American McGee on Alice: Madness Returns

Escaping down the rabbit hole...

It's amazing to think that it's been eleven years since Alice came to our PCs and was such a hit that a film adaptation was in the works. In the meantime we've seen an Alice film come out, not from Wes Craven but from Tim Burton and nothing to do with the protracted film project. Madness Returns, however, is very much a reality and one that we had the chance to play today. After getting hands-on time with the game, we spoke to Alice creator American McGee about his own journey from the first game until now and how his vision of narrative, presentation, and artistic value are shaping the direction of the sequel.

It has been a fair while since Alice. What prompted you to return to the property?

We always had an idea that there was a sequel in the product, but ten years had to go by while myself and my creative partner R. J. Berg travelled the world and did other products. It wasn't until I had moved to Shanghai and established a studio there that we started talking with EA and they saw the capability of the team that we'd built and the question of the sequel came up. We jumped at the opportunity.

What attracted you to Shanghai?

I moved out to Asia... it's been almost seven years now. I originally went to Hong Kong partly because I just wanted to get out of the US and see something new and try something different, and partly because somebody offered me an opportunity to work on a game there. It was not a great product, not a great project, but I learned a lot of lessons and parlayed that into a lot of time spent in Shanghai helping a friend start a business out there doing art outsourcing for games. So when the opportunity to build the first product that we did came along, it felt natural to go build a studio in Shanghai. It's a great time to be there. It's a country that's really experiencing a lot of interesting growth and a lot of change, and a nice place to make games and to get a lot of experience in game creation there, but not so much in the actual development of full-blown titles. So this will be the first time in fact that a triple A console game has been built from beginning to end by a Chinese team in China, so it's kind of historic. It's great, a very optimistic place to be these days and a lot of very creative and talented people out there.

Do you think there's the community out there who played the first Alice game and are looking forward to the sequel or is Madness Returns more geared at attracting a newer audience of players?

We've seen both audiences. It's really telling when you read the comments online. We know that there's a strong existing community that's still following the game and that have really built up in our online community, our forum, Facebook, Twitter, that sort of thing. But we also can see that there a lot of people who were never exposed to the first game and are being made aware of it now by the press for this game just now, and there's a lot of excitement. So I think we've got a very strong mix of the core, very dedicated hardcore fans from the first game and a bunch of new people who are seeing that this product is going to be quite interesting, so it's a good mix.

What inspired you to go in the direction you have with Alice - to make her a bit crazier?

Well, we set out with the story originally knowing that there was an event that led to the death of her family. This was the fire that consumed her home. And really, all of the darkness flows out of that because in fact that's what drove her to madness, that's what put her in an asylum in the first game. So everything you saw in the first game and everything you see in the second game is a function of her being a very human character having suffered a really significant tragedy.

What drew you to adapting Lewis Carroll's work to a video game originally?

There was a moment when I'd been asked by EA to come up with a game concept. They'd given me a blank sheet of paper and told me to come back with some ideas. So in the process of trying to think about that I was driving along the coast of California and there was a song that came on. I was surrounded by all this green and lush and this beautiful [scenery] and this song comes on and mentions 'a world of wonder' and a 'dark time'. Somehow the word 'wonder' caught in my mind with this dark theme. So this thing started immediately turning over in my mind that we could take Wonderland and make a very cool, very dark presentation of this. So that's where the idea got its inception, you know. Upon going back and starting work with the creative team, we began to flesh everything out: who she was, what the world was going to be like, and how the characters like the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire cat that everyone knows and loves were going to be presented. And all of that happened in 2D. We spent a lot of time with 2D artwork trying to establish the look and feel of the characters and the world. And then I also worked with my creative partner R. J. Berg to flesh out the story. We explored a lot of different ideas, even ranging to her living in a caravan park with a drunken father and an abusive situation. We kept coming back to her as a character from these stories and how could we tell an extension to what already existed. It felt natural. It felt right.

Alice was definitely quite an adult-orientated game for a 3D platformer. Do you think gaming was not quite ready for a 3D platformer with a darker theme back then but now maybe with newer, more cerebral franchises in the genre the time is a bit more right for Alice?

I think that this style of gameplay, the mechanics that we're working with here, is pretty classic. I think that they can still have legs. Audiences who maybe haven't had a chance to play the classic platforming genre are going to be able to get hold of this and have a lot of fun. If they've played it before they can be re-exposed to the idea or adopt it for the first time before if they've not. I think good gaming mechanics never die. We see that as a new platform comes out like a mobile device and suddenly you've got games that if you ripped their skin off would basically be the same model of game mechanics that we were playing 20 years ago on devices plugged into our televisions. So, yeah, I think that the mechanics will hold up and the story, the art, the presentation of it is what makes it modern and in that sense I think people will be quite pleased with it.

On the subject of the presentation: the first Alice was very darkly presented, lots of black and white with red pervading through, but playing Madness Returns today we've seen that there's a lot of colour and vibrancy to the game. Was it a deliberate move to bring more colour into the game?

We certainly wanted to have variety, we wanted things of value that people took away from the game. I think that it was something in the first game that kept people going, that from hour to hour there was a lot of diversity. It may have not had the same range of colour to it, but it certainly had a architectural and design diversity as you moved through these different domains that kept people interested. I know certainly for me that when I'm playing a game the more it does to break up the presentation of a world, even in the presentation of a city where they've got the rundown section of town versus the business district, even that can help to keep someone in a game because they're not seeing the same brown environments over and over. So I think that people are really going to get a lot out of Madness Returns because of how much diversity is in the game.

How has Alice as a character evolved since the first title?

So we pick up with her after she's left the asylum and by the time we meet up with her a year has passed while she's been living in London, so she's grown up a bit. There's definitely a change in the way she's holding herself. We get to see her on the streets of London and you notice that people give her a wide berth, they get that there's something a little off. There are people trying to help her and people trying to take advantage of her because of who she is and what she's been through. She's still struggling with one big change which is the way that she interfaces with the real world. She's already proven that she can overcome the psychological problems that she had in the asylum, she's the master of her domain psychologically, but she's still trying to master reality, the world in which she lives from day to day. So as I think as you play through the game the biggest change you're going to see is that by the end of it she ought to master reality outside of her mind.

Is perceptions of reality and how we interface with reality, is that something that's captured your imagination as far as games development?

There's a bit of self-referential commentary going on with the gameplay mechanics because it is presenting a concept of reality within a gaming environment which is a recreation of reality. On top of that [you have] another level further into this girl's mind as a character in another reality she's created in the form of Wonderland. I think that gaming, as an art form, has a little bit of an ability to explore that concept of the differentiation of our experience of everyday: what is real, what isn't real, what is sane and what is insane. Certainly there are some layers that delve into that and for me it's a very interesting topic. Gaming holds some hope for people to be able to subsume themselves into it and get away from the thing that we know as reality outside and create a new existence where the concepts of consuming things in the real world or driving to work every day or the way in which we interact with each other change quite radically and could potentially change the world for the better.

Where do you stand on the ongoing debate regards games as art or not?

There are some films that are art and some films that are just pure visceral fun, and I think the same thing goes for many different forms of expression. Often times the creator, whether or not they want to label themselves as an artist, is more to the point of whether or not a thing is or isn't [art]. I think for us, we do feel like that Alice as a franchise is an opportunity to have a much more literary perspective on how games present themselves, it's much more story-driven. Artistically, it's obviously a world very heavily driven by the art presentation, but, you know, not all games have to be that way. Some games are just there for fun.

In the last few years we've seen a lot more literary influences on games, things like Dante's Inferno and Metro 2033, for example, as two titles that source the literature heavily. How do you see that transition from other sources to gaming, and how do you rate how successful you've been with Alice so far as compared to other games attempting something similar?

I think that as the industry matures and the technology used to make the games matures, it just opens up more time for people to spend focusing on the creative [aspect] of the product or the presentation of the product, whereas a decade or 20 years ago the limitations imposed by the technology and the tools we're using to create [games] often meant you couldn't spend as much time to try and create something that was so narrative-driven or so artistic. So I think we're going to continue to see that standard increase, that artists are going to have more freedom because the tools that they're using to create these things are going to become even easier to use.

We're seeing a lot more narrative branching in games now where the stories really expand on the choices you make. Is that something you're interested in exploring in the future?

Yeah definitely, I think it's a really fun space, not just that the story expands for a single-player experience but the idea that other players networked into your game - you know, Demon's Souls - they could have an impact on the gameplay experience even though they weren't working directly with you and you weren't communicating with them directly. I think there's a lot of exploration of stuff like that that's potentially out there. You just have to give it some time and see how it evolves and goes. The biggest limitation is the market and market pressure for something like that so it's hard for developers to experiment when they have to get their bread and butter and, you know, make games that sell. But I think that it will happen and we will see more of it.

Great - thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.

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