Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Disney has always been home to heroes and sorcerers. The Kingdom Keepers series by Ridley Pearson, better known to most for his many suspense and detective novels than for his forays into YA, is one of the best efforts at exploring the space where heroes and villains live–Disneyworld itself, where underpaid actors and actresses every day impersonate characters both familiar and forgotten. The series follows a group of kids recruited as virtual “hosts” of the Magic Kingdom, and gradually all of Disney World, as they become their hologram selves at night and battle villains from all of the Disney classics who are trying to take over the park. The fifth Kingdom Keepers novel, Shell Game, was released earlier this month.It’s release comes alongside a new game within the Disney parks themselves, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, that might offer a glimpse of how tales of heroes and villains could evolve in increasingly interactive and playful spaces.
Shell Game takes the virtual exploits of the virtual teens onto Disney Cruise ships, which recently have started incorporating their own playful touches–both the Dream and the Fantasy have onboard augmented reality mystery games taking place through “magic pictures,” such as the Muppets detective game:
The plot of Shell Game plays out very much like one of those games, with the type of on-ship intrigue one might expect from the next generation. The Kingdom Keepers series, which I’ve mentioned before for its parallels with current video games, takes its lead not from any one Disney film or property but from all of them, including lead villains from Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty alongside hyenas, Jack Sparrow’s Pirates, and even the occasional voodoo queen. Disney’s transmedia empire is filled with stories worth playing. And yet most games based on the main Disney properties are uninspiring. Kingdom Keepers works by making sense of the links between narratives, just at the Disney parks themselves and recent games like Disney Universe, Kingdom Hearts, and even the failed Epic Mickey have embraced.
Early interactive experiments at Disney didn’t go so well—the Disney Quest building still stands, but the games are growing more dated with every new system. And even if the games did improve, it’s a hard sell to convince visitors to a theme park to spend that long indoors looking at screens. The solution seems to be in hybrid forms that are akin to the adventures in Kingdom Keepers, with the virtual and real colliding. Augmented reality games have already invaded Disney World. The original, Mission Kim Possible, is centered in Epcot and will soon be replaced by a game inspired by Phineas and Ferb.
The Magic Kingdom just got its own version of an ARG. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a new card-based game with magic portals and a quest from Merlin himself, asks players to join the battle to stop Disney villains from taking over the park.
The plot is very similar to Kingdom Keepers, as many of the commenters on that video have already noted, but what’s really striking about this new game is its incredible potential versatility well beyond this first storyline. It’s the most interactive experience at Disney yet, as the incorporation of strategy at the higher levels could mean real challenges both in card-collecting and planning for combat. Of course, there are problems. Due to balancing issues, the game’s difficult levels have been turned off, leaving it stuck on easy without any challenge to offer the same dedicated players who have already formed new sites for trading and posted card lists designed to tempt more geeks out to Disney.
Roger Travis noted the allure of the social experience and the ability to play “within the ruleset of the Disney canon” that lets even the easy version of Sorcerers win converts. This stage might not involve much more than holding a card up to a video screen while on a scavenger hunt, but the cards themselves are art pieces and, even better, free with admission to the Magic Kingdom–a souvenir that sounds worth the trip. The game also uses identifier cards issued to each guest to save state, so play could theoretically last over multiple trips, many difficulties, and eventually many storylines spread through several parks and perhaps integrated into the cruise ship and other Disney franchises–it could even be an affordable way to make a trip to places like Disney Store NYC memorable.
Yet so far this is looking like a timid step towards what could be a radical franchise. The same QR-code-esque pattern recognition technology behind these cards could be used with a webcam or the Kinect camera to make a home video game version of Sorcerers, perhaps not unlike the ideas at work in Spyro’s Skylanders:
I grew up playing Magic the Gathering which, somewhat amazingly to me, is still alive and well. The world of Magic had an elaborate story, with each expansion themed on new lands or creatures or events. However, the competition and elaborate strategy was what sustained it. Augmented reality experiments at the park in the past have stayed strongly tied to locations. In this new concept, the take-home nature of the cards and digital storage of player data could lend itself to a complex rules set and multidimensional experience. Perhaps the “sorcery” coming out of Disneyworld will offer more playful transmedia intrigue in the near future.