Alice: Madness Returns – American McGee goes back to Wonderland

The latest news:

Former id Software designer on how China inspired him to create a innovative game full of hidden depths

Astonishingly, it is nearly a century and a half since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first enthralled the general public with its hallucinatory charms, yet Alice’s allure remains undimmed. Last year’s Tim Burton film saw her reclaim her position at the centre stage of pop culture, and introduced her to a new generation. But it played things far too safe to satisfy true Wonderland aficionados – surprisingly, given Burton’s surreal track record. Salvation, though, may be at hand, in the shape of Alice: Madness Returns, a game in which you get to navigate Alice through the pitfalls of Wonderland.

Alice: Madness Returns has a great pedigree, as well as an unusual provenance. It is actually a sequel, to the only previous Lewis Carroll-based game with any credibility, American McGee’s Alice, although the original came out in 2000. Its creator, the wondrously named American McGee, is a man whose status in the industry was forged as a high-profile member of the id Software teams that defined first-person shooters as we know them – McGee was a leading light on the Doom games plus Quake and Quake II.

To add another curve-ball to proceedings, despite his name, McGee is now based in Shanghai, and Alice: Madness Returns will be the first major western-published game created entirely in China. We caught up with McGee on a rare UK visit. So why resurrect Alice after a decade? “Well, there wasn’t a lot of planning to it. I had moved to Shanghai, and started a studio there, and it made sense at some point during the creation of the studio that it became capable of doing a sequel to Alice. It was never a case of: ‘Hey, it has been 10 years – let’s bring this thing back to life.”

Playing through a demo level confirms that the general format of the original game has survived a decade intact: it’s a third-person action-adventure, mixing platforming and combat, in which you play Alice and must traverse levels familiar in theme to followers of Lewis Carroll. Alice has melee and ranged attacks (she shoots bombs from a teapot) and can spawn clockwork white rabbits which explode after a while. Plus, she can shrink herself down, which also reveals hidden pathways.

McGee elaborates: “We thought there was a combination of gameplay elements that worked really well in the first game, but at the same time, we had the luxury of listening to the audience for 10 years. There were certainly issues about the gameplay: the combat system in particular, so that gave us an opportunity to improve it and put a lot more depth in there. But at its core, it’s still very much a narrative-driven game.”

“In each of the new domains Alice visits, we have a domain-specific ability. So, for instance, in the Queen’s domain, there’s a Giant Alice section, where she gets to eat some cake, stomp around and squish card-guards by the hundreds. There’s side-scrolling in the Oriental domain, which happens by way of these shadow-projection puzzles; it looks very much like a Mario throwback. We also have a section we call Off With Her Head, in the Dollhouse domain. There, she has her head transformed into the head of a doll, and it is popped off, then thrown into a sort of Marble Madness level, where it bounces along and encounters obstacles. I think that really helps to strengthen the variety, which is one of the core aspects of the game.”

Won’t a sequel to a 10-year-old game face accusations of being old-fashioned, though? “I think we may get that comment, but at the same time, I think these classic gameplay mechanisms that you now see re-emerging on mobile devices and in social games will live forever. Somebody who didn’t have the opportunity to play the first game might find it quite refreshing”

As might an Alice fan disillusioned by Tim Burton’s film? “It was funny: we started development long before that film was even announced, so they managed to announce it, get the thing done and launch it in a matter of a year. Meanwhile, we had been working on the foundation and prep-work for the sequel to the game for quite some time. Personally, I was disappointed with the way in which that film came off. The biggest failing, I thought, was that they didn’t focus enough on Alice as a character – it became this ensemble thing, with mainly Johnny Depp as the lead, although he was not that much fun to watch.”

American in China

As McGee tells the story of how he ended up in China, one thing becomes clear: despite the patriotic name, he isn’t exactly about to sign up for the Tea Party. He’s only half-joking when he says: “I was living in LA, and someone offered me the opportunity to move to Hong Kong to work on a game. George Bush had also just won his second election, and I had told all my friends that if he was elected again, I was going to leave, so those two things coincided. Although I knew the production in Hong Kong was a flawed one before I ever moved, I saw it as a good opportunity to get out to the region and get some experience in China.”

“So after two years in Hong Kong, I was bouncing up to Shanghai quite a bit with a friend to start up an outsourcing company there which was servicing the games industry doing art assets. When someone offered me a development deal for American McGee’s Grimm, I said: “I don’t have a studio,” but they said: “Don’t worry about it: go and build one.” So that was an amazing opportunity, and I jumped on it and took it to Shanghai, because by then I had developed some good connections there.”

Surely that must have involved some major culture-shocks? “I think probably the largest shock came not necessarily from the culture, but from the experience of leaving the US and moving to Hong Kong because, when I did that, I had a very “Burn it down” attitude. I literally sold everything I owned – my car, my house and my possessions – and all I was left with were two suitcases and a cat. That’s a very powerful experience, especially when we’ve been brought up in a culture that assigns so much value to possessions. It was very cathartic, though. Moving into China, of course there are challenges, but you get past them.”

Surprisingly, McGee argues that developing games in China isn’t necessarily cheaper, since he still has to adhere to international pay-scales, but what he likes most is the prevailing attitude: “It’s a very optimistic place to be these days. There’s a lot of innovation going on, a lot of change happening and a very blue-sky mentality, especially among the creative industries, because they are now, for the first time, inventing all-new markets, in all-new technologies, and all-new ways of accessing consumers, so that means you have a very young, dynamic creative and consumer culture there, which feeds directly into the culture inside the studio. It’s a nice place to be making games.” Meanwhile, in the west, optimism has never been in shorter supply. But at least Alice: Madness Returns should supply plenty of escapism.

• Alice: Madness Returns is due to arrive for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 17 June







Steve Boxer © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Slim PS3 is updated frequently per day with the latest Free Slim PS3 news and gaming reviews.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply