Reinventing an icon

Reinventing an icon

Michael French looks at how and why Disney is using video games – not films, comics or TV – to revamp the world’s most famous rodent and re-introduce the world to Mickey Mouse…

There’s no shortage of iconic video games characters. Mario, Sonic, Lara, Master Chief; as an interactive medium, games easily create empowering heroes.

TV and film IP have had less success in capturing that same spirit.

Only in rarer instances have the likes of James Bond, Batman or Ben 10 crossed the divide from merchandise cash-in to fully-fledged game star.

It’s been even harder for Mickey Mouse, one of the most iconic characters of anything, ever. Which is strange given Disney is so enthusiastic about beefing up its games strategy. And that’s because, even though the mascot is on the paycheque of everyone at the firm, he’s… boring.

Sacriledge? Sure, but even Disney freely admits it. It’s something the company will redress in 2010, not with a new movie, comic or TV show, but a Wii game – of all things – called Epic Mickey.

“Mickey is the world’s most famous character. But in games he hasn't achieved his potential,” Graham Hopper, head of Disney Interactive Studios, explained at a recent press event in London where Epic Mickey was unveiled to media from around the world.

The mouse himself has made a few decent game apperances – and a number of duff ones. But Disney in fact banned Mickey from any more games (save Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts) as it became disillusioned with his lack of traction with gamers.

“Mickey has never been treated right in games,” added Warren Spector, creative director of the new title. “He’s recognised as an icon on a watch or T-shirt – not as a character in narrative. We had to make him cool again.”

Spector is best known for work on games like Deus Ex, Thief and Ultima, which boast complex narratives, touch on subtle adult themes and, most importantly, change based on player behaviour.

In Spector’s games, characters can be various shades of good or evil – hardly the ideal fit for a saccharine, vanilla-flavoured cartoon icon? Turns out that’s the thinking.

Developed by Spector’s Texas studio Junction Point – which he effectively sold to Disney in order to get access to the Mickey IP – the game is a more twisted take on the character’s backstory.

The title revives Mickey’s ‘brother’, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit – a character Walt himself created early in his career for rival Universal – and sees him take revenge on his rodent sibling for having become such a star. This irreverant take has been chosen to both secure more Tim Burton-like mainsteam appeal and address head-on the fact Mickey has lost some appeal.

“I want to remind people that Mickey can be fun,” Spector told MCV. “He is youthful – but doesn't have to be a baby. I want to remind Mickey that it is okay to be badly behaved. Discovering his essence was really important to me.”

GAME-CHANGER
So why will this story be told in games, and not one of the many other channels Disney uses for its content?

Spector says it is because the core gaming demographic is big, but hard to please – and obviously important for Disney to grow into: “Disney told me to make Mickey relevant to 13 to 24-year-old boys: don’t lose the kids or parents, but make him relevant to gamers.”

Betting the brand on a game is a big gamble, though. So to temper expectations Disney has made the project a Wii exclusive (for now, anyway). That in turn helps re-establish Mickey on the same turf that Mario calls home.

“Think about the great characters on Nintendo platforms – Mario, Link, even Sonic now – it feels right from that perspective,” Spector points out.

If all goes to plan, Epic Mickey sees Disney make good on its games division’s long-held promise to eat up market share in games by making accessible, quality mass-market titles from a mix of new ideas and known IP.

Says Hopper: “We want to grow – we have a slate of exciting products due next year and beyond that will help that. And if you’re a media company today, how can games not be a powerful part of what you have to offer?”

And seeing Mickey reborn into an icon that stands not just on a shelf in a shop to sell bubble bath, but alongside the likes of Link and Sonic as an empowering character – isn’t just an exciting prospect, but a big statement about the power of video games.

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