When you think about the iconic nature of Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland," you think about more than the author’s two landmark fantasy books. You think about "Alice"’s influence in games, everything from Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. to American McGee’s dark, psychologically infiltrating Alice, who’s changed forever after her house burns and her parents die. Alice sold over a million copies and became a collector’s item. Now, McGee, the game’s senior creative director, along with cohort and executive producer R.J. Berg, are talking about the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. We caught up with McGee and Berg to talk about all things Alice. Appropriately, we were ensconced in a room filled with luridly colored giant mushrooms. Eat me, indeed.
So many games have been inspired by the Lewis Carroll books. For you, how did that obsession and love come about for Alice?
American McGee: Back in the day when R. J. and I were here 10 years ago, I was asked (by EA) to come up with an original idea for a game. This one was inspired, oddly enough, by a song. I was driving along the California coast, and this bit of music came on with the word "wonder." As this song hit me, I thought "‘wonder" and "wonderland" and then "dark." It kind of spun from there.
What was the song?
AM: “Trip Like I Do” by The Crystal Method. The introduction to that is a sampling, talking about a dark crystal and the crystal split in this land of wonder. When I came back, I looked into it and found out this is a direct sample from the movie, "The Dark Crystal." But really, it was all about the word “wonder.”
So you fleshed the idea out?
AM: We began working on some story ideas and some concept art. Then it began to resonate so quickly inside of EA. The next thing you knew, they said, “Let’s go.” You know how hard it is to get an original concept off the ground. This one just took off.
Why was that? Did everyone just get it because Alice is so iconic?
R.J. Berg: I think that’s right. People have notions about character and the whole character set. They have a built in picture of the world. Everyone gets it. You can talk in a kind of shorthand about Alice in a way you can with few other fictional characters. The only charge that American had early on was that it could not be Disney. It had to move away. Well, that was no problem. His vision of the gameplay was in a world that had already morphed in a way that Alice’s mind had already begun to change.
How did that concept of dark madness come about? I wouldn’t say it’s a 180 from what we know as Alice. But it’s very different.
RJB: I think in the first instance we needed an initiating circumstance that was credible that separated her from her natural family and put her on her own and allowed the player insight into a young person who was trying to re-gather herself from her secure fantasy life -- and the darkness that comes from a loss of family and madness resulting from that loss.
So what were the challenges for that first game?
AM: Well, I think if you look back, games on the PC were fairly light on storytelling and in terms of art; they all tended to be in the world of brown. That still happens today. One of the challenges was to get the people immersed in the story and engaged with these characters in a meaningful and emotional way. The second challenge was to try to find a way toward turning the technology toward presenting a world that was much more surreal and colorful than what was normally seen back then. We rose up to it and the property rose up to it.
It is an ideal world for turning these technologies into engines for being surreal. That’s the same challenge we have today with the new game. Be true to these characters and also try to push the limits of the technology as much as possible with the presentation of the art.
I think the first trailer for the first game said, ‘toys become weapons…friends become foes.’ What were the real life inspirations for that?
AM: For me, I came out of the world of Doom and Quake. I had spent time out running around with Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Manson had some involvement in an early piece of music for the first Alice game. And at the time even in San Francisco, people were very much, I guess you could say, living on the edge. It was like the Sixties, but in a sense a revival of that in the dot com days with people going out and exploring. And Burning Man had just started to take off. We were taking inspiration from all of that -- the moment in San Francisco and the past that I’d had in Texas with id Software. And then of course a big part of it came from my childhood.
In the first Alice, some gameplay elements were supposedly put aside. For instance, the Cheshire Cat was going to be usable to help Alice out. Will some of those elements be employed in this new game, and what’s the story?
AM: (Laughter) I can tell you in Madness Returns we’re looking at the gameplay from the perspective of having now listened to the fans for 10 years as they’ve commented on the exploration, the puzzle-solving, and the action which is broken up into combat, sort of the platforming. So we’ve really come at it saying we want to re-present those things but kind of refine, but not really trying to reinvent anything. When it comes to pushing the envelope, that’s R.J., pushing the story forward and our art team, working with the technologists to push the art.
Are you looking to scare people? The teaser trailer I saw today is somewhat scary.
RJB: I hope it’s not a problem with vocabulary, but there is something horrific in her experience and in the way she processes that. It’s horrible in the sense that it’s so disturbing to her. It puts her in a place, a dangerous place. But I wouldn’t say our goal is to frighten people in the sense of "Scream" or "Friday the 13th." Our goal isn’t to shock. But there is something distinctly frightening about her situation.
When I watched her in that trailer, the blood, the look in her eyes, it reminded me of a book I wrote a few years ago about serial killers. I felt there was something ‘A Bad Seed’ about Alice. Is there something akin to that in the game?
RJB: (Nods) Keep that thought.
Not to demean it by putting it in a nutshell, but what was the pitch line you used when you came to EA both for the first game and Madness Returns?
RJB: When we pitched the original, all we really had to do was show people her holding the knife. They saw that and they said, ‘I get it.’ We did emphasize that there was going to be this psychological battle. That’s her natural battlefield. Her superpower is her ability to overcome obstacles by utilizing what’s happening within her mind, and that’s a pretty compelling power. And this time around, that was really all it took. We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go back into that space.’
RJB: They knew we had this new studio in Shanghai. They said ‘We loved what you did with this 10 years ago; let’s do it again and satisfy that audience and bring in a new audience who are dedicated console players.’
Why Shanghai? Is it a budgetary concern primarily?
AM: It was a girl.
It was a girl?
AM: It was a girl that I met here while we were working on Alice. And she eventually went to Hong Kong. And that had me going there to visit her quite frequently. I was being invited to the university there to speak on games. That became an impetus to move there to work on games. And then Hong Kong became the way into Shanghai where I met friends and had some business going on. We had an opportunity a few years ago with this Grimm game when we were approached by GameTap, who said ‘We want you to build something for us.’ I knew just how vibrant Shanghai was and knew the amount of talent there in terms of game production. It was just on the cusp. So much of the work there had centered on the outsourcing arena, but actual game development was just about to take off. We got our feet on the ground right at that perfect moment.
That’s great. Are you still with the girl?
AM: No. But she’s still a friend.
American, you mentioned that some of the first game was influenced by your experience as a kid. Is that in this game as well?
AM: Well, I think that that was a seed that helped in the germination of the idea. Like R.J. said, everything we’ve done since sort of establishing that initial path had to be true to the property and true to the character. Once we were past the formation stage, she was already on her own path. In a lot of ways, it’s always been our jobs to get out of the way or to find those things that are best about what we’re trying to say in the game. This is really Alice, and Alice’s story. A lot of the adaptations that we’ve seen go wrong because they don’t put enough emphasis on who she is, what she’s about, her life, her powers and her motivations. We’re sort of conduits for this now and it doesn’t need to be about my childhood.