I have a holiday tradition. Every December, I buy myself a present. That way I guarantee I will get at least one gift I actually want. (I have a closet full of sweaters and shirts that other relatives thought were “just perfect” for me. No. Just no.)
This year, I ended up standing in the aisles of Fry’s Electronics, debating with myself. I really wanted a new camera—the Sony DSC-F828 is 7 years old and I’ve been studying the specs on various high-end DSLRs. But there’s also this great new game from Disney called Epic Mickey. I don’t have a Wii, but Epic Mickey looks so good that I was tempted to buy a Wii just for Epic Mickey alone.
But … I hesitated.
One of my nephews has a Wii, and he got Epic Mickey for his birthday early in November. So I invited myself for dinner one Sunday and afterward he set up the game for me. He showed me where all the controls were and walked me through the first few moments of the game.
I’m a big Disney fan and Epic Mickey opens up with some great references to classic Disneyana: Mickey Through The Looking Glass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, all those Disney anthologies with the animated paint brush creating whole landscapes with a stroke, early Disneyland, Night On Bald Mountain (and/or The Blot), and a calendar that acknowledges Mickey’s early films as the pages fall off.
After a spectacular setup, the game reveals Mickey in a place called The Wasteland. We meet Oswald the Rabbit, who Walt created before Mickey, in the laboratory of a mad scientist. This is an introductory level, a teaching level for the mechanics of the game. Your job, playing as Mickey, is to destroy one control console by spinning (shake the controller), leap across a broken platform and destroy a second control console. You leap by holding down the A button.
Like all platform and jumping games, it requires fast reflexes.
I do not have fast reflexes.
I like games of logistics and strategy (Starcraft II), skill (chess, poker), logic (Sherlock), real-time simulation (Sim City, Flight Simulator), tower defense (Plants v. Zombies), puzzles (Portal, Angry Birds), and games of exploration (Nethack, Diablo). And way back in the Cretaceous era, I loved First Person games like Doom. But what I liked about the First Person games was not necessarily the shooting, but the exploration of the environment and the challenge of solving the puzzles. You had to find specific keys to unlock the different sections of each level. The increasingly bizarre monsters of Doom made the exploration scary and intense.
When the First Person games evolved into First Person Shooters, I started to lose interest. The graphics got better, the monsters more detailed, the scenery more intricate, the weapons more spectacular—but too often the games seemed less and less interesting.
Yes, I’m generalizing here and yes, there have been a lot of great games in the First Person genre. I loved the single-player versions of Unreal not just because they were an ambitious attempt at epic storytelling, but because they were also about exploration and discovery. Some of the levels in the first Unreal were so vivid, I can still see them in my mind’s eye today.
I suspect this is why I’ve had a lifelong love of science fiction. As a literary genre, it’s about visiting new landscapes and exploring them, unraveling their mysteries, discovering how they work, all their beauty and all their horror. Unfortunately, the greater visions of science fiction are being swamped by the adolescent ones—where science and technology are put in service of action, not exploration.
Robert A. Heinlein gets credit for inventing the military-SF subgenre with Starship Troopers. While most casual readers can read the novel (skip the movie) as a great military adventure, Heinlein also intended it as a powerful examination of the responsibility of the individual to the community that created him. But Starship Troopers and all of its subsequent descendants in that genre are more about the way we fight off the threat than discovering the essential core of it. Not quite anti-science, but certainly science in service of destruction instead of discovery. Most so-called “science fiction” movies today are about how to destroy things, not create them.
Before computers had graphics, we had text-adventures. The great granddaddy was Colossal Cave Adventure. And the most profitable was Infocom’s Zork. These games were about exploring the landscape of imagination, finding treasures, solving mysteries—and only occasionally dealing with pirates or dwarves or trolls. The fun was the exploration, the discovery, and the triumph of solving intricate puzzles.
Now that we have the ability to dress up our games with spectacular graphics and action, game publishers seem to have forgotten about exploration and puzzle adventures. Browsing through the gaming magazines or standing in the aisles at GameSpot studying the racks of plastic covers, it feels like everything is aimed at the adolescent male—boys between the ages of 15-35. From a marketing point of view, it’s not a bad strategy; these are the most enthusiastic buyers of games. But focusing solely on that niche ignores everyone else, especially those of us who do not have the reflexes of a hyperactive ten year old.
Where are the great adventure games of exploration, discovery, and puzzle solving? Take me to a reinvigorated Colossal Cave or drop me onto the surface of an alien world to search for a crashed scout ship. Push me down a rabbit hole to explore Lewis Carroll’s wonderland or crash me onto Larry Niven’s Ringwold and challenge me to find my way off again. Don’t just walk me through a narrative, give me a whole world to discover! The creation of such a game would require a different kind of mindset by the creators, a different way of thinking about landscapes and levels, an outside-the-box approach to creation, but it could also create a whole new genre of adventure—one that appeals to a much broader market.
I came to Epic Mickey hoping that Disney had done just that. Certainly the artwork was fantastic, the graphics and animation lived up to the standards of excellence we have always expected from the entertainment colossus. And after seeing the advertising and the cut scene, the reviews and the interviews, that seemed to be the promise.
Unfortunately…I never got past the first level.
See, in the very beginning of the game there are these two consoles you have to destroy. You shake the Wii to do it. That I can do. After you destroy the first one, there’s this gap you have to jump to get to the second one. It took me twenty tries to make a successful jump and another ten tries to make a jump without getting knocked off or falling off. And then there’s still another gap to jump. And if you fall off that one, you have to go back and jump the first one again so you can get to the second one. And that’s where I turned to my nephew and said, “How much jumping is there in this game?” And he said, “It’s all jumping.” And that’s where I quit.
No, I did not buy a Wii, and I did not buy Epic Mickey.
I’m sure it’s a spectacular game and lots of children and some of their dads will probably have a lot of fun with it. It will deliver its promise to its target audience. Just not me.
There is no “granny mode” for those of us who don’t do jumping games well. Yes, I’m a curmudgeon. Jumping is not what I want to do in a game. It’s not a skill I want to master. I don’t want to struggle with the mechanics of getting through a game, I just want to explore a spectacular environment and discover things that will delight and amuse me. I want to solve puzzles that will exercise my brain, draw upon my intellectual abilities, and make me feel smart and triumphant.
Someday, someone will make such an adventure game. I certainly hope so. (And you know where to find me if you want my input.) But Epic Mickey isn’t the game I hoped it would be, so I’m enjoying my new camera instead. It’s a Sony A55 and it’s terrific!
David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including “The Man Who Folded Himself” and “When HARLIE Was One,” as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story “The Martian Child” was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com