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.