Interview: American McGee talks about Alice: Madness Returns

Eleven years after gamers were first introduced to American McGee’s take on Alice in Wonderland, the game maker is back with a sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, due for release by EA on Windows PCs, PS3 and Xbox 360 next month. The game has been made by McGee’s Spicy Horse studio, which is based in Shanghai.

Alice: Madness Returns sees Alice released from the asylum that kept her captive at the end of the first game but she is still haunted by the death of her parents and returns to Wonderland. I spoke with American McGee and Ken Wong from Spicy Horse about the new game when they were both in Australia last week.

GC: Gentlemen, it’s nice to speak to you both.

AM: Yeah, it’s nice to speak to you as well.

GC: American, if we can start with you. It’s been 11 since the original Alice game what can we expect to have changed in the world over that time?

AM: Obviously it’s changed a lot in terms of visuals, which Ken can speak to, and also in the scope and the scale of the game which has grown quite a bit, but in terms of the core of what made the original game so attractive to so many people, we actually kept a pretty classic approach to exploration, combat and platforming are all there but with a different tone in the story telling and puzzle solving. But at the same time we tried all this time to try and listen to the fans to tell us what they love most and also some of the things that they loved not so much and that allowed us to update things like combat, for instance, which in the first game at lot of people felt was a little bit too one dimensional, so the combat this time around … there’s a definite strategy on how you apply your weapons and your timing against specific NPCs. So that’s one areas that’s received quite a lot of attention but I think that people who played the first game are going to find that the formula that was there with the first is still there, only it’s been improved across the board.

GC: American, I know that in Madness Returns you revisit Wonderland but also visit Victorian England. Is the game a lot darker than the original was? I mean in tone?

AM:  The thing you have to remember about Wonderland is that it all springs forth from Alice’s imagination so we had a rule during development that what we saw in Wonderland had to be something that we could reasonably expect would have come from Alice’s mind. I mean, it had to be something that she drew upon from her real life experiences so I’d say that the tone isn’t more or less dark, I mean, it’s a continuation of what she saw in the first game, though the new threat to Wonderland … there’s something else attacking Alice, attacking Wonderland … I would say that it was much darker in many respects than what was threatening her the first time around. The first time around it was all potentially about her losing her mind, going insane. This time around there’s a real world component to it, as you said in London and that spills over to potentially affect characters other than Alice and so that horror’s kind of spread out and I think in that way when people finally see what it is that’s happening I think they’re going to definitely feel that this is a much darker game in that sense.

GC: Had you ever wanted to make a sequel to Alice earlier than now or did you feel that now was the right time to do it?

AM: Well, we knew that there was sequel potential in there, even as we were developing the first, but the timing for this was really just about right place at the right time. I had left EA and travelled the world, then met up with Ken shortly after going independent. Then Ken and I moved to Hong Kong and made some games there and we moved to Shanghai and once we’d established the studio in Shanghai and the capabilities became apparent we realised that there was an opportunity there to talk to EA about a sequel. So really it was just a question of timing.

GC: As you said, you left EA for a while then did the independent route. Did you feel that you grew as a developer during that stage?

AM: Yeah sure. I mean this study that we built in Shanghai is pretty unique in that it required a lot of growth, not just about in the sense of how we go about making the games but also having had to move to China, and the culture and learn the language. We had to learn the ins and out of setting up a business there and so I’d say for me, personally, it’s been a tremendous growth experience and apart from moving to the moon or something I don’t think you can pick a more challenging thing to do. And out of that challenge, of course, there’s always growth.

Ken Wong: And I think for us as a studio, American has been the leader of all of us and for some of us this is our first or second game and he’s really bought his considerable experience to the table and really taught us a lot about what he’s learnt. I think it’s a really unique studio where we have about 50 per cent Chinese employees and made a really interesting game in a really interesting city.

GC: American, what do you think Louis Carroll’s take would be on your take of the character that he created? Do you think he’d approve?

AM: That’s a really interesting question. I think first of all Carroll would have loved video games because of the possibilities available there. It was clear that in his writing that he was trying to stretch the possibilities of the medium that he was working in, which was print and when you look at the style that was present then he was really pushing boundaries in that sense, so I think for him to see an adaptation of that work in something as dynamic as a game, I think that he would appreciate it. The question of whether or not he would see the story progression that we’ve created as a natural one – that’s a tough call but I’ve heard a lot of people who are artists, musicians, film makers that I respect a lot who have said that they think that this is the truest interpretation of the fiction that they’ve ever seen and I think that means something. I think that it’s clear that we’ve tried to stay true to the original material while at the same time creating a branch that feels logical and meaningful.

GC: For you both, how does hearing people talk about your work like that make you feel?

AM: I think, like I said, the ideas really flow out of the characters that for me it’s always been about Alice and being true to her and so in some respects it’s almost automatic – she almost guides where we’re going and, sure, I think we feel good that we’ve built a product and it’s come in on time, and it’s looking great, and people enjoy it, but I think you have to look at the source material for some of the credit for what’s good about it. You also have to look at the team that’s built it. Of course, this isn’t a one-man operation – it is the imaginations of multiple people over two years so there’s a lot in there and a lot for people to feel proud about.

KW: The source material was so rich that often it wasn’t finding a solution but picking what of the many solutions that we could go with, where could we take this character, where do we take this one location from Wonderland and how can we interpret that and how has it evolved in the time that Alice has been away. It’s actually been a lot of fun to work with: Wonderland and Alice are just rich.

GC: It’s a hugely rich experience but for both of you, what drives you as game makers. What is it that gives you the direction you go in your games?

AM: That’s a complicated question At the most basic level it’s put food on the table (laughs), right? But beyond that, we have a lot of people in the team that are experimenters – they want to try new things and they want to push boundaries, and I certainly am in that place where I see games as a way to tinker, to try different things and so that’s one of the areas where I get a lot of pleasure but I think for each person in the studio they’re driven by different things and it’s been very clear for us in the development the personalities that have come out and who is driven by what. It’s a pretty broad question and I think it depends on who you talk to. I don’t know: what drives you, Ken?

KW: Well, what I enjoy at Spicy Horse is that it’s an environment that encourages us to buck the trend and look for things that haven’t been done before and that’s great for an artists and a creative as it’s a really good environment to work in. We try to keep things as egalitarian as possible and everyone is encouraged to volunteer their opinions and ideas. So that’s what drives me: I want to make unique games, games that have something surprising or something we haven’t seen before.

GC: Are games art? Do you think that games can be classed as an art form?

AM: The thing about the constituent pieces – each being art in themselves: the 2D art which becomes 3D art, the music the story, the narrative is as sprawling as a typical novel – is that when you start to put them together people start to question whether it’s art. I think it really comes down to the creator’s intent: I mean did the person who created the game believe that it was art? I think it depends on the game and what the creator was thinking about.

KW: In my thinking the term art is more relevant to scholars or journalists than to the artists themselves. I think us as creators we are simply making things for people to enjoy and consider, and in that sense I think we are making something expressive which has something to say about emotions and the way we interact with each other and you can compare that to books and film and what have you that are all considered art.

AM: I had some friends who went to the Biennale (in Italy) and they were there and they were walking around the galleries and came across this big pile of crates and cardboard boxes and they stood there admiring it for a while and were thinking ‘This is quite interesting. What does this mean?’ and finally the janitor came along and swept it away. Until someone told them it wasn’t art they were happy to stare at it so really it’s in the eye of the beholder and also maybe in the intent of the creator.

GC: Would you consider yourself a risk taker in the industry?

AM: Yeah, I think that in a lot of respects. Just picking up and moving to another country to start a studio is taking a risk ..

KW: Doing this game, in the country we have, with the team we have, was not the safest thing that we could have done. A safer thing would have been for us to work with an entirely Chinese team and make a very Chinese game.

AM: This was a team that had never made a console game before so we certainly took risks but I think in terms of the game design itself there are also some risks there and some of those risks we had to take out because we couldn’t prove them out, and I think that happens a lot in game development and of 50 ideas, maybe only 20 survive because 30 of them were risks that didn’t pay off.

GC: How do you hope gamers will receive Madness Returns?

AM: I hope they’ll each buy three copies! (laughs) That would be great. I think that the first game was hopefully a model for this one – and it still sells today quite well, it still has a following. I went to Japan for one of our shows and the press manager for EA Japan said “Alice looks great” and I said “Yeah, the new game looks awesome” and he said “No, no, the first game”. It’s still selling in Japan so I think there’s something enduring about the IP, about Alice in general. I just hope we’ve managed to once again listen to the characters and the world and let that come through in a way that will also endure in the same fashion.