There are two sides to the Disney brand. The first is bathed in rainbows, giddy joy and toddler-appropriate fun. This is normally the kind of charming canon you find Mickey Mouse, Chip and Dale or Winnie the Pooh bounding about in, merrily immersed in sunbeams as they pass through delightful locales. It’s the kind of world where the most evil thing ever to have happened is when a thoroughly naïve hero foolishly goes exploring and ends up getting their head stuck in Rabbit’s front door/wakes up all the magical mops/annoys Donald Duck/delete as applicable.
But the second is far less conventional, far darker. It’s much less the lovable yet flummoxed “Gawrsh!” of Goofy and far more the unsettling and Machiavellian, “’Ello, poppet,” of the egotistical Captain Jack Sparrow, eyes shining with villainy as he greets you in the black of night. It’s the side of Disney that, albeit tentatively perhaps, has birthed the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Pirates of the Caribbean and Tim Burton’s rather murky interpretation of Alice in Wonderland that would send even the bravest of short wearing, occasional apprentice mice heroes off scuttling behind the couch.
While the makers of Mickey Mouse have always had a slightly more mature image, with films of a less conventionally Disney-esque narrative being released under the company’s Touchstone Pictures brand, the harmony between the company’s candy coloured staples and the newer, darker world of some characters has taken many years to develop. The obvious example of this is The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that was deemed “too dark and scary for kids” by bosses at Disney and was bumped over to Touchstone in a move that reflected the company’s reluctance to lead an icon of innocence into such dark territory. (Nightmare Before Christmas has since “returned” home and has been distributed by Walt Disney Pictures since 2006. May have something to do with the small economy generated by merchandise for the film, but let’s not sully the issue with financials.)
While that was nearly eighteen years ago (I apologise if that makes you feel a bit old, it’s making me feel a bit old too) it does appear that Disney is beginning to take risks with the merging of its core values and the danger of bold, new ideas. Ten years ago, Disney was more interested in making straight-to-video sequels for the likes of Tarzan and The Jungle Book, whereas the studio is back on form with lauded offerings from Pixar as well as fine animation and live action films. The mere fact that resident nutter Tim Burton was allowed to go the whole nine yards and completely modernize one of Disney’s most beloved stories so perfectly in his style is a testament to the new found bravery held by the company’s film studios.
And while all of that is rather marvellous, it’s that very bravery that’s noticeably absent in Disney’s attitude to the video game market. And when you come from the makers of Disney’s Magical Mirror Starring Mickey Mouse (a game that was attacked with the worst criticism I have ever read in all my years of following video game journalism; one reviewer complained that the game “played pretty much like a video and didn’t really let the player do anything”) all you can really do is be bold and try and make a game far less terrible than what you did before.
But the vast majority of games that draw upon the Disney universe are painfully derivative and over simplified for very young audiences (Finding Nemo-derived fetch quests, I’m looking at you) and obviously these experiences aren’t aimed at the seasoned video game enthusiast. On one hand you could argue that Disney games are only for little kids, bought by stumped aunties and perplexed uncles in the vain hope that it’ll grant them silence during the holidays or make them appear down with the kids. But on the other hand, you’d think that someone would be able to make a decent game that adults might be vaguely interested in if you had the greatest source of untapped imagination to draw from day after day.
And one or two people have managed it, even if they all weren’t working for Disney at the time. I’m fairly certain that a particular RPG developer named after a geometric shape may have made a slightly commercially successful, Disney-inspired franchise a few years back, but the name eludes me at this particular point in time. A mega hit as it was, the franchise has thoroughly stalled and now seems more than content to just spiral inwards on itself with more and more back stories and prequels and interplays rather than expanding the potentially fascinating universe into this “next” generation. Even with the KH-word (you can’t make me say it this week) it does appear that Disney franchises are always more rooted in the safe and profitable than bounding off into unexplored territory.
The merging of Disney’s innocent, bubbling core of giddy delight and the emotionally complex designs of the wider world has been a long process, one marred by false starts and an intermittent desire to attain a hollow profit. But while the company’s primary focus of film has blossomed from some reluctant, grunting teenager into a easy going renaissance man, it does appear that Disney’s video game strategy could do with a wave of the same sorcerer’s wand.
Could Epic Mickey be the first step towards turning Disney into a creative gaming superpower? With its intriguing clash of traditional Disney elements and macabre atmosphere, the game promises to be something brand new for the company, though exactly what it will deliver to fans and gamers alike remains unclear.