Curioser and Curiouser: American McGee on Alice: Madness Returns

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For a generation of gamers, American McGee has more than a weird first name going for him. Ten years ago, the renowned game designer delivered American McGee’s Alice, a twisted vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story that caught up with a emotionally damaged Alice after her adventures in Wonderland. The game found huge financial success, selling a million copies back in the days when such feats were far less common. Alice went back to Wonderland after a great trauma and her journeys there stood as metaphors for the healing process. This angle–deeper than most games of the time–also helped push games as a medium capable of presenting mature and complex issues. McGee went to form several more development ventures, with the latest, Spicy Horse, crafting new games in Shanghai. Despite having done episodic treatments of classic fairy tales in the online game American McGee’s Grimm, it seemed like Alice was way back in McGee’s past.

Then, EA announced that McGee and Spicy Horse would be working on a sequel to Alice that’s set to release in 2011. At EA’s Studio Showcase, I had a chance to talk to McGee and his colleague R.J. Berg about revisiting Alice, the characters he tends to create and what he thinks of the FPS genre now.

So you’re back to Alice. Why is now the time for you to revisit this game that was so popular and so iconic earlier in your career?

American: Sure. Sure. Well, in the last 10 years a lot of history has past. R.J. and I were here back then, built the first game. And then, we went off away from EA. We had a lot of kind of interesting adventures. And in that time, we just weren’t just really ready to come back to it. It wasn’t until a few years ago I went to Shanghai and started up a studio there. And over a couple of years, the studio’s developed the capability to be able to come back and approach something like this. We introduced the studio to EA, and we thought now would be the time. And so, they agreed. And it made sense. And off we go.

(More on Techland: Through the Looking Glass: The Many Alices of Wonderland)

So did you always have Alice as a continuing story in mind from the first game?

American: We knew that the way we ended it didn’t close the door on the concept. And when we were here we certainly saw the ability to extend into a franchise idea that actually touched on lots of fairy tales, Alice included. So, yeah. Certainly, we’ve been continuing to think about that.

Your games tend to have outsider protagonists, whether it’s Scrapland or Bad Day L.A. and, of course, Alice who’s kind of the ultimate outsider. What is it that attracts you to that kind of character archetype?

American: Right. Well, it’s the classic anti-hero, right? And it’s something that I think, especially in games, sets up immediately a much more interesting way for the player to approach who that character is and kind of coming to terms with them. Especially in a third-person perspective game, you’re not trying to assume the role of the character that’s on screen. And so, typically, you want somebody there that the player can find a little bit to identify with but also a little bit to kind of want to stand back from, so that that character on screen always maintains some sense of themselves, their independence. And I think it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re dealing with that type of character archetype.

Do you feel like that’s a sense of, in terms of third-person versus first-person, where you are able to make Alice more kind of viscerally violent because you feel like, “All right. That’s not me doing that. It’s her”?

American: Well, for us the idea of sort of somehow cranking up the violence has never been one of the goals that we’ve had in presenting any of these stories.

Right.

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