[Gamasutra columnist Jeffrey Matulef explores how choice works (and doesn't work) in Warren Spector and Junction Point's Disney Epic Mickey, concluding: "it's a step in the right direction, but hardly the revolution that was promised."
It's something Warren Spector has said time and time again about his latest game, Disney Epic Mickey
. "Every choice has its rewards. Every choice has its consequences. I try really hard not to judge," he said in an interview with G4TV.com
. It sounded good on paper, but didn't follow through on its lofty promises.
In an interview with Gamasutra in July
, Spector said:
"In Disney Epic Mickey
, there is absolutely no good Mickey and bad Mickey, there is no evil Mickey and righteous Mickey; there is no morality system. There is 'what kind of hero am I?', 'who do I want to be?', 'who should Mickey be?' That's all there is. If anybody sees a judgment in this game, it is an absolute failure on my part, and I don't think they'll find it."
It didn't take long to find one. The very first choice in the game is based around saving a gremlin strapped to a catapult or collecting the treasure weighing it down. Clearly the former is the right thing to do and while Spector may not judge you for your selfish action, Mickey's sidekick Gus the Gremlin will.
Furthermore, there's not much motivation to take the greedy route. In the aforementioned gremlin scenario you're told that the treasure is merely tickets (currency). Unfortunately currency is rarely useful, with little to buy beyond concept art, and a majority of the game's choices revolve around whether you want to do the righteous thing or screw someone over for tickets. If they were more useful and could really help you out, I could understand this being a tough decision, but instead these choices are based less on necessity than on whether or not you want to be a jerk.
Another common tangible reward for your choices are pins, but they're useless collectibles providing no in-game benefit. When asked at PAX Prime about collectibles infringing upon how you play, Spector stated, "I want to be ruthless about player's deciding who this guy should be and not playing a game... That kind of meta-game [collectibles] is fine, because it doesn't touch upon 'who is Mickey?' And 'who is Mickey to you?'"
If pins were only found through exploring they'd function fine as an optional side-quest that could easily be ignored. Though when they're often the only benefit to a decision, you're encouraged to care about them and base your choices around their collection. As a reward they provide little incentive, yet as a throwaway "there if you want it" side-goal, they're thrust distractingly into the limelight.
While motivations may be suspect and rewards pitiful, this could be alleviated with important consequences in the fiction and level progression. Spector stated in an interview with Nintendo World Report
"You cannot do and see everything in one playthrough by design. We wanted players to have a unique experience so your playthrough, you’re going to get different collectibles, and you’re going to have different friends, and you’re going to find different things, and maybe even go on different missions than I do. So it really does take three playthroughs to get everything."
As somebody who'll frequently replay a game for a second or third time instead of moving on to a new title, this appealed to me. I'm a huge fan of games being shorter with greater variation. Sadly, Epic Mickey
fails here too. Your decisions hardly make a difference, rendering them moot.
In most cases there's two or three ways to unlock the exit in a level, but if you're thorough you'll likely discover each way while exploring. Frequently I'd save a gremlin who would offer to open a door for me, except by that point I'd already worked that out anyway. So um, thanks gremlin.
When it comes to character-based choices the variation in outcomes is underwhelming as well. While there are a few instances where your choices will either cut off or open up further sidequests down the line, the changes are insignificant. You may get a different line of dialogue or fetch quest, but by and large your relationship to characters remains the same.
In one playthrough I was extremely nice to everyone and an NPC criticized me for being too soft. In my next playthrough I was a selfish, mean-spirited bastard and she said the same thing. Another woman even praised me for my good deeds. Does she not remember that I just melted the entire population of the town last time I stopped by?
It's not all bad news, though. There are a few instances of brilliance brewing beneath the surface.
Notably, there's no overall karma scale. In other games with moral choices like Mass Effect
and inFamous you're encouraged to play heavily towards one side to unlock new dialogue options or powers. In Epic Mickey
you can't level up the strength of your paint or thinner, so you're encouraged to deal with decisions on a case by case basis without an ulterior motive as to how it will effect your character in the long run.
Spector told me at PAX
that he removed the multiple Mickey character models because it had "this interesting side effect of getting players to play a meta-game as opposed to the actual game." He doesn't entirely hold true to this, though, since your avatar drips more ink when using more thinner. This threatened to offer an ulterior motive in acting a certain way, but you can go from hemorrhaging ink to a solid mouse in no time, so it's not nearly as distracting as it could have been.
The game excels at making players get their hands dirty, even on a "good" playthrough. I tried using the more constructive paint on most enemies and machinery, but when it came to exploring I had to use both paint and thinner in equal measure. Trying to do as many quests as I could in one playthrough meant having to occasionally do some unsavory work for Big Pete. I even vanquished a few bosses with thinner without realizing I was doing anything wrong.
In one of the game's sliest moments, you're tasked with a puzzle and two different ways to solve it. Gus tips you off to one method to complete it, but there's another less obvious way I discovered that resulted in damaging the scenery. I assumed that I was onto a secret and pursued this path. It wasn't until later that a character chastised me for damaging his property. This scene worked because I didn't even realize I was making a choice, but was rather curiously exploring. Despite trying to do the right thing, I inadvertently caused trouble, not unlike Mickey in The Sorcerer's Apprentice
It's moments like these where your choices feel weighty. The consequences may be negligible, but realizing your ignorant actions had an effect creates feeling of guilt and regret. This is when the game comes closest to your playstyle mattering and offers a glimpse at what could have been.
Sadly, these instances are few and far between. With a greater sense of surprise behind your actions, this could have been an effective tool. Instead, your choices are usually too obviously tied to morality with predictable outcomes having little effect on the fiction or gameplay. In spite of all this, minor consequences are better than none at all, and the illusion of choice makes you think twice about everything you do. It's a step in the right direction, but hardly the revolution that was promised.
[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, and Joystiq among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]