Writer/creative director AJ Grand-Scrutton and animation director Eric Ciccone talk about Dlala Studios’ revival of one of Disney’s oldest character designs, building an entire 2D animated game world for Mickey & Friends that includes a new story and original orchestral score, recently launched exclusively on Nintendo Switch.
In 2016, just one year into a new and exciting Disney contract, award-winning computer game developer Dlala Studios got the news that Disney would be cancelling all video game publishing operations due to financial losses from their toys-to-life game series with Avalanche Software, Disney Infinity. Dlala’s exciting, but underwraps project with Disney came to an untimely end.
Four years later, as Dlala’s team chewed on ideas for what would come after the release of their revival project Battletoads (2020), they had a risky but intriguing idea to revisit another contract with Disney Electronic Content. This time, it worked.
Disney Illusion Island, the 2D Mickey & Friends cooperative platformer, recently launched exclusively on Nintendo Switch and features all hand-drawn animation that’s reminiscent of the House of Mouse’s earliest animated renditions. The game, which can be played as a single or multi-player, also includes Disney memorabilia and collectibles, a brand-new comedic story, and an original orchestral score.
As the game’s story goes, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy arrive on Monoth Island, expecting a picnic. They discover a giant bookshelf and meet Toku, leader of the Hokuns creatures, who admits to inviting them for a fake picnic. Toku seeks their help to recover three stolen Tomes of Knowledge that protect the island. Aspiring to become heroes, Mickey and his friends accept the mission. During the search, inventor Mazzy provides them with new abilities to unlock new areas. In order to retrieve the Tomes of Engineering, Botany, and Astronomy, Mickey and friends must battle against three bosses in different biomes.
You can view the trailer for the game here:
AWN got the chance to talk with Disney Illusion Island’s writer and creative director AJ Grand-Scrutton, as well as animation director Eric Ciccone, about reviving one of Disney’s oldest character designs, building an entire video game world in hand-drawn animation, the elaborate and massively challenging biomes of Monoth, and what fans should keep a keen eye out for as they play the game.
Victoria Davis: How did the idea for the game come to be? Where did the project originate?
AJ Grand-Scrutton: The project originally came to be around late summer 2019. We were in the last year of making Battletoads (2020) and my internal strategy team at Dlala was on a call trying to figure out what we’d really love to work on and we, almost jokingly, said “Could you imagine if we did something with Disney again?” We all chuckled and then the room went silent and we were like, “Wait, why don’t we try to do something with Disney again?”
Ahead of our first call with Disney, we felt nervous. We really wanted to show how much we’d matured as a studio, and I was desperate to show how much I’d matured as a project lead. The call ended up being absolutely lovely. We spoke for a couple of hours; we showed them how things worked at Dlala now and they spoke to us about what Disney was doing with games. At the end of that call, we agreed that we’d try to pull together a Mickey & Friends concept.
We also knew we wanted to do another couch co-op multi-player game, because we’re gluttons for punishment. Besides those two points everything was up for grabs. Grant Allen, the lead designer, and I shut ourselves away in my office and covered the walls in post-it notes of everything the game could be. After talking with technical director Ben Waring and principal programmer and Chris Rickett, we all decided we were excited by the challenge of making a big seamless world on Nintendo Switch. From there, it became about refining what the pillars and vision were for the project and making sure that the only post-its that stayed up hit those pillars.
VD: Why go with hand-drawn animation as opposed to 3D, or even mixed media?
AGS: I’d go as far as saying I’m obsessed with hand-drawn animation. When you consider I can’t even draw a stickman, that’s saying something. Battletoads was also hand-drawn, and we really felt that the Dlala visual style was starting to take shape.
Eric Ciccone: I think 2D animation is a guiding light of the company and the projects we find ourselves drawn to. Plus, the characters' roots and history are in 2D animation.
But it was one of the biggest challenges, implementing hand-drawn animations with the many frames it takes to visually represent each action, movement, or emotion in a highly responsive game. All the in-game animation (and certain cutscenes) are completely hand-drawn frame by frame, very traditional in its approach but using modern toolsets. But that really added to the charm of the game. I know “charm” is an overused description, but you get something from hand-drawn 2D animation that you don’t get from other mediums. I think our game is a good example of that.
VD: Why do you think your Dlala was the right partner for this project with Disney?
AGS: Now that is a fantastic question, and one that is quite hard to answer without sounding like an egocentric maniac. But I feel we’re truly different from our peers. I am not saying better, and I am definitely not saying worse. I have never worked anywhere like Dlala, and that is due to the incredible people on the team. Everyone at Dlala wants their peers, projects, and studio to succeed and no one is stepping on necks to further their own careers. This, combined with the fact that we are true Disney fans, and Mickey & Friends fans, it feels like it made sense. I mean, it could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn't.
I’ve said this in other interviews, but I genuinely don’t remember the formal greenlight process. I remember that call, then us collaborating on ideas and then we were making something awesome together. It all felt so natural.
EC: I don’t think there are any other teams or studios that develop quite like we do and, when potential partners speak with us, I think that really comes across.
VD: Players explore a few separate biomes in this game, along with a myriad of obstacle environments. How did you decide what they would all look like?
AGS: We had our wonderful art team coming up with wacky ideas and concepts that fit a broad brief I’d given. It was something like, “Imagine each biome had an interesting feature previously, but now magic has changed it.” It was a really useless brief, which is pretty much my trademark. But they came up with an assortment of ideas. We also had the design team generating some ideas as well of what would get them excited. Once we honed in all of the ideas into a vision we liked, we drilled into the narrative.
VD: Is the land of Monoth something that has been part of the Disney universe before?
AGS: The land of Monoth is completely new. In fact, everything in the playable world, with the exception of the Fab Four, is a completely new Dlala creation for Disney. We knew from day one that we wanted to create a world away from Mouseton, Duckburg, and Toontown. We wanted a place where the Fab Four were out of their comfort zone. At the same time, it had to feel like it made sense with those characters in the world. It had to feel more like when you go visit a country you’ve never been to, with a culture you’ve never experienced, as opposed to feeling like a completely different universe.
VD: There’s a lot of classic obstacle course gameplay in this but, of course, each obstacle is unique for this story. What was the hardest one to pull together? What were the main challenges?
AGS: I think the biggest challenge we came across when sculpting the world, in terms of actual gameplay, was getting each of the abilities to feel awesome. Grant and his team did a fantastic job on Wall Jump early on and it became the North Star of what we wanted our other abilities to feel like. Abilities like Boost Jump, our horizontal take on a Double Jump, weren’t too much of a challenge. The big challenges were Deep Dive, our swimming ability, and Swinging.
Deep Dive had the issue that it came with the baggage of swimming levels being the worst bits of a lot of games, but we wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case for Disney Illusion Island. There have been games where swimming felt incredible, like the Ori games, and we were very keen to fall on that side of the opinion line. That’s how we came up with The Sky Below, our underwater galaxy. Deep Dive took more iteration than any other ability and it actually has almost as many bespoke animations as the core animation set for each of the characters. I think Tech still hates Grant for it.
The issue with Swinging was more about the detaching. We wanted to make sure it was generous and didn’t need complete precision, but we also had to make sure it didn’t make it feel janky. The actual environmental aspects were all a lot of fun to make but I think the one that gave us the biggest headaches, which is closely linked to the abilities, is the floating pools of moon juice. These are pools of our galactic liquid that the player can jump into swim around in and jump out, usually from all sides. The entry and exit took a ton of iteration.
VD: Was there a favorite biome or course that the team enjoyed seeing brought to life?
AGS: For me, my favorite area is MOPs, the “Monoth Official Postal Service.” It’s this whacky, room-shifting area within the engineering biome of Gizmopolis. I think it really brings all the gameplay together and it was an idea Grant and I had very early on that we wanted to see executed. Another really popular area was Crater’s Bay. Crater’s Bay is a fishing and packing town located within the cracked moons of astronomy biome, Astrono. Crater’s Bay was one of our “problem” areas in the sense that it took a bit longer to really get it to the point where we were happy with it, but once we had then everyone on the team fell in love with it.
Another problematic area that ended up being wonderful was Terrarium Town. This is the “fancy” area of Monoth and is found within the botany biome, Pavonia. The story behind Terrarium Town is that people move there and build their homes out of Terrariums as a tribute to a giant peacock. As time progresses, people move on but leave their previous Terrariums to be taken back by nature. As you move through Terrarium Town, there is subtle environmental storytelling where you see the beautiful Terrariums in the center of the town, the Old Town with the broken-down Terrariums to the East, and the new Terrariums being built to the West.
EC: If I had to choose just one, it would actually be The Sky Below. It just has such great vibes to me. I still go “Wow” when I look at that section. It really takes you someplace unique in an already unique world. The swimming animations are glorious, as are the creatures and the visual design of the level. That said, I might choose a different section tomorrow.
VD: How did you make sure these old-school-styled Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy friends still fit into this incredibly colorful, magical world?
EC: A lot of the groundwork for socketing the characters into the world of Monoth was laid by AJ’s story and our art director Lucy Kyriakidou’s character and world design. Both did such a great job and it made it easy(ish) for us to jump off from their foundations and start to find our direction. A pillar we had was “Does the animation feel Disney but through the Dlala filter?” The characters went through a lot of visdev and I referenced that pillar a lot when directing the animation team.
The four main player characters are arguably some of the biggest characters in the world, and there was an inherent pressure that came with animating them. I think myself and the team all internalized that pressure in different ways. These characters – who have a long history – are in a new world, in a unique set of circumstances, with new challenges. How do we stay true to the characters but push them into new directions that feel like them yet offer something new?
I really worked hard to shield the animators and pull away expectations or perceived expectations to allow the team to be as creative and inspired as possible. Just let us create as joyfully as possible whilst still serving the vision of the game. It was hard work, but I think we achieved that.
VD: What are some easter eggs built into the game you’d like fans to keep an eye out for?
AGS: There are quite a few Easter Eggs but at different levels of subtility. The least subtle is the Mickey Memorabilia, which is a type of collectible in our game that unlocks items from the near-100-year-old history of Mickey & Friends. There are also elements in the game which are homages to other cartoons and features in the world of Disney. Also included little nods to some of my influences in the writing, like the classic British sitcom Red Dwarf. You’ll need to keep your eyes open and pay attention to all aspects of the game to catch them all!