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REVIEW: At the Queen’s Command by Michael A. Stackpole


At the Queen's Command by Michael A. Stackpole Title: At the Queen’s Command
Author: Michael A. Stackpole
Pub Date: November 16th, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fantastical alternate history with major differences from accepted history.

In At the Queen’s Command (the first installment in a new alternate history series designed to span a re-imagined American Revolution) Michael A. Stackpole strikes a careful balance between historical source material and fervent imagination. Stackpole’s book combines engaging characters, a palpable sense of place, and a strong sense of Georgian voice and mores to create a compelling alternate history that draws you in and leaves you eager for more.

One of the great challenges in writing an alternate history is to strike a balance between recognizable history, and the central conceit that sets the story apart from accepted truth. Sometimes, as in Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, the conceit is a tiny difference which leads to significant divergence: a message that in reality was intercepted, gets to its intended destination and as a consequence the Confederacy wins the American Civil War. In other alternate histories, like Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, the known world is entirely re-imagined by introducing a pervasive fictional element (like magic). The more foundational the alternate history’s conceit, the harder it becomes to maintain consistency with both the facts and values of acknowledged history. Which is why At the Queen’s Command, which adds dragons, magic, and necromancy to a re-imagined Colonial America is so impressive.

At the Queen’s Command follows Captain Owen Strake, a soldier in the Queen’s Own Wurm Guard. He has fought against the Tharyngians (read: the French) on the Auropan (read: European) continent, and now has been sent on a reconnaissance mission to the colonies in Mystria. He must win over the colonists, survey the frontier, and return to Norisle (read: England). Of course, the mission does not go as planned and the colonies are drawn into war with the Tharyngians on their frontier.

The publisher makes it very plain on the book’s cover that the series is meant to re-imagine the American revolution, but Stackpole made a brilliant choice to set the first book during his world’s analog to the French and Indian War. First, most readers are not going to be as familiar with that war as they would be with the American Revolution. If Stackpole had jumped right into historical events that most American readers are already acquainted with, he would have had a much harder time getting readers to accept his central conceit. By setting the book several years prior to the American Revolution, Stackpole has the opportunity to take more liberties with acknowledged history, draw the reader into his re-imagined world, and get reader investment in his characters.

The characters are one of the strongest aspects of this book. This time period in real history is fraught with the consequences of history, a burgeoning streak of independence among the colonists, a sense of financial peril amongst the colonizers “back home”. Stackpole manages to capture the complex social, economical, political, military, and philosophical interactions of this time period through his well-realized characters. Whether it is through Owen Strake wrestling with his loyalty to Norisle, Prince Vladimir insisting upon the scientific method, Caleb Frost pushing for self-determination, the frontier trappers bridling at rumored taxes, Stackpole places a filter on Colonial America but still captures its colors. It is through these characters and their values that Stackpole addresses his themes, which are – in effect – the themes of John Locke, Thomas Paine and the other Enlightenment philosophers.

The central conceit of this alternative world is the existence of magic. In Stackpole’s world, this is not a recent discovery but instead dates back to before the Romans. It has affected – to some extent – all technological and societal evolution that precedes the events of this book. For Owen Strake and the the other characters, magic is as much of a fact of life as breathing. While on the one hand this helps to ground the reader in the world, it also leads to one of the few moments that rings off true. Specifically, the magic of the colonies is wilder, less controlled, more free than the magic Owen Strake is familiar with. The narration supporting Strake’s initial explorations, especially the first introduction of the wendigo concept, are clumsy by comparison to the rest of the book’s smooth execution. In the hands of a lesser author, I would still consider them quite well done. However, once past the initial introduction, Stackpole’s seamless narration kicks in again and the book strengthens as it gathers pace.

The book itself is a handsome product released as a trade paperback from Night Shade Books. The book’s cover, with design by Claudia Noble and art by Ryan Pancoast, is beautiful. I was particularly struck by how Pancoast seamlessly introduced a dragon and Native Americans into John Trumbull’s The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton. Looking at Pancoast’s cover image, it is difficult to imagine that they don’t belong there in reality, which adds to the book’s sense of an alternate history:

The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, by John Trumbull (circa 1795) via Wikipedia

The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, by John Trumbull (circa 1795) via Wikipedia

At the Queen's Command, by Ryan Pancoast (2010)

At the Queen's Command, by Ryan Pancoast (2010) via ryanpancoast.com

At the Queen’s Command is an excellent new entry in the field of alternate history. Like any good book, it offers no easy solutions at its conclusion. Partially, this is to set up tension for subsequent books in the series, but in a very real sense it is because we still wrestle with the same questions as Stackpole’s fictional Mystria: where does the state’s responsibility end, and where does the citizen’s begin? I am eagerly looking forward to seeing how Mystria and how Stackpole’s characters wrestle with these questions in the books to come.

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (part 3 of 3): The Hero’s Emotional Journey


NOTE! This is the third installment in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. This post will focus on using the hero’s emotional arc to link the standalone installments in the episodic series. The previous two posts focused on the episodic hero, and the episodic plot respectively.

This past week, I have been writing about episodic series in science fiction and fantasy. While the episodic hero is central to any episodic series, and while each book in such a series relies on a solid episodic plot to keep the reader turning pages, it is the hero’s emotional journey which keeps the reader buying new books in the series.

Each Book as a Step on the Emotional Path

Plot can keep an episodic book going, but plot alone will not carry a series. If the reader is to buy the next book, they have to care about the hero. If the hero does not evolve over the course of the series, if the hero doesn’t change or grow due to the choices made, then readers will quickly stop caring.

This is harder to do in a long-term episodic series than one might think. For one thing, the seeds of that character growth should show up early on. The defining characteristics of the hero’s personality, of their values, and of their emotional journey should already be there in book one. At the close of each book, the hero should have taken at least one (or more) steps on their emotional journey.

Ray Lilly’s journey in Game of Cages shows a good example of the hero having to come to terms with the reprehensible acts he might commit in the name of the greater good. Lilly’s squeamishness and his innate goodness are traits established early on in book one, and the hardening that occurs in book two was foreshadowed (predicted) by more experienced characters (his employer) in the first book. The fact that Connolly follows through with this hardening, and that this toughening becomes a key emotional facet of book two speaks well to both the author’s skill and to the overall emotional journey that the series will take.

Heroes Stumbling on the Emotional Journey

But that journey need not be a stately progression. Heroes can step forward, step backward, step sideways. Like real people, they can make mistakes and it is concern over those mistakes that can keep readers engaged. Within the confines of any single book, the direction of their evolution is immaterial. Heroes are allowed to make the wrong judgment call as much as we are. What matters is that in each book their character does change in some way, that the character’s state at the end of the book is clear, and that at the opening of the next book that state is maintained. This helps to make the books flow together, and leaves the reader satisfied with the overall series. If the character isn’t changed by their experiences, the series will quickly start to ring flat and eventually readers will just tune out.

One method that is frequently used is to introduce the hero’s personal life as a sub-plot that spans the series. Harry Dresden’s relationship with his mother, his fairy godmother, his half-brother, and other family members (including new ones that show up later in the series) becomes an evolving sub-plot that spans the books. This emotional sub-plot weaves into the fabric of the superficial plots, contributing to the more action-oriented conflicts that Harry has with various factions in his magical world.

In some books, relationships like these are tangential to the direct action of the plot. But they provide the hero with an emotional tension and concerns outside of the direct challenge in front of him. These relationships and the emotions they evoke in the hero and reader represent “the other shoe” that the reader knows will drop at some point.

Relationship between Emotional Arc and The Plot

Such emotional arcs can either be used tactically (to modify pacing, to foreshadow events for a future book, etc.) or they can be used thematically. The Sookie Stackhouse novels painstakingly explore themes of Sookie’s relationships with lovers, family, friends, society, etc. In a very real sense, this exploration is central to the entire series. However, this emotional arc should be separate from the plot arc of the story. And just as series plotting can become formulaic, so too can the emotional journey.

To a great extent, they’re like the double helix of an episodic series’ DNA: they move in parallel, but they rarely cross. In those instances where they do cross – namely when the emotional aspect of a relationship from one book becomes the plot engine for another – then it is best to have another emotional strand waiting in the wings to be introduced. If a particular book is such an emotional intersection, then the strand in waiting need not be introduced or focused on: doing so risks trying to pack too much into what should be a tightly-plotted, fast-paced book. But the seeds for that strand in waiting should be planted, such that they can be further developed or focused on in the next book.

The Denouement: Leaving the Reader Eager for More

I have always found the conclusion to an episodic series book to be absolutely critical to maintaining my interest in the subsequent books. The hero concludes the adventure, the monster is slain, and now it’s time for some well-earned rest. In an episodic series especially, the denouement sets the stage for the next book. It sums up the emotional changes that the character underwent as a consequence of their adventures. Because editors like to have episodic series published annually (keep those reprints rolling!), odds are the author is already aware of what the next book will bring. The denouement offers an excellent opportunity to plant the seeds without leaving the dreaded cliff-hanger ending.

It’s hard to get right, and it is especially hard to get right consistently across multiple books. An impression I get is that much episodic fiction tends to skimp on the denouement: the action is over, so the book just ends. While an abrupt denouement may work for some readers, I think it weakens the ties between books in the series.

If the denouement is an outgrowth of the hero’s emotional journey, it should effectively outline (or at least hint at) the starting conditions for the next installment’s emotional journey. If written well, it can also hint at the stakes of the next installment’s emotional arc as well, although this runs the risk of a cliff-hanger ending. A good example of an artfully-handled denouement can be found in Brust‘s Teckla. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into what happens or how he handles the denouement, but it manages to avoid abruptness, provides closure for the plot, but leaves enough unresolved emotional strands that the door is open for future emotional evolution…which the author addresses in subsequent books. The end result is that the end of the first book increases our emotional investment in the hero, and makes us want to learn what happens to him in the next book.

Conclusion

There are critics inside and outside of the science fiction and fantasy community who tend to view episodic series as less worthy. Episodic series generally don’t win the Hugos, the Nebulas, or the World Fantasy Awards. But they do sell. And they sell a lot. Many episodic series regularly find themselves at the top of bestseller lists, whether we’re talking about Locus, or even The New York Times.

Many readers get their first and only exposure to genre from such episodic series. Consider the countless people who would never wander into the “horror” or “fantasy” aisles at their local bookstore, but who love Sookie Stackhouse. As a result, these episodic series are a powerful missionary force for the genre. They extend genre reading protocols across a broader audience, and they provide adults and children with plenty of enriching entertainment. While they may eschew lyrical prose styles and experimentation, I suggest that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the more people read any type of genre fiction the stronger the genre becomes. And if we look to our own history, who do we remember? We remember the episodic heroes: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, James Bond.

An Attempt at an Absolutely Non-exhaustive Episodic Reading List

Sub-genre Author Series First Book
Adult Urban Fantasy Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Storm Front
Adult Urban Fantasy Harry Connolly Twenty Palaces Child of Fire
Adult Urban Fantasy Kate Griffen The Mattew Swift Novels A Madness of Angels
Paranormal Romance Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake series Guilty Pleasures
Paranormal Romance Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse Novels Dead Until Dark
Paranormal Romance Kim Harrison Rachel Morgan series Dead Witch Walking
Adult Fantasy / SF Steven Brust Vlad Taltos Novels Teckla
Adult Fantasy / SF Richard K. Morgan Takeshi Kovacs series Altered Carbon
YA / Middle-grade (various) The 39 Clues The Maze of Bones
YA / Middle-grade Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl Artemis Fowl

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (part 2 of 3): Episodic Plots and Pacing


NOTE! This is the second in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. The previous installment discussed the episodic hero, while the third installment (planned for Tuesday) will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how episodic heroes are constructed in contemporary science fiction and fantasy series. While an episodic series relies on that hero, it is each individual book’s plot that keeps the reader turning pages. A good episodic plot will avoid formulaic writing, while providing an escalation in tension so that the reader keeps turning pages. The key to this is to establish momentum, and as the series progresses to vary the structure of each book’s plot. This keeps the reader interested in the book they’re holding in their hands right now, while the hero’s emotional journey (discussed in the next installment) keeps them buying the next book.

Pacing: Hitting the Ground Running

By leaving the character’s backstory off-stage, episodic books typically open with the hero actively starting the adventure. This is a page taken right out of the detective novel playbook. When we first meet Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, we find her turning down work from a shadowy vampire organization. We first encounter Ray Lilly traveling to his latest case, or Harry Dresden getting a job. Episodic series sprinkle the hero’s backstory here and there, but no time is wasted by delving narrative-style into the hero’s psyche or providing an infodump on “what-came-before”. Episodic series hit the ground running, and they tend not to let up until the mystery is solved, the monster is slain, and the hero can put his feet up.

Middle-grade novels especially establish the stakes early on (often on the first page!). I strongly recommend reading middle-grade episodic novels (like The 39 Clues series) to find some tricks on how to establish stakes and simultaneously establish the hero’s characterization. From conversations I’ve had with children’s book editors, the speed with which readers are drawn into the story is one of the most important characteristics they look for. Adult episodic series, with their tendency towards functional prose and page-turner status, can learn much from the pacing techniques used by children’s authors.

The Shape and Structure of Episodic Plots

Most episodic series rely on mysteries for their plot structure. Many employ the classic mystery plot: clear identification of the mystery, broadening suspicion, a sub-plot intrinsic to the hero’s emotional arc, discovery that the hero has been on the wrong track, re-focusing of the hero on the right track, explanation, climax and denouement. This type of plot may seem a bit cliched, but the practical reality is that if it worked for Agatha Christie, it’ll work for people writing today. The originality and inventiveness of the individual authors shines through in how they flesh out these bones to create their books.

Urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files or the Twenty Palaces novels rely on a combination of characterization and world-building to enrich their basic plots. Paranormal romances like the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the later Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books combine mystery plotting with the techniques of romance. Episodic adventure series like Artemis Fowl or Vlad Taltos invert traditional tropes (criminal vs sleuth, commit a crime vs solve a crime).

The Sense of Escalation

As the series progresses, building a sense of escalation becomes critical. Think of it this way: if the hero saves the universe in book one, what’s he going to do in book two? Many episodic series avoid this pitfall by focusing the plot on rather narrow concerns: if an epic hero saves the world, an episodic hero is more likely to save an individual. By keeping the scope focused, it makes it easier to escalate the stakes as the series progresses.

With her experience writing children’s books, Kate Griffen does an excellent job escalating the stakes across her Matthew Swift novels. In the initial installment (A Madness of Angels) Matthew Swift is focused first and foremost on his own survival. He is looking out for Number 1, and if others get swept up in his fight for survival that is their problem. In the second book (The Midnight Mayor) Swift has the (magical) mayoralty of London dumped in his lap, and he must deal with the consequences. At stake is the entire city of London and England itself.

Connolly uses a similar tactic to equally good effect: in the first Twenty Palaces novel (Child of Fire), the primary stakes are the hero’s life. Sure, there’s a town involved but Ray Lilly is focused on his own survival. In the second book (Game of Cages), his focus shifts to that of the town where a ravenous predator has escaped. What makes Connolly’s execution so strong is the unity he achieves between the explicit escalation of the stakes in the plot, and the escalating tension/stakes on Ray Lilly’s emotional journey (more on this in the next installment).

This kind of thematic and tactical escalation across books in the series can also tie into the character’s experiential growth: if the inexperienced hero can do something, it stands to reason that as their capabilities and understanding grow, so too will the stakes they fight for. The Harry Potter novels, themselves straddling the fence between epic and episodic, manage this experiential escalation very well.

The Danger of Formula and Using a Change-Up to Avoid It

The danger in all of this is that a plot model that works for the first, second, and third book in the series may seem formulaic and dull by the fourth, and fifth book in the same series. This is a point where the best episodic writers introduce what I call a “change-up”, a device which imbalances the hero’s routine and changes the plot structure of the books.

Different authors employ different change-ups: Steven Brust took away Vlad Taltos’ fortune, profession, and family by the fifth book. Jim Butcher introduces varying changes into Harry Dresden’s personal life (roommates, family members, etc.) while weaving strands for a super-plot that ties into Harry’s backstory and extends across the series.

By introducing such new elements, or by subverting the formulas employed in the earlier books, the plots can remain fresh for long-time readers and the momentum can be maintained throughout the series. But to be effective, the change-up has to do more than just intensify the predominant theme. For example, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are centered around romantic relationships. The characterization of Sookie represents the series’ greatest strength, with an iconic and engaging character and a distinct narrative voice. But as the series progresses, Harris attempts a change-up by complicating these romances through the introduction of new paramours and the removal of old flames. Because the books were already centered around relationships, the change-up rings flat and fails to build a sense of increasing stakes. As a consequence, the books rely upon the reader’s prior investment in the character and the world of the series. In Harris’ case, this gamble might work due to the audience’s strong emotional involvement with Sookie. But it is a big risk to take.

Plot versus Emotional Arc

This discussion of plot is centered around one book, within the context of a broader episodic series. The defining characteristic of episodic series is that each installment stands alone, and in order for that to work, each installment’s plot must stand alone. However, it must balance its independence with the foreshadowing and references necessary to link subsequent books and preceding installments. The key to this, I believe, is the hero’s emotional changes over the course of the series. This emotional development is not confined to any one book, and it represents the glue that binds the books to each other. The next installment (Tuesday) will focus on this.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on using the hero’s emotional arc to keep readers engaged across books in the series.

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (Part 1 of 3): Episodic Heroes


I recently had the pleasure of reading the first two books in Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series, and this got me thinking about the nature of episodic science fiction and fantasy. By episodic series, I’m thinking a four, five, ten book series where each book is a standalone story where the series’ principal character goes on whatever type of adventure is typical for that character. Think books like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. How are these kinds of episodic books constructed? What makes them tick?

NOTE! This is the first in a three part series of posts. This post is focused on the episodic hero. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on the episodic plot, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

Epic vs Episodic: What’s the difference?

Science fiction and fantasy are replete with series. That’s perfectly reasonable, when we consider that publishers, authors, and agents all love the “automatically” accumulating reprint sales that series make possible. But it is quite difficult to compare Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. There just isn’t that much commonality there.

Series like The Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time are epic in scope. They tell one story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But that one story does not fit in one book: it has to be spread across multiple volumes. The vast majority of these epic series simply cannot be read on a standalone basis (for a great counter-example, see my review of N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms).

If you look at an episodic series like Butcher’s Dresden Files or Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels, the series itself has a very different structure. Each book is a completely self-contained story, with its own beginning and ending that can be read independently of the other books in the series. And in contemporary series, each book and the entire series focuses on the experiences of one particular character.

Building an Episodic Character

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books were structured around a single universe (Shannara, Pern, and Valdemar, respectively) with standalone trilogies (or duologies) of books set within that universe. Each standalone sub-series could be described as an “epic” sub-series, while if we take the entire oevre together they begin to resemble episodic series. However, following the late ’90s’ rise of “Chihuahua-killer” fantasy tomes, these types of episodic/epic series seem to have vanished from publishers’ new lists.

With the contemporary focus on one character, that character becomes the most important aspect of an episodic series. This is true whether we’re writing an adult urban fantasy series like the Twenty Palaces, a paranormal romance mystery (à la Charlaine Harris), or a middle-grade adventure series (like Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl). Of course, character matters in every book. But it is the foundation of any episodic series.

What would Sherlock Holmes be without Sherlock Holmes? Could we have the Dresden Files without Harry Dresden? Or the Sookie Stackhouse novels without Sookie? The identity of the series’ protagonist is intrinsically tied up with the identify of the series. Few people realize that the Sookie Stackhouse novels were in fact first dubbed the “Southern Vampires Mysteries”: the pervasive character of their protagonist eventually subsumed the publisher’s attempts to brand the series independently of its hero.

There is a lot of commonality in how episodic authors create their heroes. First, almost all episodic heroes have a Past (note the capital “P”). In many ways, this is a product of the history of episodic series, who are pretty clear descendants of the serialized mystery (Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, etc.). When we meet Connolly’s Ray Lilly, or when we meet Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos each brings to the table a checkered history.

Ray Lilly is an ex-con who survived an unpleasant run-in with magic, and now finds himself employed as a “wooden man” (a sort of enforcer) for a society of wizards (called the “Twenty Palaces Society”). Harry Dresden is a professional wizard private investigator who has had serious altercations with magical society. Vlad Taltos is a low-ranking minority (human) criminal in a larger criminal organization on a magic-filled secondary world.

Each is in some fashion iconoclastic. They have survived altercations with some form of authority in their world, which gives them some form of reputation. This reputation becomes a double-edged sword that both helps and hinders the hero on their adventures. As the books unfold, the reader learns more of this backstory through subtly planted information, for the most part avoiding an infodump that would stall the fast pace of the story. As the series winds to a conclusion, the overarching conclusion likely leads to some resolution of the lingering effects of that backstory.

Every one of these characters is gainfully employed. What’s more, they have jobs that will force them into adventures. Lilly is an enforcer. Dresden is a wizard/private-eye. Taltos is a low-level crime boss/private-eye/assassin. It is their means of employment that makes a long, episodic series possible. A detective will always have another case. An enforcer will always have another assignment. An assassin will always have another target. This enforces a certain structure, along with certain strictures, on each book in the series.

When we meet the hero, they are often inexperienced in some critical aspect. Ray Lilly knows almost nothing about magic, save that it exists. Harry Dresden has lots of magical power, but very little control. Any middle-grade or young adult episodic series (like Artemis Fowl or The 39 Clues) has inexperienced heroes by default: youth and inexperience go hand-in-hand! The use of inexperience makes it possible for the reader to learn alongside the hero, and for the hero to progress through adventures (books) with escalating challenges. As the hero’s experience increases over the course of the series, the challenges that they face can become more difficult, more challenging, more dangerous. Done artfully, this keeps the tension high in the later books in the series, and if tied back to the character’s emotional development can keep the character engaging, whether we’re in book two or twelve.

The use of iconoclasm and employment are both traditional tools of the mystery novel. Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, even Sam Spade – all of the classic detectives were iconoclastic, and the vast majority were actively employed as detectives. The use of inexperience to provide character progression seems to be a newer development, and it is one that an increasing number of episodic series rely on.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment for episodic plots, how to keep the reader reading in one book, and how to avoid flagging interest as the series progresses.

REVIEW: Epic Mickey


Disney Epic Mickey Title: Disney Epic Mickey
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Pub Date: November 30, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Rich Game Play and Well-crafted Storytelling

Epic Mickey is an excellent installation in the Mickey Mouse oevre from the designers at Disney Interactive. Combining excellent storytelling, appropriate art design, decent level construction, and varied and smooth gameplay, Epic Mickey is a great way for kids (and their parents) to meet Mickey Mouse.

In fact, let me start by saying that I have never been a Mickey Mouse fan. Forget Disney, I always thought. I loved Bugs, and Daffy, and Wile E. Coyote…no squeaky rodents or incomprehensible mallards for me, thank you very much. So while I was excited by Epic Mickey, I didn’t come to it with any particular affinity for the characters. In point of fact, having actively disliked the characters since childhood, I’d say I was initially skeptical about the whole affair. The premise of the game, however, abated my skepticism at least a little bit.

A sorceror uses a magic brush to create a home for all of the unwanted, unloved, forgotten cartoons. He tries to make a safe, welcoming, comfortable home for the rejects of the Disney universe: old Disney characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (the prototype for Mickey Mouse), or Gremlin Gus (from the early Disney comics), etc. But of course, Mickey goes and screws it up by spilling paint and then paint thinner over the work-in-progress. This has two principle effects: first, it destroys much of the countryside, turning it into The Wasteland. And it introduces evil (a “blot”) into the rejects’ idyllic home. Mickey, of course, is oblivious to all of this and goes on his merry way. Some time later, Mickey gets sucked into the Wasteland by an alliance between the Shadow Blot (the personification of evil), the Mad Doctor (a crazy mad scientist), and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (the de facto head of state in The Wasteland). Armed with magic paint and magic thinner, Mickey has to find some way of escaping The Wasteland. Along the way, he can either try to improve things (by painting objects using his paint brush) or make them worse (by thinning them using his thinner).

The idea of Mickey traveling a land of forgotten cartoons and having to constantly choose whether to do good or bad gives the game a thematic appeal that I’ve always found missing in Disney’s short cartoons. The game designers clearly held this premise foremost in mind when designing the game, because everything is subordinate to it. As most of these forgotten cartoons are old (from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, etc.) the art direction has a solid retro feel. But, this retro feel is most palpable during the game’s cinematic sequences, and in the “platform worlds” interspersed between major game chapters. When actually playing the game, it feels like walking through a stage set up to look like the 1950s: complete with cardboard cutouts that Mickey can either make more or less real. The net result is that art direction at each point in the game lends valuable support to the core premise.

Epic Mickey Screenshot, Ostown

Epic Mickey, Screenshot originally from: http://www.n1ntendo.nl/article/35601/1/Wii/disney-epic-mickey

The writing within the game is excellent, and also tightly supports by both the wonderful art and the premise. The story follows Mickey through a logical progression of discovering The Wasteland and responding to a dizzying array of characters he meets there. During the game’s many cinematic sequences, the animation is fluid and the audio reasonably good. Some folks I’ve spoken to complain about not having much voice acting in the game, but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. I thought the choice actually contributed to the “retro” feel of the game. Within the game itself, Mickey interacts with characters (good and bad) who react to him in different ways based on the ongoing choices he makes. Not having been a big Disney fan, I can’t say if this interactions are true to these characters’ histories, but the writing for them is excellent, in that it accomplishes several valuable goals:

World-building Each of the characters Mickey interacts with has a past that starts before Wasteland was created. Some ask Mickey if he remembers them from when they had bit parts in early Mickey cartoons, for example. Others talk about what life was like before the disaster that turned their home into Wasteland. This serves to really cement the gamer in the world of Watseland.
Thematic Tension Because the characters have pasts, because they react to the disaster, and because their behavior changes based on the ongoing choices Mickey makes during the game, their writing serves to maintain the thematic tension introduced by the basic premise. Mickey holds the fate of Wasteland in his hand: what will he do? As the game progresses, this thematic tension increases and the writing reflects that.
Game Progression The writing for all of the characters, and the interactions and quests that they give Mickey serve to really round-out the storyline. It becomes multi-linear about an hour or so into the gameplay and really opens up the world for experimentation and enjoyment. The writing really serves to make this interaction and the branching game play paths it offers quite seamless.

The game play itself is reasonably varied. The primary action in the game occurs as a three-dimensional platform game, not unlike Super Mario Galaxy or the Sly Cooper (PS2) games. However, the level design is a lot less complicated than in Super Mario Galaxy, with a much greater focus on how levels relate to the world of Wasteland and the story of Epic Mickey. In this respect, the level design much more resembles Sly Cooper (PS2) franchise. And, in the case of this game, this is good because it more tightly links the level design to the underlying premise and story.

The initial worlds provide a decent orientation to the game play, introducing the player to the techniques they will use throughout the game (especially techniques for painting and thinning aspects of the world). However, I found that the “orientation” worlds lasted a little too long for my taste (about 10 – 15% of the game or so). However, that may be because I’m a video game player in my late 20s who has seven video game systems hooked up to his television. Don’t get me wrong, the orientation worlds were fun. But the game play changes when a more quest-oriented system is introduced after the first two worlds. The action continues to be three-dimensional and platform-style, but the motivation and the places that Mickey can go become much more broad. At that point, Mickey can choose which quests he wishes to complete, where he wants to go, and how he wants to complete those quests. With the game’s horizons opened in this fashion, I found I enjoyed the game much more from this point. It gave me greater engagement with the character and the story, and became about more than slogging may way through a bunch of linear worlds.

The quests break up the game play nicely, but so too do the “inter-world” levels. These are more traditional, two-dimensional platform levels. They are “traveling” worlds that Mickey needs to get through to proceed from one section of the Wasteland to another. What’s great about them is their design: they are designed like old 1930’s or 1940’s film strips, complete with undulating film reel border. Some are in color, while others are in black and white. This brief 2D switch up provides great variety in the game, while their design makes them a real treat to play.

Epic Mickey is a very solid game. With excellent writing and superb design, the game provides many hours of enjoyment. The biggest complaint I have about this game is its camera control. That’s not unique to this game (I find it’s a common problem on many Wii games), but this game was especially prone to placing me in positions where I could not position the camera such that I could see where I would be jumping, or to allow me to adequately aim my paintbrush at objects/enemies. While I still enjoyed the game and I was able to play through it without too much swearing, this problem was sufficient enough of me to knock a star off of my rating for it. However, despite that complaint I still think this is a great game for kids and adults alike. While the premise and the theme are dark and complex enough for adults to get a kick out of, like the best middle-grade novels, they are still presented in a fashion that an eight year old will enjoy just as much.

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