American McGee's Alice (AMA) was one of those rare games that was able to create a nice cult of followers around it due to its unusual take on the Alice and Wonderland mythos. Instead of something nice and clean, it was a dark and brooding game. Next week the sequel - Alice:Madness Returns - hits stores nearly a decade after the original was released. We got the chance to talk to RJ Berg, the Executive Producer and Lead Story Creator to get some insight into the upcoming game.
With it being more than a decade since the original game’s release, will the sequel be “welcoming” to fans who may not have experienced the original? There was a new Alice movie released last year, do you feel that you have to compete with it for mindshare or perspective (i.e. people expecting Johnny Depp to be in the game)?
In the decade since AMA’s release, ardent fans have shared their hopes and expectations for a sequel. As we designed A:MR, we wanted to satisfy them, reward their support, and meet those expectations. They’re an important audience for the new title--but not the only one. Since AMA’s publication on PC, generations of console players have come of age. Millions of them play great action and adventure titles; they know (and like) Alice; but they have no experience with AMA. To “welcome” them we made certain that A:MR offers direct, unconditional access to our hero and her story. Nothing in the new game depends on AMA. The two titles complement each other; and what they share is unqualified respect for Alice and the Wonderland fantasy.
Our Alice “competes” only with other versions of herself. She’s one of the greatest characters in imaginative literature. New “takes” on her, in various media, are in constant circulation. New stories, in which she’s the actual heroic protagonist, need only be true to her character to find an appreciative audience. Wonderland stories in which other characters (the Mad Hatter, for example) are the presumptive leads, no matter how well crafted, no matter by whom played or voiced, may be successful, but they won’t scratch the “Alice” itch that audiences’ crave.
What is it about the original “Alice in Wonderland” tale that makes it so perfect for taking in such a different direction? As a writer is it difficult to so dramatically change a character that’s such a cultural icon?
Carroll’s “perfect” Alice invites us to relate to her in a particular and intimate way. He gives us so much to work with and we know her so well, our imaginative engagement isn’t confined to the appealing, care-free, precocious child and her adventures among the most iconic characters ever created. That’s just a starting point for our “relationship.” Carroll’s treatment encourages us to forge unique bonds with Alice.
As we grow older, and our concerns and interests alter, she, like every great imaginary presence, changes, too. She may be our guide, companion, witness, or model for the transitions we experience. We want to know how she would handle loss, sadness, anxiety, disappointment, fear, and evil—a freighted collection of ordinary adult matters that invade young lives. Our curiosity is not idle. To maintain our relation with her, we want insight into why she acts as she does, and how her thoughts lead to action. We want to understand her. Feel her. We want her along for the ride, and to know what she truly is.
The challenge of the “change” resided in credibly exposing her fear, rage, egotism, and madness, while respecting her emblematic courage, humor, intelligence, empathy, imaginative depth and honesty.
How has Alice changed since we last met her? What changes have occurred in Wonderland? What new forms of madness will we see in the new game?
At the end of AMA, after 10 years of institutional “care,” Alice left the Rutledge Asylum. When A:MR begins, Alice, is a young woman, a bit older, a tiny bit wiser, living and working in London’s notorious East End, and still psychically fragile, suspecting that what she doesn’t know harms her, is driving her mad. While occasionally more stable and more reflective, she’s also more cynical, more frustrated, angrier, more apt to fight than flee. She is often less fearful, and less inhibited, but also less patient and less willing to trust herself and others. The manifestations of her emergent madness stem both from what she knows and from the unnamed but pervasive evil she conceals from herself. She has lost her balance. She is disoriented; staggered, and losing confidence in her judgment, strength, and will.
Wonderland, which fell from grace and lost its standing as a place of manageable, comedic danger and security in AMA, is now more menacing than ever.
Was there ever a point during the writing of the story where you thought “Wow, this is too dark” and had to back away from a particular line of thought (any specifics?)
While there were points of “too lame,” “too raw”, and “too tedious” (none of which made it into the final game, of course!), there was never a point of “too dark.” From the moment we began to walk Alice down a road that was more adult, more textured, gritty, and nuanced than an idyllic riverside path, we were committed to (and guided by) a principle that kept us from going “too dark:” Be true to Alice. Everything in her “real world” must be credible, persuasive, and evocative; and everything in Wonderland should come from her real-world experience. All of the game’s horror, brutality, madness, violence, and fantasy are extracted from Alice's perception and imagination.
Could you talk about your role in the development process? Did you write the story and hand it over to the developers or were you involved during the entire process?
American and I are creative partners. We founded Spicy Horse in Shanghai, and proposed A:MR to EAP in 2008. We grew the studio to develop A:MR, and worked on it to completion. I was the writer and executive producer (as I was on AMA), and American designed the game, and directed development in Shanghai. We review all aspects of each other’s work.
How much (if at all) has writing for games changed since the last Alice game?
Today, more players, of all genres, appreciate and reward good writing. They are more critical of writing that is merely adequate. They are more intolerant of poor writing, and they often punish it. The writing itself, the style, content, quality, and even the amount are still reflections of the game--its story and mechanic.
Good dialog offers players a unique insight into and relation to the game’s story arc and its characters. Bad dialog kills the buzz. In the compressed play times of modern games, all writing is expected to be tighter, consequential, effective, and contribute substantially to the game’s entertainment value. Players are impatient with speechifying and other rhetorical trappings. They want to be engaged—not just talked to.
We'd like to thank RJ for taking the time to answer our questions and Sara for coordinating the interview.