One of the joys of a 100-year IP is the ability to carve out a niche for yourself. That’s certainly the case with Dlala Studios‘ Disney Illusion Island, the newly released platformer that’s available now.
We spoke to AJ Grand-Scrutton, the CEO and Creative Director at Dlala Studios about the ideation process with Illusion Island- and putting their own unique spin on Disney’s “Fabulous four”.
One interesting fact fans might not know about the game is the roots of its name- AJ revealed to us that he was actually a huge fan of the retro Disney platformers like Castle of Illusion and World of Illusion. and the name Illusion Island was his way of paying homage to them.
“It’s funny, so we wanted it from day one”, AJ says. “We were like ‘look we know it’s not a sequel, it’s not a sequel, it’s not the next game in the Illusion series but we would love to have Illusion in the name as like an homage because we love those games’ “.
“So it went through the naming process, it goes through and in the end it’s down to these two names. It was one name I won’t say and there was the other name which it became which was Disney Illusion Island and we were so over the moon, we were so happy because it meant we got this little nod to the games we had when we were kids”.
That being said, Dlala knew better than to just imitate the games of their childhood. One thing we absolutely had to ask AJ was Illusion Island’s clear metroidvania roots.
“It’s a Metroidvania in a very bad disguise, it’s very structurally inspired by Metroidvania but there’s not any combat necessarily but yeah it’s a Metroidvania.”, AJ confesses.
“So, I traditionally have not gotten on with Metroidvania because I think I’ve turned into a grumpy old man so my patience wears thin so I don’t necessarily like a lot of the hard ones”, AJ elaborates. “But I love Ori and The Blind Forest and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. Both of those felt much more welcoming to me”
“But [Grant Allen] our lead designer, very much loves Metroidvanias. I know Gato Roboto was a big one for him and our tech director loves all the classic Metroids himself, a massive Metroid Prime fan”, he says. “So yeah, across the entire team, I think we had a lot of Metroidvania inspiration, I definitely like the Ori series”.
One thing that might set it apart from the adventures of Samus or the Belmonts though, is a significant lack of violence. According to AJ, once they realized they didn’t need to have combat, they never looked back.
“I’d love to tell you it was a day one decision and we stuck to it, it was far from it”, AJ says.
“So when Grant and I first started looking at the game, we kind of covered our office in post-its on here are all of the different things this game could be made of and we put combat up on the wall because it’s a Metroidvania so you got to have combat”.
“It stayed up on the wall way too long to the point where we’d actually to point where we actually had a couple of enemies where you could jump on their heads at one point and Grant and I had kinda been putting off the conversation of “why do we have combat” and we were like “well these games have combat it” and we were like “does that mean we have to?” and we were both kinds of like “well I guess not” “.
Talking About Platforming
No combat doesn’t mean the game isn’t hard though- in our review we mentioned the game’s pretty involved platforming, which AJ gleefully shared more with us about.
“The thing we had from day one was that it’s Mickey Mouse and Mickey Mouse nowadays means something very different to when I was a kid. I mainly knew Mickey Mouse when I was a kid through the games Castle of Illusion, World of Illusion and Magical Quest and those games aren’t easy”, he says. “Nowadays Mickey traditionally been skewed towards a younger audience so for us when we spoke to Disney and we talked about making the game, we made it pretty that “we’re not gonna make a kids game” and Disney were like, “we wouldn’t want you to make a kids game, you’re not our first choice for us to make a kids game so that’s not what were looking for” “.
“So the approach me took with this, you might have heard us say that its a family game but family doesn’t mean kids. If Grant and I are playing, we want a challenge, we’ll put ourselves on one heart, two hearts, and there are some real platforming challenges in there and that’s why the welcoming options like the infinite health exist, it means that we could make a game that is appealing to platform fans but then if younger players wanna play it they just out infinite health on and it doesn’t matter how many times they fall into a pit or some spikey horns, they can still keep playing”.
With the ability to control how much damage you take, though, that did give the team some freedom with the level design. AJ talked about the new freedoms their game design had opened up for them.
“It’s about the joy of movement and it’s about that big moving platforming world”, AJ explains. “There’s some really fun areas that will challenge you, Gizmopolis as a biome in general is really fun, I won’t go into spoilers but my favourite area of the game is another area inside of Gizmopolis that you get to later. It has some really good challenging sections”.
He also mentioned that he wasn’t out to make one of those hyper-precise platformers:
“There’s a spectrum with platforming games. We knew we weren’t going to be Super Meat Boy, we knew we weren’t going to go that hardcore”, AJ says. “We love those games but we knew that wasn’t what we were going for so I think a lot of our influences were those games we loved in the 90s, games like Rayman Legends which I think is the best platformer ever made, and the mentality we had was if the team that made the old illusion games in the 90s were to make a Mickey game today, what would it feel like, what would the challenge be like? and that’s what we tried to do”.
When we tried to ask if there were any features he really tried to squeeze into the game, he gave a refreshingly honest answer of “basically the whole game”.
“I know it’s a cheezy answer but it was a big thing for us”, AJ laughs. “We set out to make a seamless world, Mickey Mouse game on the Switch and the team achieved it, they did it with absolute wondrous skill. The game is wonderful, I absolutely adore it still but there’s little nods and stuff”.
He did also praise the game’s multiplayer features, which have plenty for the player who may not double jump to the best of their abilities.
“So when you’re playing multiplayer you get three extra mechanics, you get Leap Frog where someone can jump off your back, you get Rope Drop where anyone can drop a rope at anyone if someone gets stuck”.
“The one that’s a big favourite in house is the hug so in multiplayer you can hug each other and you’ll give each other a temporary extra heart of health and so just see a lot of people asking for hugs”, he says.
“It’s very funny with Donald, he says he doesn’t want a hug but asks for it anyway. Goofy looks very sad when he’s waiting for a hug but that’s a lot of fun and it creates this very interesting dynamic since it gives something for people who are struggling a way to help each other and actually the most use we get out of it is when we’re trying to be all tough and we’re all like “we’re gonna do a 1 heart run” and then we spend the whole time hugging so that we’ve really got two hearts and you’ll just walk through the office and you’ll hear big burly men like myself begging for a hug where we’re desprate to get an extra heart of health so that we don’t lose our run”.
“When it’s myself and Ben, the tech director, whenever we play with Mark our IT director he once tried to offer us a hug and stopped just before we got there so he now gets no hugs, no hugging Mark Regan basically. Whenever he asks for a hug, he doesn’t get anything”.
…And Now We Just Gush About Mickey Mouse Shorts
Now, ever since Disney Illusion Island was announced, there’s been a big cartoon elephant in the room. The show’s love of the Disney animated shorts is no secret, and AJ had a lot to say about getting to make a game styled after it.
“Authenticity is the most important thing for us, for what we do with these kind of games where we take existing worlds and we make a new experience. So we were Mickey fans already, my office is filled with Mickey stuff, you can’t see why Mickey shrine over here but just know there’s a lot of Mickey stuff”, he says while smiling.
“For me it’s important in my role as Creative Director that I absorb all the info, I’ve watched every Mickey short, I read all the books on the near 100 year history and I’m trying to think of what Mickey meant to me, when I hear Mickey Mouse what does it mean and so for us the goal we had was we want to create a brand new world, we want to create a brand new cast of characters like your meeting Mazzy and Jido, but it all has to feel like something that makes sense to Mickey. This has to feel like a place that Mickey could realistically visit and have conversations with people”.
Of course, you don’t just say you’ve watched all these shorts and not talk about your favorite ones. We took AJ to task and asked him about his favorite Mickey Mouse shorts.
“Lonesome Ghosts 100% Lonesome Ghosts is definitely my favourite but I also love the new ones. I love Potato Land from the new shorts but yeah. Lonesome Ghosts for me is just the epitome of Mickey Mouse, it’s just silly, like the three stupid boys going on that adventure and getting round up by ghosts. I think it’s on Disney+ so that’s well worth checking out but yeah”, he says.
He also took the time to recommend a modern short, too:
“Potato Land from the modern shorts, I think it’s just hilarious and it’s funny but it’s such a beautiful short because for people that haven’t seen it not to give spoilers, Potato Land is about Goofy growing always wanted to visit this theme park but it turns out there is no theme park there just, I believe Ohio and Idaho, they call them Potato Land. So Mickey and Donald go and create this theme park for Goofy so that he’s not upset. I was like, that is what the Mickey and friends friendship is about. They literally made the guy a theme park because it was his dream”.
He says this also extended to the game’s script, with dialogue having to sound authentic to the characters saying them. This would all lead to the ultimate goal: his ideal player experience for Disney Illusion Island.
“So really the big goal for us was to make a playable cartoon”, AJ says. “How do we make this feel like a playable cartoon, well the art did a lot of the heavy lifting. They made this big beautiful 2D world, the animation team made these incredible hand keyed animations. But it was really everything, like if you just listen to the game, the music, this big wonderful score that Dave Housden’s done, this big orchestral live score”.
“That’s incredible but if you also just listen to the sound effects, they’re inherently Mickey. They’re brand new sound effects that Sam and Paul, our audio team made based on what Mickey would sound like if you were listening to a cartoon. And so it’s all those little touches that bring it all together. You can look at each thing or listen to each thing individually but it’s really the soup you get when you put it all together that really gives you that authenticity because if you’re gonna make a Mickey Mouse game, it has to feel like Mickey Mouse. It’s really as simple as that”.
AJ highlighted the creative target of this project, which was staking their own claim on a chunk of the Mickey Mouse Mythos.
“One of our core pillars for the project was authentically Disney, distinctly Dlala. What is something that feels like a Disney game but is a Disney game that only we could make”, AJ says. “So the character designs needed to feel like they could work. Our thing was always thinking like hey you never know, one day you might see Mazzy in Disney Land right, lets make sure that at a minimum someone can look at it and go “yeah somebody could sit with a mascot costumes like that” “.
Of course this wasn’t just AJ’s vision. He also spent time gushing about the rest of the Dlala team’s contributions to Disney Illusion Island.
“Lucy, our Art Designer was also our character designer on a lot of the big characters and Rachel our other character designer the pair of them just made this wonderful cast of characters. But yeah Mazzy is wonderful, I love Mazzy to pieces, I know Charlotte absolutely adores Mazzy. Yeah it was super important that they felt like genuine Disney characters because yeah, we don’t want this to just be a one-off, we hope that one day we get to tell more stories, maybe we get to do DLC or you know maybe we go off into the either and we do something else Disney related so we just wanted it to feel very authentic”, he says.
It wasn’t just original characters, too- Illusion Island also features Dlala’s take on Disney’s four iconic mascots.
“100% we wanted to do our own versions of the fab four. Because you know how many times do you get a chance to redesign some of the most famous characters ever made right?”, AJ says. “Like, Mickey has only really had about 10 designs in a hundred years, we knew we wanted to make our own versions of these characters and we knew the two big things for us were that we wanted to wear our influences on our sleeves. Like the reason it looks so similar to the shorts is that when they made those shorts their favourite mickey cartoons are probably mine, like I love the 30s, the 40s stuff, Lonesome Ghosts, all that classic kinda white-faced mickey stuff and so I think you’re seeing both of us have the same influences in that sense but the other part is that we felt that it had to make sense for the game”.
“That’s why if you look at our characters, they have bigger hands and feet because they need them to read when we do the zoomed out sections. Longer legs because obviously it’s about running and platforming. We were also very lucky, we were able to give Minnie a brand new outfit, her legendary Polka dot dress and high heels wouldn’t really have made sense for her on this adventure so we gave her the jumpsuit with the flats. So the characters were designed with the game in mind and we always were going to do that but their very much wearing their influences on their sleeves at the same time”.
I did try to ask if he’d ever considered having the entire game be traditionally animated, though he insists, largely of what can only be assumed to be managerial responsibility that it shouldn’t.
“There’s a couple of interactions in game where you’ll come across these cool little hand animated cutscenes that I think you’ll really like”, he says. “But yeah the big story cutscenes, they’re a bit more rigged and skeletal, more akin to the modern shorts. There’s still a lot of hand drawn frames and poses in there but a lot of it is that more skeletal animation and it was exactly what you said. There’s more animation in our game than the total length of time for the 1st season of the modern Mickey shorts”.
He also joked that if they had actually committed to full hand-drawn frames they probably wouldn’t be launching the game now.
Coming Out During The 100th Anniversary
One title AJ wasn’t originally prepared for has to do with Disney Illusion Island’s release date. By what appears to be sheer chance, Illusion Island releases the same year as Disney’s 100th anniversary- a huge milestone for the entertainment giant.
“Yeah, it’s literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. Yeah, it’s very very special, I didn’t even when we signed the deal, like when we signed to make this game we were just focused on making the game. I wasn’t even thinking at that point about “oh you know, if we end up shipping in 2023 then it’ll be the Anniversary” “, AJ explains.
“So when 2023 came about and we announced I was kind of like “oh my god, we are coming out smack bang in the middle of the 100 year anniversary, we are the Mickey Mouse game, the only Mickey Mouse game coming out in Disney’s 100 year anniversary”, he explains. “Mickey’s in other games but we are the only dedicated Mickey and friends game and that’s amazing, that means that our wonderful little game is permanently part of Disney’s history which is incredible and it’s just lovely to see all the cool stuff going on, all the cool 100th Anniversary celebrations and merch and documentaries and just knowing that we’re a little part of that has been a real honor for us”.
Disney Illusion Island is available now, and a pretty serviceable metroidvania for those who’re craving for something they can enjoy not just alone but also with friends thanks to the local co op. Given Disney’s Centenary, it’s a great way to celebrate the brand’s history- with something new that also feels built on the backs of its history.
Our thanks to AJ Grand-Scrutton for answering our questions as well as The Walt Disney Company for setting up the interview.