Click here to read part one of our chat with Warren Spector.
Following E3, Warren spoke out against the trend towards putting extreme violence front and centre at the show. When we met, he’d had further time to reflect on his views, and to articulate the full extent of what bothered him – and so many others – about this year’s show.
“My big problem is not with violence in games,” he says. “I’ve made violent games! I think violence in games is irrelevant and the only people who worry about it are people who don’t play games and don’t understand it and all that. That’s not the issue. I don’t care if people do that. I care about two things.
One, is that…there’s a point where you sort of cross from ‘we’re entertaining people’ to ‘we’re kind of playing to the worst in them.’ We’re making it not just a thing that you do, or a thing that happens, but we’re making it, sort of, you know…we’re fetishizing it. When it’s beautiful, and it’s the reason you do something…that bugs me. But the real problem at E3 this year was that, that was pretty much what we showed the world, and that was it. We didn’t show the incredible variety of games.
There’s such an amazing variety of content that comes out in games now. There’s the stuff that Jenovah Chen is doing, there’s Journey. There’s Rayman. There’s Minecraft. There’s Drop 7. There’s Fruit Ninja. There’s Madden Football. There’s everything. There are games that allow people to be creative and make music, and dance, and stuff that makes people laugh and cry, and all we showed the world was…there’s Nintendo, or there’s violence. And I think that that’s the problem. We didn’t show the world how amazing we are. We showed the world just one little slice of what we are. So that was the thing that bugged me.”
His thoughts on this issue make a lot of sense when framed in context with what he’s currently working on, and how his career has brought him to the point he’s at now. Before our interview I’d finished a hands-on session with Disney Epic Mickey 2, Spector’s multiformat (including PC), co-op follow-up to the Wii original. It’s a game that, Spector insists, has more in common with Deus Ex than people realise, despite starring the famous mouse (and being a musical, apparently).
Epic Mickey is “so much deeper” than Deus Ex
During the boss fight I played through, there were numerous ways to defeat the giant mechanical dragon attacking me. As with the first game, Mickey can shoot either paint thinner or regular paint at his enemies – I choose to paint the boss in the first few stages until it struggles to move, and then defeat it by thinning out columns holding up the plate above its head. There are, I’m told, over 100 different end-game possibilities for Disney Epic Mickey 2, depending on how you play. Choice and consequence play into everything, just as they always have with Spector.
But because of that little black and white mouse on the cover, getting the full vision of Epic Mickey 2 through to the player is difficult, even though Spector’s vision of how to design a game, and how to treat the audience with respect, hasn’t changed.
“The choice and consequence stuff in Epic Mickey 2, it’s so much deeper than it was in Deus Ex, and if gamers can just get past their prejudice – the Deus Ex fans, if they can get past their prejudice…for some reason it’s okay to be a blue hedgehog, or a furry cat-like thing with a robot buddy, or a little plumber with a moustache, but Mickey’s for kids!”
For Spector, it’s fun to work on something a bit different in tone, but to hear him talk about his goals, his vision for games, it’s clear he wants to continue on making experiences similar to those that have earned him so much acclaim in the past. He’s simply going about it in another way.
“You know, what I tell all the Deus Ex fans is, ‘give me a break, I’ve been making the hardcore science fiction fantasy games for twenty-five years, let me do something lighter and funnier!’. It’s just… maybe I’ll go back and make a game that in content and tone is more like Deus Ex one day, but right now I’m enjoying messing around with a mouse. It’s just a different tone and content, but the goal is still the same. If players can get past that silliness, I think they’ll find a game that feels nice, and if they can get past the need for, ‘everything I do must be an adrenaline rush’, or hardcore science fiction… if they just get past that, and deal with a lighter tone as a change of pace, they’ll find, I think, an experience that is very, very familiar, and even deeper than they’re used to.”
It comes down, in part, to players being coded into having very specifically defined expectations from their gaming experiences. Initially, play-testers didn’t know what to make of Deus Ex either. “When hardcore gamers were playing Deus Ex back in 1998, 1999… I called it ‘being paralysed by choice’. Even gamers didn’t get it. We had trained them so well to think that things were just about reading the mind of a designer. Or solving a silly puzzle. Or figuring out which weapon is best suited to killing that thing. And, you know, when you showed them a clear choice, they just stopped. I literally saw them take their hands off the keyboard and mouse and not know what to do. ‘I have to make a decision?’.”
The moment that changed your life
It’s not that Spector wants to turn out work that is entirely different from the work that has defined his career, or that he wants to abandon his roots. He simply wants to elicit different reactions with the ‘shared authorship’ experience he’s currently working on.
“It may sound like I’m a cranky old guy who’s disillusioned with the world, but… no, I was just at a point in my life where… you know, Mr Miyamoto talks about wanting to make people smile, and give them that feeling of exploring that they loved as a kid. And I look at people playing, even games like Deus Ex, and I see them… they put on their game face, literally. They scrunch up their face and they furrow their brow, and they have intense concentration. And I just want to do something to make someone smile! That’s just personally where I am with my life. I want to make people smile, I want to make people cry, I want to give people the kind of experiences in the games that I work on now that I had when I was a kid, and first experienced that Disney magic, you know? I want to do things that people will remember fifty years from now as, like, the moment that changed their life. It’s just a personal thing.”
At the end of our chat, the Disney rep hands me a beautiful Mickey Mouse comic collection, bringing together a bunch of stories from the early 40s. Warren opens it to the foreword and signs it: ‘Dear James: Be a mouse! – Warren Spector’.
That’s not, he explained, an invitation to be timid. Quite the opposite, in fact – being a mouse is all about embracing what you love, ignoring how you think you’re meant to feel about things, not dismissing things you might like because you don’t fit within the socially defined demographics that make liking such a thing acceptable. Whether that means going against the established trends in gaming and making a game like Deus Ex, or allowing yourself, as an adult, to accept that it’s alright to get excited about Mickey Mouse.