Spicy Horse Interview: The Alice in the room

To hear American McGee speak, it quickly becomes obvious that he actually knows Alice. She speaks to him, speaks through him, and gets him to tell her story. He talks about her with a reverence and a respect not often seen.

When I raised this, he agreed, explaining that this character familiarity is something very important to him – and to Spicy Horse – but that it wasn’t a feeling shared by everybody in the studio.

[img_big]center,44,2011-05-28/AliceintheSwimmingPond.jpg,She’s back![/img_big]

He spoke of people who worked with him in Shanghai who were very “video-gamey”. You might think that’s a useful thing, for a video game designer, but McGee explains that in some ways it’s a drawback. These employees needed constant reminding that “this is Alice’s game”, that the character is as important – if not more important – than the gameplay and the action.

“Until you understand her, you really don’t have a say.”

There were some employees who hadn’t played the first game, but they had formed “plenty of assumptions” about what it was about. McGee explained that he told them “not to come into the conversation” until they had played the game, appreciated what it was about, and understood Alice as a character. Some of them did.

“We actually had one guy who, even after he played the game, never got who she was. He never connected.

“This is the same guy who told us that when he was playing BioShock, murdered all of the Little Sisters. I was like ‘Why did you do that?!’ – the one time that I made the mistake, I did it accidentally. I felt so bad!

“So I was like, if you can’t figure out how to empathise with a character in the game, then we don’t have any place for you in trying to craft this experience.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Alice is a character that you really have to know, to understand in order to appreciate – either while playing the game, or (more importantly) while creating it.

Ken Wong in Sydney to promote Alice: Madness Returns

Ken Wong on stage

Australian-born Ken Wong discovered the first game as a teenager, and loved it so much that he created works of art based on Alice’s adventures. His creations, posted online, caught McGee’s eye, and Wong was soon faced with a life-changing job offer from China.

As Wong recalls, he was initially hesitant about working with the company – further signs of respect for the character – but now believes he was “destined” to work on this project, where he is now Art Director, describing it as a “tremendous honour”.

“I love the surreal, I love children’s books… it felt like I had to go out on this limb, and I haven’t looked back.

“It’s been a tremendous journey. I’ve had this great art team formed around me, and it’s been great introducing them to what made the first game special and how to contribute to the new one.”

This great art team – and the other developers at Spicy Horse – is part of what signalled to McGee that after ten years, the timing was right for Alice (and the madness) to return. I also have a feeling that the character herself tapped him on the shoulder one morning and told him to get to work.

American McGee in Sydney to promote Alice: Madness Returns

American McGee on the throne

Following the announcement, countless people asked McGee if he was nervous about creating the sequel, about living up to the precedent he set with the original. He smiles.

“No. All throughout this, I’ve felt like we have her as a guide, saying what’s right or wrong about what we were trying to do.”

It’s almost like Alice is in the room with us. In a way, she is – the life-sized mannequin greeting visitors at the door is a real girl, with a habit of blinking vindictively when you stare too long. The room was full of flowers. I was perched on a throne, the Queen of Hearts for fifteen minutes, the ruler of my own little world in a red-and-black basement.

Even as Wong tells me (in confidence) that McGee doesn’t actually sleep in a coffin, I’m realising that this room is eactly the sort of setting that my teenage self would have designed. This choice of venue wasn’t accidental – a major part of the fanbase for American McGee’s Alice seemed to be teenage girls who were dragged in by the gothic ambience, the dark-eyed heroine, the striped socks.

Before I was able to finish asking whether Spicy Horse anticipates the same sort of fanbase for their new game, McGee jumps in with a grin, “I hope so!”

Seriously though, McGee describes the reaction to the first game as a “wonderful response”, as we discuss the many, many “personal websites” that popped up online around the turn of the century in tribute.

High school girls who may never have played a video game before in their lives were hailing Alice as their new hero, as a saviour and as a fashion guru. She represented a character who was going through the same struggles as they were, the same drama, and the same inner turmoil. McGee hopes that this continues with the sequel.

[img_big]center,44,2011-05-28/VorpalBladeQueensDomain.jpg,Alice[/img_big]

“I think it’s testament to the power of the original idea of the books, and her as a character. I knew that we’d done something right by way of her, as a character and as a female lead, in that we didn’t oversexualise her.”

Wait, what? McGee demonstrates (again) how much respect he has for his Alice as he explains that the studio “received a lot of pressure on both projects to make her sexier”. As I look horrified and Wong looks sympathetic, McGee says they were asked “to shorten her skirt,” or to “provide something…” He trails off, but gestures with both hands to show exactly what he was being asked to provide.

“It’s not a thing that she’s female that makes her attractive. it’s her personality, the depth, what’s happened to her, and the strength that she has to get over these obstacles that makes her compelling to everybody!”

McGee pauses for a moment, glances around the room and gathers his thoughts.

“I think that the games industry in general has a ways to go towards creating strong characters – be they male or female – and characters that are more than just a shelf on which we stack up lots of guns and weapons!”

And it’s not that Alice doesn’t have her own arsenal of stacked-up weapons – of a sort, anyway. McGee says he’s still not sure whether a hobby horse or a teapot is a “real” weapon. In Alice’s world, as she brandishes her red pepper pot at ink stains, they’re very real. They’re also very different to what we saw in the first game, where she was armed with toys.

[img_big]center,44,2011-05-28/TeapotCannon.jpg,The Teapot Cannon[/img_big]

Alice is still a young lady, but she’s grown up a lot since the last game. The toys that worked so well in American McGee’s Alice are no longer appropriate. McGee explained that it “made sense” that while she would have these toys initially, at the end of that game, she would put them down.

In Madness Returns, she’s now equipped with “surreal, creative weapons” – but everything has a basis in reality. A major rule around the Spicy Horse studio was that anything you see in-game has to come either from somewhere in Alice’s life, or that a girl of her experience could imagine. Wong is particularly passionate about this.

“We don’t make things bloody and gory and violent just because. It all comes from the story, it serves the story of Alice and what she’s been through.

“So I guess, really, that’s something that people need to understand about Alice – we weren’t taking Alice and making it this way just for fun! We wanted to explore the darker side of who she is and what happened, and what we saw in the initial story.”

So while Cheshire cats, mushrooms and explosive kitchen utensils are abundant, you can’t expect to see Alice tip-toeing through Wonderland with an AK-47 in her hands.

“…not until you get to the, uh, secret level,” confesses McGee, with a grin.

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