One of the things that I like about video games is that there are very few, if any, rock stars in the industry. Sure, John Romero came close in the late 90s, but by April of 2000 his rainbow sequin-studded fameship had already begun its controlled descent to slightly more manageable orbit; after all, gamers will forgive a lot of silly shit as long as it’s backed up by a Mozart-like virtuosity within the game itself, but Daikatana wasn’t backed up at all. With anything. Nothing. And that right there was essentially the end of the high-profile, Ferrari-driving, Jack Daniel’s-swilling cult of personality surrounding Romero, and yay.
Gaming’s rock stars are the games themselves; Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Anything With Mario dominate the gaming mindscape in a way that the people behind the games don’t, and this is a Very Good Thing if you ask me. There is no red carpet of gaming, thank fuck, which keeps the industry’s focus precisely where it ought to be — on the work, not the worker. Yes, people deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments, but since game development is such a collaborative effort, where do you begin to single people out for attention? Even relatively small projects can have three or four designers in addition to a lead designer, a creative director, a studio director, and That Guy Who Does Stuff With Numbers, so finding someone to accept either the accolades or the blame can be a daunting task. A favored corporate tactic in the face of failure is to simply shutter an entire studio and move on from there.
Warren Spector — decidedly not a rock star but one of gaming’s most revered developers — is no stranger to studio closings; three months after he left Ion Storm in November of 2004, parent company Eidos closed the Austin-based office that was responsible for producing Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Invisible War, and Thief: Deadly Shadows. Earlier this year, Disney closed Junction Point Studios, which was founded by Spector and Art Min in 2005 and sold to Disney in 2007. The studio produced two games, Epic Mickey and Epic Mickey: The Power of Two, which together have sold over four million copies worldwide since the end of 2010. Apparently, the problem for Disney was that Epic Mickey: The Power of Two was outsold by its predecessor by a margin of almost four-to-one; the buddy-based sequel sold only 650,000 copies across four platforms with a combined installed base of almost 250,000,000.
In a recent interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Spector confessed to not knowing why the Mickey games were largely shunned by core gamers:
“From an acceptance standpoint, normal people got that game in a way that core gamers didn’t.”
Hey now, W; I don’t take exception to my own admitted abnormality being acknowledged by someone else, unless said someone hurls it at my face like a barbed, passive-aggressive spear, intended as an insult against not only me, but hundreds of thousands of other people who bought and loved the first Deus Ex. I also liked Invisible War, which “normal” people avoided like a herpes sore, but hey, what do I know?
“Why is that? Who the heck knows? I’m totally speculating, but my assumption is, ‘Oh my God, it’s Mickey Mouse.'”
There’s no need to speculate; that’s exactly it. If you don’t think there’s a gulf of difference, philosophically, between people who bought the Deus Ex games and people who bought the Epic Mickey games, there’s some serious heavy-duty delusion going down in OsTown.
Deus Ex wasn’t just about tough guys in trench coats and sunglasses. It wasn’t even just about shooting, as it’s possible to complete the game without ever using a gun as long as you’re patient, talented, and a little on the compulsive side. It was about you constructing the player-avatar with your character development choices; do you become the sniper, the stealther, the hacker, the brawler, the heavy gunner, or a combination thereof? In Deus Ex (and to a smaller degree in Invisible War), the player enjoys the illusion of helping to craft the narrative with his decisions; in Epic Mickey, no such crafting is possible. You’re always just … Mickey, and the only choice is whether you’re going to play as Nice Mickey by solving problems with paint (which turns enemies friendly), or Dick Mickey by spraying them with thinner and thus annihilating them for all eternity.
In another interview, this one with Kotaku, Spector noted that many people ask him when he’s going to do another game like Deus Ex:
“With Epic Mickey 2, I am! From a structural standpoint, from an underlying design philosophy standpoint, the directives I give the design team, it’s the same.”
People do not play the underlying design philosophies in a game. They play the manifestation of those philosophies, which in the case of both Epic Mickey games, fell far short of the wider and deeper manifestation of Deus Ex’s design philosophies. Read the rest of the article, especially the long quote at the end; Spector’s explanation of the above assertion is, at best, a straw man argument against the notion that Deus Ex fans didn’t play Epic Mickey because Mickey Mouse is deemed too immature for the core gamer; this is simply not true. (As an aside, this particular Deus Ex fan played the holy jumped up hell out of Epic Mickey and Epic Mickey: The Power of Two; the latter I bought three times before giving up on it entirely — first on the Xbox 360, then on the Wii, and finally on the Wii U.) The problem isn’t that Mickey Mouse is immature, it’s that he’s a one-dimensional, established character, which makes him ill-suited for the type of player expression that Deus Ex fans loved and still crave today. By that standard, JC Denton was also a one-dimensional character, but Deus Ex permitted players to assign their own dimensions to him via the game’s character customization mechanics.
Warren Spector is more than a rock star to the gaming industry — he’s gaming’s Les Paul, so it’s both slightly strange and greatly disturbing to hear him espouse so much passive contempt for something that many people consider to be the finest PC game ever made. This undoubtedly unintentional disrespect for Deus Ex fans can be best illustrated by a quote from the episode “Safe,” from Firefly, in which Kaylee has a less-than-flattering revelation about the romantically inept Simon’s opinion of her:
“If that’s what you think of this life then you can’t think much of them that choose it, can you?”
If Warren Spector regards Deus Ex with such bemused chagrin, what could he possibly think about those who still play it, and still love it, today? Of course, Simon’s and Spector’s comments appear vastly different on the surface — one spoke about flying around space in a fictional piece of luh-suh, the other about the similarities between two seemingly unrelated video games, but from an underlying philosophical standpoint, from a revealing-the-values-of-the-speaker-standpoint, they’re the same.