Why We Paint

If a single trend in gaming pulled a comeback at E3 this year, it was games based around creation, the process of or the tools of. Outside of the obvious games in the Dream Build Play line from Sony and Ubisoft’s new Mania Planet tools, there was definite resurgence in games based around the act of creation. Kirby: Epic Yarn is focused around knitting, and even the new Shaun White Skateboarding game is focused around the art of bringing creativity back to a tired, old dystopia.

But the game that interests me is Epic Mickey, Warren Spector’s latest game. This captivates imaginations much more than even Disney’s last odd partnership, with Square Enix on Kingdom Hearts. Sure, Square had made some pretty serious games. But look at Warren Spector’s most recent games. The Thief series. Deus Ex. System Shock. Wing Commander. This is a guy behind a surprising amount of PC gaming’s classic, now making a game about Mickey Mouse for the Nintendo Wii. Casual central.

And his game is about paint. And that’s what’s interesting.

Anyone who’s followed Epic Mickey’s development knows that this isn’t some casual title. It began as an attempt to kind of combine steampunk and the animated Fantasia, kind of a Conker’s Bad Fur Day like transformation of a popular cartoon character into something a little more edgy. The edge has changed, with the game becoming a bit more charming in actuality than it was in concept art, but it still offers concept and ideas in a game that have not been approached in a licensed “children’s” property.

The thing that struck me most about this game was Spector’s insistence on the ability of your choices to affect the game world. Use paint thinner to remove things, and this will change things on a larger scale. Paint everything, and you’re a good guy, bringing color back to the world. These actions will have far reaching consequences.

Consequences. He used that word at least twice. The same word used to describe your choices in lots of modern games. Sure, previews mention that you can make choices, but I’d imagine those choices have some sort of consequences. Warren Spector knows how to make those happen, and I think his goal here is to take that concept and dress it up in a fine, brilliant Disney coat.

And he’s trying to do it in a world revolving around paint, which invokes an interesting comparison or two.

When I watched the conference, the only game I could think about was The Void, Ice-Pick Lodge’s ultra-hardcore game about paint. And about consequences, in ways video games designed in the United States rarely use them. In both games, it seems, paint is life. Paint is used to influence the environment, and create opportunities for you to advance.

Of course, I’m imagining that Epic Mickey has far fewer veiled* rape metaphors than The Void did. The similarity, however, is in choices and consequences, concepts that have only recently found home in mainstream games. If you went back even 5 years, the thought of choices and especially consequences were nonexistent things in console games, besides the occasional alternate ending. They were fringe concepts in PC games, visible only in works such as Black Isle and Interplay’s work, as well as the work of Warren Spector.

Nowadays we take choice as a given. Bioshock, especially, drilled into our heads moral choices and consequences, even if it didn’t do it very well, and now they’re something we expect in every game, poorly done or no. And I think that Warren Spector, in the guise of a video game nominally for children, is trying to reverse that idea. That, yes, consequences are important. Your actions matter. It’s not a good video game if your actions don’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if the game stars Mickey Mouse or a super soldier from the future or a pretty boy hero from an alternate future. Your actions have to mean something.

It’s interesting paint is such a common metaphor for choice. Paint is permanent. Not precisely permanent, but long lasting. It’s something that sticks. And the choices you make with it can end up effecting things down the road. Paint a room for a child and then have your signficant other leave you, and the room is an unending reminder of unhappiness and pain. Paint a fence with a friend, and then if the friend dies, you’ll remember him, painting the fence, every time you pass it. Paint sticks. It’s what makes it such a good metaphor for consequences.

And let’s hope that some of the paint in Epic Mickey sticks.

*and when I say “veiled”, I don’t mean thinly veiled. Nothing in The Void is thinly veiled, which is what makes it such a triumph of game design.

**This has no actual note, but I used mostly concept art from it to describe it. Not because it looks bad, but I absolutely fucking love the concept art. It’s fantastic. It may not be real, but conceptually, it is.