Nov. 26, 2012 at 5:43 PM ET
Famed game designer Warren Spector has a motto — one, he jokes, that might just end up on his gravestone.
That motto is "Fail Gloriously."
You see, Spector (the mastermind behind beloved games such as "Deus Ex" and "System Shock") is a man who likes to go out on a limb — a man who once told me, "I always try to do something in every game that has never been done before."
In his previous game — "Disney Epic Mickey" — Spector designed a game that not only changed depending on the choices the player made, he created a game in which players could remove things from the world and bring them back again — all by using virtual paint and paint thinner.
Now, once again, Spector is dabbling in new territory. His latest game is the just-launched "Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two" (available for all major game consoles). And this sequel finds Spector creating what he calls a "cooperative story telling game" ... as well as a video game musical.
That's right, it's a video game in which the characters break out into song.
"The bottom line is, if you’re honoring 80 years of Disney’s creative history, then you have to have songs," Spector told me in a recent interview. "You just have to."
Like the first "Epic Mickey" game, "Epic Mickey 2" is very much a love note to Disney past and present. Once again it takes Mickey Mouse (and you the player) to Wasteland — a world where castoff and forgotten Disney characters come to vivid life. And like the first "Epic Mickey," this sequel is a game of choice and consequence — about using the power to both create and to erase.
But for "Epic Mickey 2," Spector and his team at Junction Point Studios have added some new twists and turns. Not only does the game feature two-player cooperative gameplay (you and a friend can play Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) but players can now make use of new kinds of ink within this cartoon world. With invisible ink and indelible ink, Mickey and Oswald become invisible to enemies or immune to their attacks for a period of time.
But perhaps most intriguingly, "Epic Mickey 2" finds characters breaking into musical numbers throughout the game much like you would see characters do in any other musical. You can catch the opening musical number — "Help Me/Help You" — in the trailer for the game below.
Sure, making a video game that's also a musical has its ... risks. But one need only look at Disney's own musical history to see why this makes such good sense here. Consider the musical numbers from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" just to name a few.
For "Epic Mickey 2," composer Jim Dooley and songwriter Mike Himelstein created a variety of original songs. And these numbers are oh-so-catchy not to mention downright amusing. Meanwhile, as in any other musical, they help advance the plot while revealing a little something about the characters themselves.
But it should be said, the musical numbers are not interactive and only take place during the game's cutscenes. And Spector says that, really, this is only what he hopes to be the beginning of his foray into musical gaming.
"I have to be clear about this, I have some probably crazy but certainly grandiose plans for interactive musicals. But those ideas are not part of 'Disney Epic Mickey,' " Spector tells me. "As much as I’m willing to take crazy risks, the people who fund my studio — that would be Disney — they have other concerns and other interests. And you have to respect that. So what we’re doing here is sticking our virtual toe into virtual water. I just want to test my theory that gamers are going to enjoy songs as part of their gaming experience. Or at least some subset of the gaming audience will."
And it seems Spector theorized right. Though early reviews of "Epic Mickey 2" are rather middling, most everyone (this player included) love the musical numbers ... and would love to see more.
But it's not just music that he's is dabling in here. Spector says that he also tried with "Epic Mickey 2" to explore "cooperative storytelling" in a way it hasn't been explored in video games before.
"I've had a couple of life-changing moments over the years. One of which happened to be in 1978 — the first time I played 'Dungeons and Dragons' and I experienced the power of sitting there with a half dozen of my friends telling a story together," he says. "And sort of in a weird way, the 30 years I’ve been making games have really just been about capturing that feeling again and letting other people experience it."
Spector says that most cooperative games feel, to him, more like a sports team working together to achieve a goal rather than players working together as they unravel and partake in a story of their own making together.
"Even what I consider to be the best of co-op gameplay is about people playing a specific role to accomplish a specific goal," he says. "It's like capture the flag or prevent the enemy from capturing the flag or kill that thing or defeat that boss.
"The games I like working on are the games that ask you to think about yourself as a human and about what you think is important," he says. "There are boss battles in 'Disney Epic Mickey 2' but it's not about defeating the boss — 'I’m going to use my ability and you’re going to use your ability and we’re going to defeat the boss.' It’s about asking, 'Is it better to befriend that thing or to defeat it?' It's about asking, 'Who are you and what defines a hero?' "
As two people play through "Epic Mickey 2" cooperatively together, they will have to confront these big questions — and answer them — together. And "that kind of negotiation doesn't happen in what I call the more sports-oriented kind of co-op games," Spector says.
Whether "Epic Mickey 2" is a success — and whether Spector's attempts at making a video game musical and a cooperative storytelling game are a success — remains to be seen. But so it goes when you go out on a limb.
Spector says that, yes, taking these risks was scary for him, but taking risks is important. "If you fail, you fail. But it's time to try," he told himself. "Try hard. Fail gloriously."
Of course, if he doesn't fail — and perhaps even if he does — it's a win for all of us who love to see where video games can take us next.
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.