American McGee on bringing Alice's madness back

At a pre-TGS event, EA demonstrated gameplay of Alice: Madness Returns, with a segment in real-world London transitioning to a Wonderland in which Alice used a pepper grinder as a Gatling gun, fighting weird baby-doll monsters and giant teapots that spat boiling tea.

After bearing witness to the return of the madness, we chatted with American McGee, head of developer Spicy Horse, about the new game, his name as a brand, and, of course, the other recent reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, courtesy of Tim Burton.
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Joystiq: So are you excited to finally show the game?

American McGee: Yeah, it's really great. It's good to be back. It's been 10 years and so much has happened in gaming since the first one. As you saw today we've got a lot of really cool stuff to show, and we think the audience is really going to like what we're building.

So how long has the game been in development?

We can't talk about specific timelines. All I can say is that we're pre-alpha still, and we're launching in 2011, so I think you could say in the sense of the story and the idea for this, we've been thinking about it since the first game. In terms of the actual development timelines, we're not talking about it.

The first game's concept was Alice but "dark and twisted." Is there a different sort of theme that you're exploring in the sequel?

I think compared to the first game, where it was a given that it was a psychological adventure, in this one we're really playing that up by having the contrast between Wonderland and London, so you're actually getting to see the real-world Alice and the real effect that these events are having on her; while at the same time she goes into Wonderland and takes on this sort of superhero persona.

In Wonderland, she's invincible, practically. I mean she's extremely strong and confident -- she's got all these powers. But when you come back to London, you start to see the real person: who she is and the struggle that she's having. Being able to see that contrast in the character is probably one of the biggest defining things about this product that makes it more interesting.


Does she perceive Wonderland as a real place, or does she think she's in some kind of delusion?

We're not going to get into that because it sort of goes into the core of what's happening, the experience.

How did she end up back in Wonderland?

You know in the first game, she was in there the entire time, sort of working through these psychological problems. In the second game, we're sort of building up the idea that she thinks she's free of this; she's free of the traumatic experience of her past that led her there in the first place. But as you've seen in the hands-off demo that we had today, Wonderland starts to sort of re-invade her reality; so in a sense, she's sort of pulled back into it.

"Where I have wanted to explore and to push and to try new things is actually in the storytelling." - American McGee

But you have to keep in mind that anything that's happening to her in Wonderland is in fact a function of her own psyche, so you could say that as problems emerge in her real life, this is where her psyche goes to seek sanctuary, and then work through those problems.

It's been ten years since the first game. Do you see the American McGee's Alice brand as something that could still be fresh for gamers today?

Well, I think you're looking at two different audiences. One are the fans, and they are very rabid. I mean they are very, very interested in this, and they've maintained and kept this flame alive from the original game. We think we're looking at a new audience as well: you know, gamers who didn't experience the first. But we're seeing a lot of interest from that as well, and I think that has to do with the quality of the product that we're presenting, and the variety in the gameplay experience.

I mean, when you set this up against other games, there is something really special about Alice and about Wonderland, and about the appeal that that IP has and in the way that we're presenting it -- there's a tremendous amount of variety in there that I think is going to appeal to gamers in general.

Is there anything specific from the last ten years of game design that you've wanted to add to this experience?


I think game design ... you have to kind of look at where people have made a leap. There's been a few, but I'd say a lot of the core mechanics, they always are kind of there. So long as the interface remains the same, you're always going to have similar core mechanics, right? (I mean, the Wii came along and they changed up the whole interface mechanic, so then they could open up all new avenues of game design.) We're still relying on a lot of those core ideas, but we've refined and tuned them in a way that I think makes them interesting as many games these days have done.

But where I have wanted to explore and to push and to try new things is actually in the storytelling. and also in the character of Alice herself. If we've brought anything I'd say really different to the table, it's in the story of Alice; who she is, and then the journey we're going to take the player on in the narrative.

Is it a function of new technology that you're able to tell a story in a different way?


You know, I actually think that it has to do with the audiences that we're talking to getting more and more comfortable with the conceits of storytelling in games. The challenge, I think, with gaming storytelling is that you've got this fourth wall, as you do in film, but you've automatically broken it by virtue of the controls that you have to engage in in order to get into the game. You really want to make the gameplay experience as subtle and sublime and unobtrusive as possible, and once you've done that, then you've also got to get those traditional storytelling mechanics to work in the same way that they do in a film -- so that you're not aware of it; it's just happening.

I think we're pushing all of that as much as we can. We're relying on a lot of the lessons that have either been learned or taught by games that have come since, and also looking at what gamers have come to expect in terms of storytelling in games these days.


We assume you've seen the recent Disney/Tim Burton Alice movie?

Sure.

What did you think about that?

I thought it was a collection of really good ingredients -- each individual piece was quite nice. I wasn't a big fan of how they combined them together, and I think that Alice is and always should be about Alice as a main character. And I think one of the biggest problems i had with the film was that it really sort of diluted the focus to a lot of different main characters; and so it was really sort of difficult to tell who the hero in that story is.

When you look at our game, it's very, very clear that Alice is the hero -- this is her story. And i think that that is something that is very important when you're telling a story in Wonderland about Alice.

Speaking of heroes, is "American McGee" still a marquee title on the game? Is it still "American McGee's Alice?"

I appreciate you think that I'm a hero, but the decision on that hasn't been made yet.

Is the "Madness Returns" subtitle, is that part --

Yeah, it's Alice: Madness Returns, absolutely.

Whether or not it's "American McGee's Alice" ...

Remains to be seen.


So, one last question -- kind of a weird one: We noticed that it seemed like extra special care had been taken to animate Alice's hair. What's going on there?

It's not animated. It's all dynamic -- it's real-time. It's quite a feat of technology. There's a guy on our team named Milo Yip, who is from Hong Kong; really, really good at this kind of physics and material technology. So he went in there and built this entire system for cloth and hair in the game, which we think is actually really special.

Was that something that just came along as a result of having Milo on the team, or was it always a goal to have extremely realistic hair?

Again, it's a game about Alice as a main character. We really wanted to sell her, and the beauty of her and the strength of her -- and everything about her just being as present and real as possible on screen. So we had it in our minds very, very early on that she as a character could be very dynamic in the world. We had to see a lot of change occur on her and in her clothing, in her hair; so there's stuff we haven't even revealed yet in terms of how these elements on her person change over the course of the game. Once the product is released you'll see that and more of it.

You're planning for a 2011 release?

It's 2011: PC, PS3 and 360.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.