Showtime, Synergy!


I totally bought into the first iteration of Disney Infinity, both financially and philosophically. The toys themselves are well made, and even more significant than that, well designed. They had to create an art direction that would be suitable for a century’s worth of disparate characters — not to mention an indefinitely expanding group of characters as Disney grows to encompass the entirety of human creative output — across multiple media including 2D animation, 3D animation, CG-created characters, and live action actors; and make it look internally consistent.

And on top of that, they had to make the designs suitable for real-world sculpts and reasonable-poly 3D models for games on every platform including tablets. When you see how easily Violet Parr’s head comes loose from her body, since all of her limbs are ridiculously narrow; or how Phineas from Phineas and Ferb was clearly only ever intended to be seen in profile; it makes it clear how daunting a task that must’ve been. And how the complexity of the design doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Plus, the game itself emphasized a “philosophy” that superseded its existence as a platform for selling movie tie-in toys. Infinity is most obviously Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the business model established by Skylanders. But if you play for a while, it becomes clear that it owes just as much to the Lego video games by TT Games. (No relation to Telltale Games). The most cynical take on the Lego franchise is that they’re capitalizing on whatever license that Lego and Warner Bros are able to acquire, with a competent-but-not-groundbreaking platform game. But the cynical take completely misses the appeal of those games: they’re most memorable not for their licenses but for their sense of humor and their charm.

Disney Infinity took the opening scene from Toy Story 3 and turned it into an enormous, all-encompassing platform. Each of the playsets has its own emphasis — racing for Cars, ship battles for Pirates of the Caribbean, pranks for Monsters University — which is impressive, considering how the game mechanics had to be as simple as general-purpose as possible out of necessity. But throughout the story-based playsets and the open-ended Toybox mode, the one constant is that these are unapologetically toys. You’ve grabbed a bunch of figures from your toy box and slammed them together on the living room floor for your own epic story.

There are plenty of products that promise to be about play and creativity — and, especially where Disney is concerned, imagination — but Infinity is one of the few that feels completely sincere.

These Toys Are for My Nephew in Canada

Still, I quickly hit a wall in how much I could enjoy it. The problem wasn’t, surprisingly, having to rationalize being a 42-year-old man and still buying action figures. At some point along the way, I crossed a significant milestone of not caring too much what people think or worrying too much whether something I like is age-appropriate. The problem was that it became impossible to disguise the fact that the game just wasn’t made for me.

The playsets are engaging enough, but they’re always going to be limited. The engine has to favor breadth over depth, so it can’t go too far in tailoring the gameplay around any one specific license. Instead, you get characters that all have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and can ride things. It’s genuinely impressive that they got as much variety out of it as they did, but the games are inevitably going to end up being simple and repetitive, and the characters are all inevitably going to feel mostly the same.

And the infinite expandability of the Toybox mode is clearly intended for someone much younger with more free time and patience than I have. If there’s a single image that sold me on Disney Infinity, it was Stitch driving an Autopia car on a racetrack past Spaceship Earth and the Haunted Mansion. And you can absolutely do that in the Toybox mode. But then what? A pre-teen — or even 20-year-old — might have a million different things in mind. I just want to sit back and watch TV or level up in an MMO.

So I ended up putting the toys in a plastic bin and leaving them under the entertainment center. Where, presumably, Jesse would lead the group in a mournful Sarah MacLachlan song about how no one ever plays with them anymore.

Version 2.0

But Disney continued its relentless assault on my wallet by releasing version 2.0 of the game, coming out swinging with a Marvel Super Heroes set and at least a dozen associated characters. Even if it weren’t inevitable that I’d keep getting Infinity stuff for as long as they put it out, they started with sets based on Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that I absolutely loved. (Along with hundreds of millions of other right-thinking people).

The game engine feels like a modest iteration on the last version instead of an entirely new version of the game. There are more bloom effects, and it now allows for interior environments, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuttering and generally poor performance on the Xbox One.

In terms of content, the playsets (at least based on what I’ve seen so far) seems to be aimed for a slightly older audience. (As you’d expect with a Marvel Super Heroes theme). There’s less platforming and more combat, and leveling up a character brings an RPG-like skill tree where you can spend points on different abilities.

One tremendous improvement is that they eliminated the random chance element from “buying” toys for the Toybox mode of the game. Now you unlock them from a tree similar to the skill trees. That means there’s still some since of accomplishment and progression as you unlock more and more stuff, but it’s not frustratingly random. And even better, everything that was unlockable in version 1.0 of the game comes already unlocked in 2.0.

I haven’t actually played with the Toybox mode yet, but it certainly looks like they’ve made plenty of improvements. The possibility of interiors, combined with more stuff to track player progress, and ways to generate text, means it’d be possible to create mini-adventure games. Again, 16-year-old me would be ecstatic at the prospect; 43-year-old asks “who has that kind of time?”

There’s something a little self-defeating about the Toybox mode, though, and it’s the game’s granularity. There’s plenty of stuff that seems as if it were made specifically for me — for just one example, if you have a character drive the Autopia car, it plays the audio from the original Disneyland incarnation of the ride. Like I said, I can plop down a Spaceship Earth or Haunted Mansion and realize that this is as close as I’m probably ever going to get to a real Walt Disney World Tycoon game.

But once you plop down the pieces, they’re mostly inert. I’m skeptical it’ll ever really match the appeal of something like Minecraft, because it emphasizes fidelity over granularity. Nothing in Minecraft ever looks quite like what it’s supposed to, because it’s made out of blocks. But that’s not the point or the appeal; the appeal is being able to build anything you want. All that said: if Infinity ever gave me a complete set of parts to make my own version of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d be all over that. Make a “Dark Ride Playset,” please.

When I first popped in the game, and it took me directly to a menu, I was a little disappointed that they’d omitted the charming (if over-long) introduction that came with the first version of the game. It taught you the basic game mechanics while running around chasing a spark through all kinds of different Disney environments, with a voice-over talking about creativity and imagination. And by the end of it, you believed that they were absolutely sincere about creativity and imagination.

As it turns out, there’s a similar semi-interactive introduction in 2.0, but it’s at the bottom of a text menu in the Marvel Super-Heroes edition. Which is fair enough, since there’s a good chance the kids who buy the game to play as Iron Man and the Hulk will have a little patience for running through a semi-interactive movie as Aladdin, Tinkerbell, and Merida. But the whole thing is still charming. It ends up feeling something like a playable version of Mickey’s Philharmagic at the Magic Kingdom, which in my opinion is still one of the best things Disney’s ever made.

Make Theirs Marvel

I was always a fan of DC Comics growing up, so Marvel characters just don’t have the same type of appeal for me. Several of them I just don’t recognize — why is Spider-Man sold with a character called “Nova?” Who’s the woman in the white catsuit? Why are Captain Marvel and The Wasp so prominently featured in the Avengers set? What’s the deal with the “Iron Fist” apart from looking cool? Why do the Guardians of the Galaxy get all their missions from a dog in a spacesuit with a Russian accent? (Actually, the story behind that is super-cool, if you weren’t already familiar with the comics. He just made a brief non-speaking cameo in the movie).

But even though I can tell there’s a level of fandom and love for the characters that’s simply lost on me, it’s absolutely clear that it wasn’t lost on the people making the game. Whether it’s true or not, the game certainly feels as if it’s made by people who love these characters, grew up reading the comics, and have wanted for decades to make a video game featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man.

It’s clear a lot of effort was put into making the characters feel right. A game with super-heroes means flying, so the game tries to convey the feeling of speed and scale that goes along with it. And I’d say they nailed it: when you hover as Iron Man, then press the left trigger to shoot off with a sudden burst of speed, it’s tremendously satisfying. When Thor swings his hammer in a circle before flinging it at an enemy, it’s satisfying. When Captain America flings his shield and it clangs against an enemy before circling back into his hands, it’s satisfying.

Best of all, by far, is Spider-Man. I’ve never had any real investment in the character, never read the comics, only watched the cartoon series because nothing else was on. So I’d planned to skip the Spider-Man playset, until curiosity overtook me. And swinging around Disney Infinity‘s smaller version of Manhattan is crazy fun. He picks up speed until he’s covering entire city blocks in seconds, spinning around the tops of skyscrapers to land on a corner, clinging to walls before flinging himself off and catching himself with a web at just the right moment — it’s straight-up delightful. The only other game that I’ve played that comes even close to getting it right is Neversoft’s Spider-Man game from 2000, and this feels bigger.

There’s such an enthusiasm for the characters and what makes them cool, that it overwhelms any reservations you might have about this being a revenue-generating machine. It just feels as if the developers are getting to make the super-hero games they’ve wanted to make.

Shadows of the Empire

Back when Disney bought Lucasfilm, I insisted on putting a positive spin on it. (In retrospect, I was doing that as several people I knew were losing their jobs or seeing their projects get canceled, so my timing could’ve been better). I’d said it would be ultimately better for all of us to open up the properties to more development teams. Instead of seeing developers cranking out one title after another, to the point where Star Wars becomes just another license to them, you could see different groups of fans give their take on the license, because they loved it.

I feel like the Marvel stuff in Disney Infinity is the first evidence of that. One of the reasons Marvel’s had so much success with their movies is that they’ve opened up their properties to creators to give their own take. So even if they’re not lifelong fans, they still have something different to bring to the property: Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Kenneth Brannagh on Thor, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. So even if I don’t have any particular attachment to the characters, the filmmaker’s own excitement is infectious.(Even for Thor, which works well as bombastic semi-Shakesperean semi-sci-fi opera).

Hollywood’s been so overwhelmed with re-interprations and “re-imaginings” for so long, that it’s easy to forget that they don’t all have to be soulless, creatively bankrupt cash grabs. That’s the central assumption of this essay in The Atlantic which dismisses the new Star Wars movies as just a crass attempt to capitalize on nostalgia. But not only is that needlessly, pre-emptively cynical, it ignores all the evidence to the contrary. JJ Abrams made an unabashed love letter to Steven Spielberg with Super 8, but we’re still supposed to believe that he’s not genuinely excited to be working on Star Wars? Or that the teaser videos from the sets, showing off life-sized spaceships and practical effects, is nothing more than viral marketing?

I’ve long had the opinion that licenses and sequels and adaptations and remakes were inherently inferior to “original IP,” even as I’ve spent my entire career working on licenses and sequels. But I’m gradually starting to think that that’s simple-minded. It misses a crucial component that’s unique to working on a license — the energy and love that goes into unabashed fandom.

Which is a good thing, because it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Disney Infinity 2.0 comes with a poster that shows all the figures and “power discs” that are going to be available, and it’s an overwhelming reminder of just how much stuff Disney owns now. These go from the Infinity Gauntlet to Doctor Strange to The Muppet Show to Gravity Falls, “it’s a small world,” Darkwing Duck, The Rescuers, and Gus, the field-goal kicking mule.

I pretty much gave up on the “power discs” with the last version, since it really does feel more like a shameless money-grab than anything else. But I see now that they have one for Mr. Toad’s car, and a Main Street Electrical Parade float. So those bastards know they have me at their mercy.

And if it’s an overwhelmingly compelling force for consumerism now, it’s only going to get worse. If I can get hooked on Marvel characters I don’t even care about, the inevitable Star Wars expansion is going to be devastating.