It’s safe to say that in New Zealand “Brand 'Me'”, or the cult of the self, is a concept that – like our namesake – just doesn’t fly. Individuals who bluster or grandstand make us uncomfortable; we prefer instead the Hillary-esque quiet achievers.
Very few Kiwis would consider penning an autobiography. Fewer still would attach their own name before all others to anything less than a herculean individual effort.
We don’t go to the movies to watch “Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings” and marvel at Richard Taylor’s special effects. We prefer the inclusive plural down here.
So when approaching an interview on the sequel to “American McGee’s Alice” – a game that’s derivative of Lewis Carroll’s works, no less – it’s fair to say we had some preconceptions about the kind of individual who would be sitting across from us.
Happily, we couldn’t have been more wrong. American McGee is polite, attentive and articulate. In an all-too-brief encounter in London, we discussed Alice: Madness Returns, the imminent sequel to the 2000 cult gaming classic, and what the future holds for his new Shanghai-based studio, Spicy Horse.
Gameplanet: Alice: Madness Returns is split between Wonderland and Victorian England, how do these two settings interact and what’s the divide between them?
American McGee: In the first game there was just Wonderland. But in the second game because the question now is who killed her family or what killed her family – it’s a murder mystery – she now has to spend some time on the streets of London interacting with characters relevant to that question.
At the same time, we know people aren’t playing the game because they want to run around in Victorian London, so you only spend about 10 per cent of your time there, interacting with some of these characters. The rest of the time she’s once again using Wonderland as a kind of tool by which she’s able to piece together the events of that night that led to the death of her family. So all the fantasy and all the wonder is presented each time she lapses back into Wonderland.
Gameplanet: Does the game adhere to the tenets of action-adventure? Will Alice be facing down a final boss, or manifestation, for example?
McGee: Well, there is the occasional boss encounter, and of course in this murder mystery there is a need for her to work her way towards her nemesis, whatever that may be, and of course there is a final confrontation with that character.
We’re able to do some fun stuff where that confrontation splits back and forth, moment to moment between London and Wonderland because unlike the first game where the battle was purely psychological, this is actually an instance of where she fights for control not only of her mind but also her physical destiny.
So we do have those classic battles, but we’ve also got some sections in there that are kind of send-ups of the idea of the boss battle! They’re actually quite funny, but you’ll need to play the game to see those.
Gameplanet: Yeah, on the subject of sending-up videogame convention, and as Alice’s art direction is a strong development lead, what’s your take on the “videogames as art” debate?
McGee: I think they can be. But I also think it’s a question of what the intention was when the person or team set out to create that title. 2D artwork is translated into 3D artwork. Sound and music are clearly art in their own rights and you see these translated into a game. If all the constituent pieces that make a game can be art then the final product can also be art. But again, it’s all about the intention of the designer or designers when they set out to make the thing.
With Alice we certainly feel that there’s a very artistic bent to the presentation of the product, but that’s not to say all games must be art!
Gameplanet: Do you think Lewis Carroll would approve of your games?
McGee: I do, and I also think that he would have approved of games in general as a medium for expression. Over the years we’ve heard a lot of feedback about the original game from a lot of people I really respect in music and film – and in gaming – that this is one of the most true interpretations of Wonderland and of those stories. Even though it’s a very dark interpretation, we’ve always tried to remain very true to the characters that came out of the books. Then, by virtue of inserting this death in Alice’s family, to create a schism – a new alternate line of reality – but still not push that so far that someone looking at the books and looking at that event would question whether or not this could reasonably be the Alice that ends up after [Carroll’s books].
Gameplanet: What other classics would you like to get your hands on?
McGee: Well, the studio’s done a series of games based on the Brothers Grimm fairytales which we had a lot of fun with, and we found a lot of material there that we think we could turn into other pieces of intellectual property. Just recently we released an iPad book called Akaneiro which is based on Little Red Riding Hood, and we’ve been thinking of ways that we might bring that into the free-to-play online space – maybe a Diablo-style top-down dungeon explorer – using that piece of IP that we’ve created.
Going forward I’m sure there’s a couple more fairytales that we’ll explore. But at the same time, in our studio there are a lot of creative voices that are trying to come up and get heard, and there are a lot of great ideas! So the next couple of years [at Spicy Horse will be] focused on a wide range of games, but all of them in the download, free-to-play, online and mobile platforms.
Gameplanet: Will this be Alice’s last outing?
McGee: It’s something that between the development team and EA we’ll probably explore, after this one has been given a chance to go out into the world and see how it does. We’ve certainly left hooks in the narrative that will allow for a fairly easy transition into new games. The first game was Alice confronting a psychological space and the second game is really about her mastering the realm of reality, the physical space.
Were we to do a third game, there’s a marriage between these two that I think almost elevates her to a superhero-like ability. So there’s a lot of fun possibilites as to what we could do with a “powered-up” Alice, who is able to move seamlessly back and forth between those two planes of existence!
Alice: Madness Returns is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in June. Read our hands-on preview.