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Thursday, 26 May 2011 14:16

Interview: American McGee on Alice Madness Returns


In a world of Space Marines, why would a company bring a video game to the world with a little girl as the main protagonist?  Well Alice is no push-over and as developer Spicy Horse CEO and Senior Creative Director American McGee along with Art Director Ken Wong point out in this discussion sometimes creative people need creative worlds to explore.

iTWire sat down with Ken Wong (Art Director) and American McGee (Senior Creative Director and CEO) of Spicy Horse to discuss their new work Alice: Madness Returns.  We thought it apt to begin by asking how in a world of space marines why Alice?

American McGee: 'you have answered your own question, it is a world of space marines and my entrance into this industry was actually through space marines, Doom, the penultimate space marine game, and then we did Quake which was another space marine, and so after making a few space marine games, I kinda had the sense that we needed to do more by stretching the technology creatively.  When EA asked me originally to go off and create an idea for a new game, I think they were thinking 'hey, he's going to go off and make a space marine game for us.'  But it struck me you could do something fantastic with Wonderland, because it so surreal, because of the possibilities.  For me it is an ideal world in which to create a game, and it turns out, that as a character, she is a really compelling as a video game character.'

iTWire: Is it because of your team and technology advancements that enable you to realise the dream of the original game [American McGee's Alice was released on PC in 2000] some ten years on?

AM: 'I actually think this is the ideal version, and like the first what we have seen is that this team has come together, you have so many people with so much energy and creative ideas , pouring all that energy and enthusiasm into the game,  one of the things that makes working on Alice really pleasurable is that it is a really inspiring thing to build, there are so many things you can do with it.  Technology has moved on, but it is not a technology showcase, there is a lot of really nice technology in there but, it's a creative showcase, for Ken and the artists.'
iTWire: Does working in Wonderland free up many constraints during development?

Ken Wong: 'Well I am happy not to be working on space marines, there are only so many flavours of space marines and it seems like there is an audience that likes to see this year's space marine and what new do-hicky they have on their gun , but for someone that is creative, interested in art, interested in story, Wonderland is an exceptional place to be working in, anything goes, you are working on a psychological level, exploring ideas and themes and putting them into landscapes and characters and figuring out what is in Alice's mind.  So you don't get to do that so much in games, and I wish we could do that more.'

'There's a lot for gamers to look forward to, and a lot for ordinary people to look forward to in our game.  Some people they don't dig the space marine thing, and aren't interested in shooting Iraqi civilians over and over again, this is something different, whether it's just popping her head off, and rolling around the environment or growing giant and squashing five guards under her feet, or shrinking to get through a keyhole we think that offers something different.'



iTWire: Two generations have been brought up on the Disney version of Wonderland.  But you guys are extending the imagery and drawing upon Wonderland as the incarnation of Alice's troubled mind.

KW: 'I think audiences are going to find our version just as fresh, just as interesting.  It all comes back to the story of a girl exploring her imagination.'

iTWire: Are you drawing a connection with a stereotypical video-gamer in that loner aspect, lost in a world of make believe?

AM: 'One thing to keep in mind though is that it is Alice's imagination fuelling all this.  One of the things that is so appealing about her as a character is that she has this incredible super power to create a psychological landscape which she uses to solve the problems she is having in real life, which she may have internalised.  So the analogy to a gamer is a little off because a gamer is sitting on a sofa playing through someone else's dream, in effect, Alice's dream.  In that sense she has a power about her, that is not her alone, it is her plus all the voices and characters inside her head.'
iTWire: Speaking of power, you have managed to empower Alice, a female character, without over sexualising her as is normal in video-game land.

AM: 'It is important to think about it not as Alice as a female, it is just Alice is a strong character, and I think this is something in gaming in general that often gets neglected.  If we go back to the stereotypical space marine, they end up being shells piled with guns and do-hickeys, so they are really nothing more than a way to carry things to blow things up with.  Alice is appealing, because whether she was male or female, she's got something in her that we empathise with, we understand her and look at her as if she is a real character as we would if we were watching a film, and that's pretty rare.  So when you see a game that manages to do that, to create empathy and emotion between the character and the people who are playing it, that game sells like crazy.  So it goes back to the truism that a good story is always good.'

iTWire: As game developers, this is your craft, for you in particular American, does seeing this game reach reality make up for the times when creations don't make it across the line, such as the ill-fated Bad Day L.A?

AM 'Well Bad Day L.A was interesting, well certainly getting to make another game is great, and hopefully this game won't suck, but at another level, we are just going to work each day right?  We have to work within the limitations of what we have got and Bad Day L.A is a good example of where we were extremely limited, unbelievably small budget,  a team that was massively disincentivised to do anything at all creative or quality, it was really broken environment, but we can't but that on a sticker on the box, and say 'hey, we tried our best'.  But for the both of us, there were a lot of experiences, and a lot of learning that came out of that, for me I've noticed that failure, a lot of times, is the best teacher you could ever have.  So we came away from that catastrophic failure with a goldmine of knowledge about how not to do things, and how we wanted to build a studio that was going to be really great, with great culture, and we have, we have turned that around and now we have a studio that is one of the best studios in the world.  Not necessarily because of the capabilities of the people, but the phenomenal culture we have built, highly integrated ex-pat and Chinese community inside the studio, a lot of creative freedom for them, a lot of quality of life that comes out of there, that is one of the funny things, people say 'oh you guys went off to China to take advantage [of the labour costs]', but they don't get the quality of life we are able to give ourselves as well as the people working in the studio.'

KW:  'That was the first game I worked on and Alice wouldn't be the game it is today if I hadn't gone through'¦ ' American chimes in '..yeah, we wouldn't be in Shanghai, we wouldn't have made Alice.'



iTWire: With all the wacky character design that has gone into the game, did anything hit the cutting room floor?

KW:' Am I allowed to talk about the book? ' 

AM: ' Sure, the books out.'

KW:'A lot of the ideas that were not used, in art form at least, were collected in book form by Dark Horse, The Art of Alice: Madness Returns, and you can see in that, and we have notes explaining why certain things were cut.   There is enough stuff in there for two or three more games, ultimately there were reasons for those cuts, and what it left was the stuff that was strongest and really applicable to this story.  We could go on designing Wonderland for ever and ever, it is such a rich source.'

AM:''¦that book is filled with 90 per cent of stuff we didn't use!  There was enough of that, that you can create a giant art book with it.'
iTWire: What about the combat elements? The variety of enemies, the cinematic pause for effect and so on, can you tell me about the thinking behind the combat in the game?

AM: 'There is one guy that was really critical to the combat design, the Creative Director on the game, Ben Kerslake, another Aussie from Melbourne, Ken and Ben knew each other from way back.  We hired him on as a concept artist, and he quickly elevated himself to Creative Director at the studio.  The result was a really lot of strong ideas about how the combat should work.  In the first game it was quite one dimensional, and we knew we needed to make it a lot better, so he was looking at stuff like Zelda where you have weapons that work against specific enemies in a certain way and not so well against others.  What he wanted to do was create this sense of, you have to have the right strategy, right combination of weapons and rhythm to defeat these enemies, or at least efficiently, that was something he did a great job on.' 

You can read the hands-on with Alice: Madness Returns here.

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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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