at Disney who really love these characters and have been living with them longer than I have, so we had lots of heated discussions, but at the end of the day I was surprised at just how much freedom they gave us, and how little they constrained us. When I think back I can really only think of one thing to which they said 'No!', and that was that we can't show Mickey's teeth, which I didn't have a problem with, I mean I'm not going to make a Federal case out of it, I think I can live with that."
There were one or two ideas, however, for which it was suggested a rethink might be in order.
"There were several occasions where they made really serious points," Spector continues. "I wanted to do a land, for example, inspired by Alice in Wonderland and someone pointed out 'You know, Tim Burton's making this Alice movie, maybe you shouldn't do that.' And I really didn't want to compete with Tim Burton launching his version of Alice on 4,000 screens and say 'Ignore that Alice, this is mine!'.
"I also really wanted to do rejected Tinkerbells, I mean like a whole colony of rejected fairies, because I found those in the archives. The was a sexy little nymph Tinkerbell; and there was a goth-chick Tinkerbell; there was one who looked just like this movie actress from the Forties, called Gail Storm, who no-one remembers; it was crazy. There were so many different concepts that got thrown out for Tinkerbell and so it would have been awesome having this colony of them, resenting the one who got picked, and I thought it would be fun. But then someone from Disney came and said 'Well, we're doing a lot of fairy-related stuff right now, and we don't want to confuse people...' so maybe one day I'll get to do it. It was more that sort of discussion than 'You must not do this!'. They gave us more freedom than expected, and it's been a great collaborative effort on these two games."
This sequel will also mark the jump for the series across to the HD consoles. The PS3 will see the control setup of the original replicated on the Move, but for Xbox 360 and DualShock fans, there'll be a more traditional control setup as well; however, as I pointed out in my review it might take some getting used to. Spector says there's a reason for that: he's trying to encourage users to play.
"I've watched a lot of people play this game now, and it's interesting – and I was quite surprised by this, but I think it's cool – when you watch kids play Epic Mickey you see them spray paint and thinner around, they don't think about it too much. They play. When you see an adult the play either game on the Wii, or now with the Move, they think about stuff, they aim at pixels, they don't want to look stupid, and they don't want to fail. So they're really precise about targeting stuff. If you pick up a standard controller and you try to pixel perfect aim it's kind of dopey. So what you see is adult just start spraying it too, and hitting the things they want to hit on the fly. So in a weird sort of way you see adults start playing like children, and I think that's all good.
"One of the coolest things about Mickey Mouse is that, for kids, he's an aspirational character. He's someone they want to be like, he's got a job but he still has fun, he's got tons of friends he hangs out with, but he's older. For adults, he's a remind of what it was like to be a child, and if a game can capture that, I'm all for it. So what I would suggest is, if you only have one console, and you want to play a Mickey Mouse game, just buy. Yes, it's a different experience, but it still works. If you have multiple consoles, then it's up to you to decide which experience you want more. Or just get the PS3 version, which can do both."
Beyond Epic Mickey 2, Spector is cagey about the future. He refuses to comment either way on whether or not well see Mickey and Oswald grace the Wii U, although he is rather interested by the tech. Talking personally, he waxes lyrical about the potential of portable gaming thanks to connected devices, and his eagerness to explore opportunities in that area. ot tht you'd see Warren Spector sell out; he'd be applying the same philosophies that he's always done.
"I can't tell you anything about a Wii U Epic Mickey project, possibly or not, I have no comment about that," he says, sporting a wry grin. "I think the Wii U is an interesting device, but the thing that interests me most – and this is me personally, this is no reflection on Disney, or indeed anything we may or may not be working on at Junction Point – but the most interesting thing to me at the moment in gaming is this little device [points to phone], this little supercomputer we all have in our pockets, and these tablets that we all have. The idea of that – a tablet talking to a TV, or talking to a phone, I'm really intrigued by that. 'Gaming everywhere' is kind of a buzzword, but I'm really intrigued by different devices all interacting with the same sort of simulation, I guess. The Wii U is getting towards that in a 'Nintendo way', SmartGlass is exploring that in a different way, as is Apple TV. I hope that's a really big part of the future because I really want to play with that.
"I'm really really really intrigued by how I can create a player-driven narrative experience on a tablet that doesn't have buttons or joysticks. How do I solve the control problem? I'm really interested in that. And I'm interested in the challenge of how you go about creating a game like Deus Ex or Epic Mickey on a device that encourages very short play times. How do you make Disney Epic Mickey a meaningful experience when you're waiting online for a cup of coffee? I have no idea how to solve either of those problems, by the way, but that's why I'm intrigued."
Spector is excited by the here and now, too. Discussing this year's E3, I put it to him that perhaps there's an argument to suggest that the higher levels of this industry treading water - iterating rather than evolving. Does he thin we're in danger of stagnation? Put simply, no. As we ourselves have suggested on the site, his view is rather that there's no time like the present.
"Twenty years ago, when I was at ORIGIN and working with the guys at Looking Glass and Ion Storm, we would literally look at one another in amazement and ask why we were the only ones doing this. 'Why isn't everybody making games like Ultima and Underworld and System Shock and Thief and Deus Ex...why aren't more people doing that?'. And not to toot my own horn, but rather toot some collective horns, I think we made a difference. There was a time when it was just a case of Thief and Ultima and Deus Ex, but then No One Lives Forever came along a few months later. I looked at that and thought 'Hey, they're doing a lot of the same things we were doing', and the same when BioWare came out with Knights of the Old Republic.
"And there are echoes of it today: Bioshock, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Dishonored. There are guys from Looking Glass now working high up at Bethesda. A bunch of folks working on Dishonored came straight out of Origin and Ion Storm. Out of the ashes of Looking Glass and Ion Storm came Irrational and Junction Point and Arkane and Harmonix, for that matter. So I really think if people look more closely they'll see that the legacy is there. There are people doing Deus Ex games that aren't me! I see so many games today that are like the games I want to make and want to play, so many different games I want to play, and that wasn't true twenty years ago. I had to make the games I wanted to play. Now I have to find time between making those games to play games other people have made that I really want to play!
"Even beyond that, you only have to look at Facebook, and the App Store, and the digital marketplaces. Journey is not at all your run-of-the-mill game. Jenova Chen's out there doing crazy stuff, and Jon Blow, and Chris Hecker, and God bless them. The infinite variety of games is under-reported, I think, so what has to happen is core gamers have to break out of that narrow field of vision that says 'Only this [small sector] defines gaming.' Games are out of frame now, we just have to look a little bit broader."
Thanks to Warren for taking the time to talk to us. Epic Mickey is out for PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii on November 18th.