Beautiful Madness: American McGee Talks Alice: Madness Returns
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11 years ago, Alice Liddell returned from Wonderland only to have her life torn into pieces. Her sanity was broken as a blazing fire consumed her home and family. Committed to an asylum, she retreated to the one place she could: Wonderland. But not all was well; twisted by her broken mind, Wonderland itself had fallen into chaos. However, Alice eventually saved Wonderland, escaping its twisted grasp and regaining a piece of her sanity.
Though her mind remained haunted by the fires of her past, she lived, stable, for ten years in a London orphanage. As time passed though, her memories began to surface, giving a clearer sense of the traumatic blaze that destroyed her past. However, as these memories returned, so did her madness, and Alice must once again dive into Wonderland.
Alice: Madness Returns sends Alice back down the rabbit hole into the dark of her subconscious. 11 years have past since her initial foray into the twisted depths of her mind, and now Alice must once again fight to save Wonderland. In preparation for Alice’s return to madness, Paste spoke to American McGee, the mind behind this twisted adventure about his influences, inspirations and of course, Alice.
Paste: The most well-known aspect of the Alice series is the twisted version of Wonderland. Could you tell us about reality in the game, and how Alice’s time in London outside of Wonderland will fit into the game?
American McGee: Reality plays a much larger role in this chapter of Alice’s adventures. Whereas the books and first game really focused on her internal psychological struggle, Madness Returns finds her struggling against more tangible, real world threats. At its core the narrative is a murder mystery in which Alice seeks to determine once and for all who or what was responsible for the death of her family. London is presented as a series of encounters with characters from Alice’s past – people Alice hopes might help her shed light on the mystery. These meetings take places across a wide variety of London locations, all inspired by historical reference to real places.
What is the most difficult thing about creating an alternate universe?
McGee: For this project the key is listening to the main character, Alice. This being her story, and an alternate reality created from her imagination, the critical rule is that everything flow naturally from her. During production we adhered to the constraint that everything seen in Wonderland had to come from something Alice would have seen or experienced in real life. That constraint makes the job of creating surreal and horrifying locations more challenging but also more interesting. Anyone can create horror with blood and guts – but it takes some imagination to juxtapose Alice’s childhood memories against her experiences in the asylum to create the sort of psychological horror found in Madness Returns.
The original Alice was highly praised for its story and visual aspects, but less so for its gameplay. What have you done for the sequel to ensure that the game is engaging from both an artistic and gameplay standpoint?
McGee: We’ve really benefited from the 10+ years of feedback from fans of the original game and have used their input to drive improvements. Many aspects of the “original formula” were left alone, but combat is one area where the system was completely rebuilt. Enemies now present themselves as “mini-puzzles”, each requiring a specific application of weapons and rhythm in order to defeat them efficiently. But we’ve also included a mode for novices which allows a simplified hack-and-slash approach to much of the combat.
When you created the original Alice, it was a departure from the tired “space alien combat” genre. Now that unique and intriguing games are significantly more commonplace—take BioShock for example—how have you expanded and evolved your game design process to adapt to the current age?
McGee: In many ways the presentation of Madness Returns is designed to mirror the experience of the first game. We felt there was a classic combination of elements that audiences enjoyed then – and would still enjoy today. But we’ve also included new methods of storytelling, more varied types of game play, tons more characters and locations and a wide range of technical and artistic improvements. BioShock is a great example of a classic gameplay genre coupled with great art and story – a formula contained in both Alice games.