Originally posted in November 2010 on thebigpixels.com, which unfortunately has died.
Plus hands-on time with TRON: Evolution and Epic Mickey.
Hanging out at Disney Interactive’s Comic-Con booth over the weekend, I got the distinct sense that the company’s going to be focusing more than ever on video games, starting with the new TRON games and Epic Mickey. The former are part of Disney’s “first big transmedia” strategy, according to TRON: Evolution Development Director John Vignocchi, while Epic Mickey’s developers have been given huge amounts of freedom to explore Disney history. Both represent Disney’s increased interest in making games an integral part of the company’s brands, and with Warren Spector on board, there’s hardly any way the strategy can fail.
TRON‘s “transmedia” strategy means that the games and films (both the 1982 version and upcoming 2010 sequel) fit together like the pieces of a narrative puzzle; the original movie leads into the DS game, TRON: Evolution DS, and the Wii, PSP, and Xbox 360/PS3/PC versions follow chronologically in the fiction, culminating in the new movie.
In other words, Evolution (the game for 360, PS3 and PC) isn’t a side story or a continuation of the film’s plot. In fact, the film will feature multiple flashbacks to the game’s events, which lead directly to the state of unrest seen in the film’s world. Moviegoers don’t need to play the game first to understand it, but those who do will have a much more robust understanding of the film’s characters and plot.
I watched Vignocchi play the game for upwards of a half hour before taking control myself for the much anticipated light cycle race, which played like a version of Wipeout where the track is disintegrating as you jet across it. While I watched, Vignocchi played through an entire portion of the game set in Arjia City. Home to a rare breed of programs, it’s an important location in TRON‘s computerized world, but Vignocchi skipped every single cut scene, according to him, at the behest of the filmmakers. Apparently too many of the film’s crucial plot points are explored in the level, and they didn’t want the movie spoiled for observant Comic-Con attendees.
The on-foot gameplay came across as a mixture of Assassin’s Creed-like free running and combat somewhat reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Players are free to run up any wall and jump to any surface they can reach, all while battling multiple enemies with an arsenal of disc-based attacks and using the environmental to their advantage. The demo also included a tank, which controls “like Halo‘s Scorpion” (straight from Vignocchi’s mouth) and lays waste to troops both on foot and in their airborne transport vehicles.
Overall, it seemed like a healthy mix of gameplay styles, with a slew of RPG elements thrown in. Plus, experience and upgrades earned in multiplayer (which players can jump in and out of at any of the plentiful upgrade stations littered throughout the campaign) transfer directly to the single player game.
Vignocchi said the team of self proclaimed geeks is thrilled to be working in the TRON universe. During his lengthy employ at Midway, in fact, Vignocchi worked directly under the creator of the original TRON Arcade.
“As geeks ourselves, we have this opportunity to work on this amazing property,” he said. “Everything is canon.” That may be the most important part for Disney’s current strategy.
Of course, the other side of that lies with Epic Mickey. Spector and the team at Junction Point have been given absolutely unprecedented access to Disney’s archives, and they’re taking full advantage by revisiting countless obscure, rejected and forgotten characters and locales, Creative Director and industry legend Warren Spector told me.
I played through the game’s tutorial level, which takes place just after Mickey Mouse is pulled into a dangerous dimension by a mysterious (and almost certainly evil) ink blot. Lucky for him, he comes into possession of a magic brush that can create or destroy portions of the environment at players’ discretion. Its most basic implementations involve spraying paint to create platforms, or paint thinner to remove obstructions. But Chase Jones, the game’s Lead Desgigner, told me the brush’s applications are too numerous to grasp from such a short demo.
When I asked Spector what his favorite part of working on the game has been so far, he couldn’t think of a single answer. “I’m really happy that people are finding their own play style. You watch five people play, and they’re all doing things differently,” he began. “That’s when games get really special.”
“At the end of the day, the game feels unique. It doesn’t feel like any other game, doesn’t play like any other game. Its pacing is different from every other game, and so I’m really happy about that,” he continued. “I’ve watched dads and sons playing together, you know? I’ve got one picture of literally a five-year-old boy with a controller in his hands and his dad leaning around and helping him out.
“And all of a sudden, you know – games can really be like Pixar movies. They don’t all have to be adrenalized shooting,” he continued. “It’s really reflecting what I hoped it would be.”
Yet it’s impossible to grasp the true importance of Epic Mickey without hearing it in Spector’s own words. “There’s a whole new feeling about video games at Disney right now,” he told me. “The fact that they’re using a game to reintroduce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to the world speaks to how important video games are to the company.”
Oswald was introduced in the late 1920s, and the character’s close resemblance to Mickey is proof enough of his importance in Disney history. He plays a central role in Epic Mickey, and he’s accompanied by countless other similarly obscure and outdated characters.
“The idea that Disney the corporation would give the team that kind of access and that kind of freedom, that kind of creative freedom, more than anything else, has been surprising, and really special,” Spector said. “I think it really is that video games have kind of come of age.”
He added, “It’s about time.”
TRON: Evolution comes out for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, and Epic Mickey hits shelves exclusively on the Wii.