Q&A: American McGee Returns to Alice’s Nightmare Wonderland
REDWOOD CITY, California — “I’ve kind of made a habit of taking children’s fairy tales and turning them into dark, twisted content,” says game designer American McGee.
He might be understating the case a bit. As creator of American McGee’s Alice and American McGee’s Grimm, he’s best known (and pointedly parodied) for dirtying up a story from our innocent childhoods, then slapping his name into the videogame’s title.With Alice: Madness Returns, McGee’s moniker is off the box, but the creative vision is unmistakable: It’s a creepy trip into a perverted Wonderland, where Alice is beset not by humorous anthropomorphs but nightmare visions. Electronic Arts will publish the game in 2011 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
At a press event last week hosted by publisher Electronic Arts, McGee and story collaborator R.J. Berg discussed what gamers should expect from this long-awaited Alice sequel.
Wired.com: I haven’t played the previous Alice. Are there any plans to bring it back as a downloadable game before the sequel comes out?
American McGee: It’s certainly endured with the fans. I think that there’s an audience for it, but at this moment we’re just focused on Alice: Madness Returns. Any bringing it back would be up to EA and EA Partners. R.J. and I were here as employees when we created the first Alice.
Wired.com: Since this will probably be many people’s first experience, I’m guessing you’re crafting the game in such a way that you don’t need to have played the original to enjoy it.
McGee: Yeah, but there’s a definite need for us to honor and answer to the existing audience, people who’ve been loyal fans to the property over the years. We’ve done our best to blend together into the story elements from the first game. This is a natural sequel, a narrative sequel to the first game. So we get back in there and people who know the first game are going to have a lot of reward in terms of seeing locations that they may have seen before, characters that they knew from the first game. But it’s certainly not a requirement, bringing this game to console for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 players, for them to have played the PC one.
Wired.com: Describe some of the gameplay mechanics.
McGee: For the first game, the idea was to make a solid platformer. The other tenets were the art, which at the time was really out there in terms of its ability to present art as a core of the experience. R.J. wrote the first game’s story, and he’s writing the story for Madness Returns. I think if you ask anybody about the way that story is presented in the title, you’ll find that that was one of the things that was really unique about it. At the time with PC gaming, the Half-Lifes and things like that hadn’t hit just yet. And so we felt, I think our audience felt, that we really nailed it in terms of how we delivered story and got the player immersed in the game.
Coming back now to the story in Madness Returns, we’re once again focused on these things: really good story, solid third-person platforming gameplay, adventure, action, exploration and puzzle solving.
Wired.com: You bring up an interesting point, because after Alice came out there was a revolution in game storytelling. What do you do differently now that you have to clear a higher bar for people who’ve played BioShock, who’ve played Half-Life?
R.J. Berg: I don’t think that we’ve looked upon them as necessarily raising the bar so much as expanding people’s acceptance of what they could do on a console. We are extremely impressed with BioShock, for instance. Still, we thought that by basing our game on such a strong intellectual property, and Alice being such a deep and rich font of intellectual property, that we were already stretching out the sense of action-adventure, and maybe one that was not particularly well-suited 10 years ago. Whereas now, with something like BioShock, Half-Life, games that have really improved our notion of what you can do, what kind of deep story you can tell on that platform, we’re pretty confident that our audience will come right along with us. We’re pretty happy about this direction.
Wired.com: I just finished reading the book Extra Lives, and now my head is filled with big words: It reminded me of Clint Hocking’s blog post about ludonarrative dissonance in BioShock, how the gameplay and the narrative can go out of whack with each other. Is that something you’re concerned about?
McGee: Well, I think his idea of dissonance is that it made the entertainment experience so jolting, so shocking. In the first Alice, we were playing with narrative shocks and twists, and they obviously hit home with people who played the game. In Madness Returns, it’s much more of the same and then some.
I think that storytelling, which is R.J.’s forte, doesn’t necessarily need to catch up to anything, it’s that the technology has to be applied in a way that honors the story you want to tell and doesn’t cause a disconnect from the audience. You want to find a balance between this thing that is game and this thing that is story. That’s the truth of it — you’re not letting these pieces get in the way of each other unless, in the instance of BioShock, you’re turning something on its head for the key purpose of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this whole time I’ve been in this thing and this thing has been talking to me.”
Wired.com: A lot of people have nightmares about their teeth falling out, as we saw in that teaser trailer. Are you trying to play on our common fears?
McGee: Well, the title is M-rated. The first Alice was actually EA’s first M-rated game. We are trying to seek common horror — not that it’s simple or expected, but instead of being that in-your-face cliché horror, we’re trying to go for a much more psychological, deep, disturbing horror. The kind that would juxtapose something like the blood and the teeth and this beautiful girl to try to create — that is a dissonance that you’re trying to pull up.
And the game is filled with that, actually. As you move through the environments, you’re going to find elements of the art that are one moment comforting, because these are things that have all been born out of Alice’s experiences in her life, and at the same time disturbing because they’re set against this thing that’s coming into this environment that would normally be her sanctuary, her psychological sanctuary, and screwing everything up. At its core is the idea of going mad. That’s really at the center of this, probably the most frightening thing.
Wired.com: Have you gone up against things that you couldn’t put in the game because you’d get an Adults Only rating?
Berg: No, we knew we were making an M-rated game. That just gave us a play area to work with. There was never any temptation to go over the top to get that kind of rating. The thing that was most important to American and me was that we always be true to our idea of her — what she experienced, what she imagined, what she dreamed about — was it credible? We’re looking for people to appreciate this vibrant, courageous, troubled young woman hero character. But we really almost insist that you come along with all of your notions, all of your imagination, everything that you’ve ever thought about how Alice would live her life. It was just important that we not try to, for the sake of shock or otherwise, do something that violated our sense of who she grew up to be.
McGee: I think if we had, in the first game, violated that sense of who that character was, pushed it too far, pushed it in any direction for the wrong reasons, we would not have seen that kind of response that we did. So many people, people we respected, our audience who we obviously respect, came back and told us that they thought this was the truest adaptation of the story that they’d ever seen. I think that really says a lot about the sensitivity with which we approached it.
Wired.com: Alan Moore, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, touched on the idea of what happens when you come back from Wonderland. How it changes you.
Berg: You’re into something critical and something that I’m afraid we can’t really talk about right now.
Wired.com: Are there puzzles?
McGee: Absolutely. We thought that was an important element of the first game, and in Madness Returns it’s there, and it’s there in some ways that are new. New and old. We’re seeing this revival — we saw it today in Dead Space: Ignition, the side-scrolling 2-D presentation of arcade gameplay on the console. We’re finding ways to pull ideas like that into the game as puzzles, and also ideas that come more naturally out of the fiction like chess and cards. It certainly was a big piece of what made the first game fun and we’ve brought it back with some new thinking and some new ideas.
Wired.com: Is there pressure to make it more marketable — add an online multiplayer death-match mode?
McGee: Well, we didn’t do that. This is very much focused on the strongest and best single-player narrative game that we can make. You know, I think we’ve all seen examples of projects where that should have been the case, and it wasn’t, and you can see where the quality kind of falls off. We’ve been really fortunate in having EA Partners as a creative partner, understanding that this is a title that needs room and space and time as a single-player narrative presentation to be just that.
Wired.com: Is Wonderland supposed to be a happy place for Alice that’s gotten perverted?
McGee: In both games, that’s been the theme. This is in fact a sanctuary. It’s a place that is made up of experiences that she’s had throughout life. And we always are striving to be true to that. Whatever she sees or experiences in Wonderland has to be derived from something that she might have seen or experienced in real life. That’s a really fun constraint, actually, because trying to find the surreal or trying to find the horror requires that you actually work within that idea. It always ends up being that the results are really nice.
But yes, from a basic perspective she’s always trying to return Wonderland to its more normal state. Keep in mind that this is a character who has dealt with some very dark issues in her life, so it’s always going to inform the place as she’s seen it, even when she’s returned it to so-called normal.