Interview with American McGee

American McGee, creator of American McGee's Alice, discusses his dark and often morbid take on Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland and the mixed reactions he receives from the public. McGee also shares his views game linearity and the in's and out's of balancing storyline with action.

American McGee's Alice: There has to be some pretty strong pros and cons to having a game with your name on it. How do you feel about it?

That's a question that I get asked a lot, partly because there aren't a lot of games out there that have people's names on top of them like that. To be honest, a lot of the time, it's really embarrassing for me. I more than anyone else, know just how many people were responsible for making this [project] come together. We have a lot of people at EA, everything from legal, to marketing, to PR and sales—tons of people on the EA side. Then of course, most importantly, there are the guys at Rogue: the development team. It is sort of embarrassing because I will be the first person to tell you that credit should not go to a single individual on any sort of project whatsoever—no matter what sort of role they had in it. The decision was actually made by EA. They saw that as a way of branding, a way of protecting the name legally, and as a way of establishing a name brand they could use in the future. So, it was something that, while it was happening, I actually fought against quite a few times. I went into a couple of meetings where I was pretty adamant to having my name on the box, but it made sense to EA to have that happen, so I had to go along with it.

It thrusts you into a position of fame that you didn't have before. Do you find that that brings any resentment from your colleagues?

I haven't noticed any resentment from my colleagues. I'm thinking that if I had taken a different approach to how I expected it to be, it obviously could have been really different. However, all along, I've tried to make sure that people understand who the credit really belongs to, and to also understand that I'm just a person. Just because my name's up on top of that box, doesn't mean that I'm any different from anyone else. It's a very strange thing for me actually to have it there, so I have to fight against people who are negative about it. Most of the time they are pretty cool once they actually know who I am and what I'm about.

Why make such a very, very dark version of Lewis Carroll's story?

You know what? A lot of my inspiration comes from dark things (laughs). I like dark music, dark movies, and dark fiction, so I guess the question is, why am I so infatuated with things of a dark nature? I don't know. I think that it probably has a lot to do with my upbringing. I was raised around a lot of religion. Very early on, I started rebelling against it in an intelligent manner. I started picking apart all the basic tenets of this religion that was being forced upon me. I think that going in the dark direction was just a rebellious sort of thing on my part, but over the years it has become a big part of who I am. I just have a taste for that darker side of things—it's the way my aesthetic goes.

Really, turning Alice dark wasn't a result of me forcing that darkness on the story, it just seemed to come naturally out of [Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass] when I read it.

Was it your family or the area in which you lived that forced this religion on you?

I had a very, very strange family. Strange actually doesn't begin to describe my family. I also grew up in Dallas, Texas, which, if you grow up there, and then you move somewhere else, you start to realize how truly weird the bible belt is in relation to the rest of the nation. I think all of these things may have played some part in shaping the person I am today. Really, turning Alice dark wasn't a result of me forcing that darkness on the story, it just seemed to come naturally out of [Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass] when I read it. It seems like a very dark story to me. I felt like a lot of what was happening here was flowing naturally out of the fiction, and not being pulled out or magnified by myself.

Do you feel that you have a much truer Vision of Lewis Carroll's work than Disney?

I wouldn't go so far as to say that, but I have heard quite a few people whose opinions I respect a lot, say that they feel that this is one of the truer depictions of the fiction that they've ever seen. One of my favourite stories was when we were showing the demo at E3 in Los Angeles, and Stephen Spielberg actually came into our demo room, and got to see what the game looked like. Afterwards he said, "This is the truest rendition of this work that I've ever seen. Good job." That was very cool. It was a nice piece of validation that we were actually on to something. It showed that we weren't trying to force my view of the world on this project, but actually, a natural extension of what the story was.

Have you had any special interest groups come after you for doing this?

A lady at the Game Developer's Conference who happened to be standing with one of the guys works for id. We were introduced, but I don't know if she caught my name, however, she did understand that I had something to do with Alice. I really I don't think she knew who I was specifically. She started going off about how horrible this game was, how she had actually played Alice Liddell's harpsichord, she was a member the Lewis Carroll society in London, and that these guys were all up in arms about it, yadda, yadda, yadda... I thought it was really funny how she just kept going on and on railing the game. I was standing there, and I'm like, "Does this lady have any idea who she's talking to?" I don't know if she did or not, but that was the only negative thing I've ever heard. She was actually really humorous because she was insane herself. This lady was crazy, there's no doubt about it. It was cracking me up because she was getting all upset about what we'd done to this thing. I was kind of like, "You know what lady? Why don't you just take a look at yourself? You're wacko."

Some of the concepts in the game are quite disturbing i.e. Alice's attempted suicide. Were there any ideas that you had to throw out that were too dark?

Yeah, absolutely. The story that you see, the version that was released to the world, is not the first story that I came up with. One of the stories that I had was a modern Alice living in a trailer park with very abusive parents. She came home one day and the Step-Dad bonked her over the head with a beer bottle. Wonderland is taking place while she's passed out on the floor. What was happening, in this story anyway, was that anytime she overcame a foe in wonderland, it paralleled the conquering of someone, and usually meant killing someone in the real world. So, the idea was that she defeats the first boss, and then wakes up to find that her Step-Dad has been murdered, and she's the one who did it. You know, that was a pretty dark take on it.

I played with a couple of other ideas, like one where Alice was a little raver girl who went to a rave and did the wrong combination of some drugs, and ended up on a bad trip. The story was centred her fighting to get back out of that trip. She kept flashing back to reality either in the club, in an ambulance, or in the hospital; you know, stuff like that. There were a lot of different versions of how she got into Wonderland and what it was she was trying to overcome while she was there. I think that the story that we ended up with was again the most natural extension—or at least one that made the most amount of sense in terms of it being a third book in the series. So yeah, there were some pretty dark ideas. Most of those I threw out myself. There were times where I could just feel that we weren't being true to the fiction, and we weren't doing something that was appropriate, so I would back off of those and go back to the drawing board and try something new.

Do you think that if you had done something much darker, and it actually had got through EA, that the resultant backlash from special interest groups would have increased sales?

I don't know. It would have been interesting to see, but doing violence for the sake of violence, or shock for the sake of shock—that's definitely a valid business model. You know, it cracks me up that Marilyn Manson is excited that Bush is in office. A lot of people don't realize that the reason why is that whenever a Republican like that gets into office, Manson's work becomes much more sensational, and therefore is going to sell a lot better. When the Democrats are in office, and Clinton doesn't really give a shit what Manson is doing, his album sales lag. Now that we've got these right wing Republican's back in, I think that we're going to see the media sensationalize that type of content a lot more. So I'm sure, we could have done a really dark version that could have been called out, and probably would have driven sales up. Again, it came down to whether or not it felt like we were doing something true to the work more than, "how are we going to make a lot of sales?"

With the game, you included a very compelling storybook in the form of a Psychiatrist's journal. Why do it that way as opposed to adding that element into the gameplay?

One of my big things is getting the player into the experience before they even turn their computer on. I've had ideas for games where you open the box up and you have some piece of the game there in your hands. I think that it is important to create that atmosphere of being a part of an experience. I feel that video games need to be more about a real experience than just simple gameplay value—play this and turn it off. You know, make people think about what they're playing, and make them think about it from the moment that they open the box, not from the moment the first cinematic starts rolling. I'm hoping that [the journal] achieves that.

Do you think that if somebody doesn't read the journal first, that they're missing an important element of the game?

I don't think so. I think it's a fun game. I think it stands on it's own as a fun gameplay experience, even if you don't want to get into the story experience.

How do you balance action and story? A lot of people have tried it and failed miserably.

I think we did a pretty good job. We were trying to follow some rules so the player wouldn't be overburdened with too much story and cinematics—I don't know if they can be considered hard and fast rules. I don't think that there is any sort of secret to that, it's just sort of feeling your way through and making sure that when you're playing this thing, it's actually fun. So that when someone who doesn't care about the story is playing, they can skip past the parts that are boring them. Then, when somebody is playing who is interested in the story but doesn't care that much about the action, make sure that their experience is equally gratifying by being involved with the characters, the narrative, and so forth. It's just a balancing act.

I think that Alice, for me anyway, was a first attempt at a good adventure storytelling game. I've learned a lot from it. I think that there's a lot that we've learned that we can apply to what we do next. It's a new frontier as far as storytelling goes. I think we've got a lot to learn from Hollywood, and we've got a lot to learn from ourselves, and from books and so forth. There's a lot out there that we need to pay attention to, to make that experience more enjoyable.

In terms of the story, how are you going to prevent the player from becoming bored when so much of Alice is familiar?

I don't know if that was a problem with Alice or not. I was certainly always thrilled to see what was next (though usually I knew what it was) because of the visual beauty, the sound effects, and the music—I think that if you create compelling content, people will go along for the ride.

I don't think that there is any sort of secret to balancing action and story, it's just sort of feeling your way through and making sure that when you're playing this thing, it's actually fun.

How important is replay value in a game?

It depends. There are games where I want to sit down and replay over and over again, that are like racing games, sports games, and things like that. They're more like adrenaline games. I think Alice might fall halfway between that category. Again, it's more of a story experience. You don't necessarily watch the same movie over and over again. The same would hold true for this: you don't necessarily play this game over and over again. I didn't set out trying to create a game that people were going to say, "Okay, I've finished. Now I want to play it again, and again, and again." It's one of those things that's like, "I've finished it." Then a couple of months later, or a year later, they pull it off the shelf and go, "You know, this was cool the first time around. I'm going to play it again and see what I missed." That kind of thing.

A lot of your levels have a very linear design to them: very beautiful to look at, but there seemed to be very little benefit to exploration. What's your thought on linear vs. non-linear?

Well, the problem is that people expect that because their computer is a computer that they should be getting a non-linear experience—or I should say an experience that has multiple paths. What they don't understand is that there are books that you can read that say, "If you choose to fight the monster, turn to page whatever." They have branching paths, but that kind of experience isn't really very popular in books, and it's failed miserably in movies. I think that people put a lot more weight on that; they put a lot more value to that than I think there really is. As developers, we could slave and kill ourselves producing a game that's got, say, four different paths in it throughout the entire game. The problem is that we're creating four different games when we do that, which is exponentially more costly and time consuming to produce. I don't know if the benefit is really all that great. Sure it might add replay value, but if path one isn't quite as much fun as path two, then what was the point? You know what I'm saying? I have yet to sit down and play a game and say, "This sucks because I couldn't go on a million different paths to get to the end of this thing." Just like when I read a book, I'm not expecting to read through it and have it change as I'm reading through it. I don't know, I just look at it a little bit differently than I think a lot of people do. I feel like it's a way to tell a story, and traditionally stories are told in a linear fashion. Just because it's being told on a computer doesn't mean that we have to figure out a way to tell it in a non-linear fashion.

In the postmortem of Alice, everything in the "what went wrong" section all revolved around time constraints and the problems that stemmed from that. Why did you choose to make a game with such a short development time?

Well, that's like asking, "Why did you choose to do it with a long development time?" We could have spent more money, and taken more time. We probably would have ended up with a better product, but the problem was that we weren't given that opportunity. It wasn't my choice to say, "This is how much it's going to cost, and this is how much time were going to get." That's really more up to EA to decide that.

Multiplayer was another aspect of the game that you left out. Again, was that due to time constraint or did you feel that it was unimportant?

It was both. Again, we could have taken the time to do that. I don't think that it would have added much to the experience because we set out with the specific goal to tell the story of Alice right? Adding a death-match in there, or any kind of multiplayer, I think would have taken away from the time that we had to produce the single player experience. So, there was that, and also we just had a hard time trying to figure out what that multiplayer experience would have been. I mean, would you have Alice chase the Cheshire Cat around with a rocket launcher and blow him up? The one thing that I wish we could have done multiplayer wise, would have been to do a cooperative version multiplayer, but again that would have been super time consuming and expensive.

Can we expect to see Alice coming out on a console?

I actually designed it to be a console game. From the outset, that was my original intention. I wanted to do it on the PC first to prove that it could be done, but everything that I did was geared towards playing more on the console. I think that eventually EA will do a PS2 version of it.

Are you completely happy with Alice?

Yes and no. That was my first attempt at a game by myself, you know, designed from scratch. Therefore, in regards to that, yeah, I'm extremely happy because it has managed to sell really well, it has gotten great reviews, and I think that we were a success. There are things that I wish that we had had more time to do.

Such as?

We could have had a lot more characters. We could have had a little bit less linear play through the maps. We dropped some sections out of the game, some areas that we had to cut due to time constraints. That was about it, except I wish that our gameplay had been more varied. When we started off, the original idea was to take a lot of Lewis Carroll's actual puzzle work that he did, and implement that into the game somehow. That never really came to life because we didn't have enough time.

Was it a big risk deviating from the standard "space alien versus space marine" since that genre obviously sells well?

I think it was a pretty big risk, but we felt like we knew we were doing something that was going to work. I tried to take as few risks as possible with it, while still trying to come up with new ideas. I think that paid off.

Can you talk about what you're doing next?

Yeah, I've got a deal with Miramax Films. It's a writing, producing, and directing deal. That'll be the focus of my life for the next while, probably October and November of this year. They basically have an option for me to direct a film. I'll probably end up directing some straight to video Hellraiser 34 movie or something like that. I'm talking with some guys in the music industry right now—two different record labels that want me to direct some music videos. Those guys are actually going to put me through music video director school, and let me try my hand at some low budget videos. So, that's the stuff I can talk about. I think I can talk about the fact that me and a few partners of mine are going to try to start a video game company that is also a media company. We'll be tied in with Hollywood, Miramax, and a few other movie companies—basically working on big licensed properties. Say if Batman were to come out, we would do the game based on that. That kind of stuff and at the same time also explore a couple of game ideas that I have.

How important do you think it is to simultaneously combine the process of making a game and making a movie, and using the resources from each?

I think we have so much to learn from Hollywood, and at the same time, Hollywood is interested in learning what we're doing. I still feel like storytelling video games are in their infancy. Alice is a first step; from what I understand, Deus Ex did a good job of it. I just got the demo kit for Metal Gear Solid—they used the most beautiful cinematography, and it seems that they have good storytelling. I think that there's a lot to learn [from Hollywood], and I feel that there's some convergence that should be taken advantage of. That's what we're trying to achieve.

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