The New Year brought the excellent news that Steamboat Willie-era Mickey Mouse has finally entered the public domain, after decades of Disney, er, convincing Congress to keep extending its copyrights. With that, derivative works that don’t directly contravene Disney’s trademarks are now allowed by law, and with that, there is of course a horror game coming based on the jaunty rodent.
Infestation 88 promises a “co-op horror in which you’re an exterminator,” where you’re tasked with terminating morbidly creepy versions of “classic characters and urban legends.” The big, bold move here is using what’s quite obviously an early Mickey Mouse in the game’s main logo.
The logistics of a copyright expiring on a work isn’t anywhere close clear-cut, even an astonishing 95 years after its creation. Despite U.S. copyright laws having previously allowed a generous 55 years of protections, Disney was able to persuade Congress to extend that by another 20 years in 1984. Come 2004, they managed to wangle another two decades from amenable politicians, but finally the very appositely nicknamed Mickey Mouse Protection Act has finally come to an end. Yet, Disney still has all sorts of legal routes to prevent people using and abusing its mascot.
The most significant is that it’s only that silent, earliest design of Mickey that’s up for grabs. More “modern” versions are still very much Disney’s, and discerning between them is going to keep a lot of lawyers very wealthy. Also, nothing created using Steamboat Mickey can infringe on Disney’s trademarks, meaning people cannot use the work to create anything that could be conflated with Disney’s own creations. Again, lots of lawyers will be hopping from foot to foot at the prospect. But if there’s one thing it’d be hard to believe Disney would want to create with Mickey, it’s horror. And within hours of the copyright’s expiration, both a movie and a game have been announced.
Infestation 88 developer Nightmare Forge Games is leaning in hard on the legalese, almost as if daring Disney to try to stop them. Both the game’s Steam store and trailer states,
This game is inspired by works that are now in the public domain. This independent creation has not been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise endorsed by any original authors of said works. All content in this game is used under appropriate public domain guidelines, and is not affiliated with, related to, or endorsed by any existing intellectual property or trademark holders.
With predictably Five Nights At Freddy’s vibes, the trailer shows little other than some first-person and security cam views of a team exploring a warehouse, and then an appearance from a gruesome-looking Mickey Mouse.
The reveal has prompted some social media users to speculate that “88″ in the title is an antisemitic dogwhistle. We reached out to developers Nightmare Forge, who got back to us explaining that on announcement, they had no idea of the Neo Nazi connotations of the number, instead having picked it simply because they wanted a symmetrical number to represent the game’s 1980s setting. Their full statement reads,
Our game is set in the 1980s, with the year 1988 being chosen simply for its symmetrical design in our game’s artwork. Therefore, the 88 strictly represents the year 1988; no additional connotations are intended. We are in the process of revising this artwork to clarify the abbreviation, as shown in the image below. Should there still be concerns, we’re open to changing the game’s name.
At the same time, a horror movie based on the freshly released mouse has received a trailer too. Following in the footsteps of the dreadful Winnie the Pooh-based Blood and Honey is Mickey’s Mouse Trap, due later this year.
It looks fucking terrible—it’s not often you see a trailer with pacing issues—and even lifts lines from genre classics like Scream. But it doesn’t appear to be an entirely serious project. The BBC quotes director Jamie Bailey describing the film as “ridiculous.”
“I mean it’s Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse murdering people,” the director said. “We ran with it and had fun doing it and I think it shows.”
While we’re at it, it’s worth remembering there’s also Fumi Games’ Mouse, another game seemingly based on the Steamboat Willie era, this time what looks like could be a spectacularly good first-person shooter animated in that familiar 1920s style.
The copyright only expired on January 1, so we can expect to see an awful lot more derivative works to come, all with that bizarre caveat that they need to be something Disney would never do.
Updated: 01/02/24, 11.10a.m. ET: Updated to add the response from the developer regarding concerns over the game’s name.