Just how deep does the rabbit-hole go? No one knows. But when it comes to American McGee’s acclaimed Alice franchise you can be sure that the tea party at the other end won’t exactly be brimful of fuzzy, funny colourful characters for company. TGL caught up with the brain child of the Alice franchise to talk about his latest demented, dark and deathly trip to Wonderland in Madness Returns.
Here’s how we got on:
TGL: It has been almost 11 years since the release of the original Alice back in October 2000. A sequel has always since been rumoured but exactly how long has it been in development for and has it always been planned since the success of the original?
AMcG: 11 years was just the right time – what was required was for a studio to be established that could tackle the job and for the audience to build up enough excitement and expectation. The time has also given us a chance to listen to the fans of the first “Alice” and respond to the things they loved about the first game. From start to finish the talks and development took over 3 years. Though we knew a sequel was possible, it’ wasn’t really until we’d established the studio in Shanghai that we started seriously thinking about making a follow-up.
TGL: We’ve seen games and systems change dramatically since then. How has Alice: Madness Returns adjusted to the new expectations of gaming? Has it kept the same style as before?
AMcG: We spent a lot of time listening to fans of the original game to help guide where to make improvements. And in many ways we didn’t want to go too far to change what worked the first time around; there’s an “original formula” in there that worked then and still works today. But we also knew where significant upgrades were needed – with things like the combat system and difficulty levels in general.
TGL: The first game played heavily on Alice’s growing insanity after an accident that claimed her parent’s life, how has this been implemented into the sequel?
AMcG: This game is a narrative sequel to the first, which means it picks up just one year after Alice freed herself from the asylum. But she’s still suffering as a result of the fire which killed her family – and still haunted by questions about that fateful night. Alice will now explore the events of that night and try to solve, once and for all, the mysteries which surround it. This story is in many ways a murder mystery. So it will allow players to interact with many of the characters central to the story surrounding the fire and Alice’s time in the asylum.
AMcG: Alice’s sanity is less in focus this time around, though it’s clear she’ll never be “sane” in the way a normal person might be. The real issue this time is Alice losing her mind – specifically her memories. So her fight is more about saving the past than the future. And in the past she hopes to find the answers that answer once and for all the questions that surround the night her family died.
TGL: The original featured many stunning, yet chaotic looking environments that reflected Alice’s twisted mindset, what kind of environments and designs can we expect to see in Madness Returns?
AMcG: Once again the environments of Wonderland are presented in full glory – and because of advances in technology and hardware, we’re able to create a denser, grander vision of Alice’s psychological landscape. As a rule, environments and elements in Wonderland are an extension of Alice’s own real world experiences – nothing contained within Wonderland can be there without Alice having seen or heard of it in real life. We’ve included classic locations like the Hatter’s and Queen’s Domain, but also a slew of new locations like the Oriental Domain and Dollhouse Domain. It’s safe to say there’s a tremendous amount of variety in the locations Alice will visit this time around.
TGL: As well as the general environment, Wonderland features many rich and interesting regions each showcasing its own style and theme. Can you tell us a bit about how Wonderland has changed in the sequel and what players can expect to find this time?
AMcG: Wonderland will present a range of new locations, as mentioned above, but also old locations – places Alice visited in the original game. In those instances, Alice can see signs of her previous battles and explorations.
TGL: With regards to the gameplay, the newer systems and advances in programming since the original have obviously opened up a lot more opportunities for new game play mechanics. What kind of new features are there and have some mechanics been altered from before?
AMcG: We’ve added some really interesting new game mechanics like Shrink, which Alice can employ on-the-fly to reduce her overall size. This allows her to fit through tiny doors and explore interesting places – but it also gives her “Shrink Vision”, which means Alice can see things in the world that her bigger self cannot. Beyond that, each domain contains a “domain specific ability”, such as “Off with Her Head” or “Giant Alice”; these sections radically alter the standard game play interface and add a lot of variety to the play experience.
TGL: Enemies were described as having more of a “Puzzle Element” to them this time. Can you elaborate on this a bit more?
AMcG: One of the primary complaints about the first game was the one-dimensional nature of the combat system. When working on the new combat system we took this feedback to heart and designed a new system which presented each new enemy as a unique “lock” that could be opened easily with the right combination of weapons, dodging and timing. This results in combat sequences which are lightning fast ballets of destruction. But we also included a mode for novices where hack-and-slash can get the job done, if the more advanced combat pace is too difficult.
TGL: Is there an innate pressure that underscores Madness returns given how popular and successful the first game was?
AMcG: Madness Returns, like the original game, felt very “natural” as we were building it. In many ways, the character of Alice helps to guide decisions about the world and the interactions within it. So long as we’re true to her as a character the job is relatively straightforward.
TGL: Whose idea was it to re-master the original Alice in HD for a new generation?
AMcG: The idea bounced around the team and EA for a long time before we finally acted on it – hard to say who was originally responsible for it. Regardless of origin, the re-mastered Alice looks awesome on consoles and is a blast to play. Should be a real treat for fans that played the original on PC and those who are coming to it for the first time.
TGL: Finally, will we have to wait another decade for the next Alice adventure?
AMcG: There is no 3rd Alice in development, but we have thought about what we might do with the story if we ever decided (with EA) to make another. We’ll just have to wait and see if the audience desires another!
Alice Madness Returns is available on Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC June 16th.
TGL would like to thank David Kennedy for the huge contribution he made to this interview. You know who you are.