Alice: Madness Returns - 'Zelda, BioShock and Half-Life are all influences'
25th Apr 2011 | 15:22
After 11 years in the asylum Alice has finally cracked - again. Fortunately for us that means we get another entry American McGee's unique Alice series to sink our teeth into.
We caught up with American (the name continues to be brilliant) to have a chat about Alice's legacy, what's new with the title, the future of the series and the video game industry in general.
What's the main difference with the this sequel?
Well it's a funny way to put the question in many ways we wanted to recreate a lot of the original by way of those game mechanics that the audiences really seem to love with the first, and the mixture of things like the adventure/action/platforming/puzzle solving, so in a lot of ways those things they remain somewhat unchanged, though we have added a lot more depth to many of them.
The combat was something with the first game where a lot of people kind of felt that it was very flat, it didn't have a lot of progression to it, of course this time we've add a lot more complexity and depth into combat but the story is the narrative sequel to the first though of course it's bringing new elements and asking new questions and she's seeking new answers but character-wise and especially her as a main character, the change is actually one that's quite small.
She's left the asylum at the end of the last game, a year has been spent while she's living in London and now she's confronting the question of what really happened on the night her family died, so it feels very natural the extension, the movement forward into this second product.
Are you happy about Alice's cult status?
Yeah, I mean, absolutely, we can see in the response that we've been getting and that we've continued to get after ten years that the product did establish itself a cult following.
I thought it was very funny when we were in Tokyo doing promotion that the product manager for Tokyo for Japan came up to me and said, "Oh Alice is really great," and I said, "Yeah, the new game is looking really awesome," and she goes "No, the first game, it's still selling in Japan," and so things like that are very clear indications that the first game really established itself in a unique position and we're quite happy to come back to it.
It's been, for us, nice to have been able to listen for ten years to the feedback from consumers and to adjust the product in ways that would address some of their concerns but at the same time, it's like I was saying, we've actually tried very hard not to radically change things so much that it became a product not of the original world and characters and style.
Given the age of the original Alice, do you consider it a product from a classic era of gaming? Should other games be more closely connected to the past?
I do think that there is something classic about the presentation in this and it was intentional, I mean we didn't want to have to go out and reinvent the wheel and potentially alienate and audience that were sitting there waiting for this sequel to come along and I actually think that these gameplay mechanics are, by their nature, sort of eternal you know, something that's fun about them as a core mechanic and then when we layer on top of that the aesthetic and the art presentation and the story and the characters, there was a real life in there and I think that, you know, for gamers of this generation and the games that they're playing, there's room to have both; a classically crafted product and also something that's non-linear and open world and trying to come up with new ways for the game player and story and that also includes something of what we've seen in this explosion of mobile platform games where these very classic old school mechanics are suddenly having all of this new life and interests in them so I think there's enough room and there's enough life left in them in those types of game mechanics that they hold that it'll work well.
Does that mean we'll have less of a wait for Alice 3?
Haha, that's the question to ask the EA people. It's hard to say.
Do you have ideas for where the series might go if you were given the opportunity?
Absolutely, from a thematic standpoint it was always the intention that in the first game that she ultimately overcame the psychological world, she overcame the world of her fantasy and in the second game, one of the core themes is that she's got to maintain or gain control of the physical space, the physical world of reality and were we to push forward into another title after this there's an opportunity there to show a blending together of those two things.
Can't go into a lot of the thinking behind it but certainly there are some thoughts about what we would do if we did another product after this.
What are your views on Cliff Bleszinski's statements at GDC about the middle class game being "dead"?
Well that would sort of mirror the way it works in Hollywood with films, or at least that's the way it seems to work with films and I think that for the guys that are working on so-called 'low-budget.' My Big Fat Greek Wedding might be a good example of someone who set out, maybe with more constraint financially and time-wise but they went on to build something that eventually became a massive blockbuster.
There's always hope that even when you're dabbling in that more constrained space that you might create something that's going to turn into a blockbuster, there's always a financial motivation there and the same thing happens the other way round, you go and build a £200 million dollar movie and then it falls flat on its face. I think that the question about whether or not we should impose or inspect or demand that developers choose one or the other, that's probably kinda nonsensical you know these things happen without sometimes the developer necessarily choosing; they get a certain budget and they get a certain time to work and build something and you know ultimately you've got to try to make do the best you can with what you have so I don't know, maybe his meaning was there was a lot more opportunities these days, that a smaller budget team now has an array of platforms which don't necessarily have to include a giant retail console release and in that sense, that's a good thing for the industry because it takes a lot of the pressure off of those developers and gives them an opportunity to go out and self publish and explore new and more interesting ideas.
Whereas you know with larger budget games you start to kind of see that they're pushed into these silos of very known genres, very known audiences but even that can only go on for so long because at some point those audiences grow old and tired and they want something new and somebody is going to have to come along and build a new product because there's going to be a new audience and they're going to be sitting there going 'I don't want to play yet another variation on the thing I've seen being made for the last six years.'
What do you think about criticisms saying the industry is becoming formulaic?
I think it has to by its nature, I mean so much has been risked to get the games done that you know a formula is almost a pre-requisite, sort of suggesting that you'd bake a $10 million cake and not have a recipe and just kind of wing it.
It's a pressure, it comes naturally from that type of development and doesn't necessarily mean that there's a lack of innovation there, I think you still see tremendous amounts of innovation in technological advancement in those games but they certainly have to be much more careful about taking big risks.
What other games have you taken inspiration from mechanics and gameplay wise?
The core of the mechanics you could probably look to something like Zelda, like pretty old-school, to understand where we were trying to go with how we built the weapons and the combat systems. In terms of narrative, and presentation I think we'd always looked to titles like Bioshock, Half-Life or any game that does a decent job of presenting, not so much in the mechanic of the narrative presentation but in the humanness of the characters that are being dealt with, so I think those are always gonna be inspirations and the same thing holds true if you're reading a book or watching a film where it's a very human presentation of the material.
Do you think games will always struggle to tell a story in the ways a film do?
I think it's a question of resource and tools, I think that as the tools and the use of them become more ubiquitous and it's easier to use, that'll free the creatives up to have more ability to express in a film-like fashion.
It's important to keep in mind that film has had many generations of storytellers who have been able to grow up in an industry and really cut their teeth on and establish how the style works and how the presentation works whereas in gaming we haven't had a full cycle of a generation, of a complete tool set that's been sat there, ready with everything that you would need to tell a story without having to every single time to turn around and reinvent the camera, reinvent the lighting and that's the sort of where these larger budget games.
Even the smaller budget ones are going these days is that the issue of tools is starting to become secondary and so now the creatives can focus on the storytelling in a much better way."
Is Alice purely a single-player experience or can we look forward to co-op or multiplayer?
It's not a franchise that lends itself very well to online multiplayer modes but there will be DLC in the form of dresses that the player can download and Alice can wear and those dresses come with special abilities and enhance how you play through the game and there's also going to be pretty significant release which is the original Alice brought over to the consoles so that a person who's purchased Madness Returns gets a download code and is able to bring Alice 1 onto their console and play through the entire original game alongside playing Madness Returns.
What is your thinking on the new crop of handhelds, would you like to bring Alice to them?
That'd be great, I'm not sure in this generation they're going to be powerful enough but certainly next year, something like that, but I think the handheld market in general and especially the Android environment is a real boon to the industry and to developers and to consumers and I think it's going to open up a lot more possibility for a very creative, exploratory ideas around gaming and around social platforms and the mobile platforms all link together so yeah, I think its really awesome.
It's actually where we're pushing our studio to go next. PC online, you know, multiplayer games and also mobile as a function of that so Alice may be the last retail sort of box product that we do for some time but you know for the next couple of years were going focus very exclusively on free to play PC downloadable games and then also pushing those other mobile platforms.
Do you think the iPad has the ability compete directly with consoles?
Absolutely, I think we're going see... I mean, where's the next console rev, right? Where is the next big console coming from? I actually think PC desktops - there's a good chance they'll become a thing of the past and we're going to start to see a blurring between what's considered a phone versus PC or PC versus a phone and all of these have a potential to be really decent gaming platform.