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"Alice: Madness Returns" Director American McGee Talks About His Video Game, Marilyn Manson

In 2000, a video game based on Alice in Wonderland, directed by American McGee and simply called Alice, came out for PCs. Its anything-is-possible graphics and storyline—as well as a soundtrack by Chris Vrenna of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails fame—earned it rave reviews almost across the board. Now, over a decade later, McGee has created a sequel, Alice: Madness Returns (Electronic Arts), which came out last week for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. We sat down with McGee to get the scoop on the creation of this new version of Alice and the music that inspired it.

REVOLVER As twisted as Carroll’s book can be at points, it’s still a children’s fairytale. Why has it had such a huge impact on this particular horror game and, in your opinion, horror and hard-rock music in general?
The original books provide an amazing wealth of ideas for characters, setting and story. Alice herself has appealed to generations of readers, and by virtue of her new storyline, now also appeals quite well to horror game enthusiasts. The Alice character everyone knows from the books is appealing because of her fantastic imagination and curiosity; with the games we’ve turned that imagination into a sort of psychological super-power and used curiosity to drive her towards overcoming sometimes horrific obstacles.

What was the inspiration for turning this fantasy into something terrifying? Are there any other horror games or movies that inspired this vision of Alice?
At the moment of inspiration for the game, I was listening to “Trip Like I Do” by the Crystal Method. Back at my desk it was Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” and various tracks by Manson, NIN, Tom Waits and more that really drove a lot of the initial tone for story and characters in the game.

Games didn’t so much inspire the core ideas as inform me as to what I didn’t want to do—having come from a background of development on games like DOOM and Quake, I badly wanted to move away from the “Space Marine” horror theme—and Wonderland offered a great opportunity to explore really surreal environments and characters.

Chris Vrenna did the music for the last game, and Marilyn Manson was involved in the development. Are either of these guys involved again?
Vrenna did provide all the music for the original game—mainly because Manson dropped out mysteriously mid-development. Chris returned to provide a track to the sequel—Manson remains mysteriously absent. The bulk of audio and music work was handled by our in-house sound department, headed by Jason Tai. He received support from sound designer Roland Shaw and external composer Marshall Crutcher, based in San Francisco. Together they’ve produced a soundscape that really suits the surreal and beautiful nature of the game.

Music can be essential to a game. How did you approach the music for the sequel?
I’ve always enjoyed producing tracks that are more ambient, surreal and sort of ‘out there.’ A:MR was a great opportunity to push that further.

From the beginning we decided that London would have a Victorian-style theme, minimal, and for the Wonderland sections it would be more open but nothing too synth-like or electronic. The art and general look and feel of the game contributed a lot to my selection of instruments and sounds. I wanted the soundtrack to have a more ‘mature’ sound to it with a little influence from the first game.

Getting back to the story, what was the inspiration for introducing sanity as such a huge theme in both games?
The Wonderland stories are played out inside Alice’s imagination, which I knew early on offered a path to some incredible psychological horror—but only if we could rob Alice of her sanity. As a rule, everything seen in Wonderland has to draw inspiration from real world experiences had by Alice, either in the asylum or London. Insanity becomes Alice’s “kryptonite” where her imagination and the mental landscape of Wonderland are her super power. For me, these things are all metaphors for our own struggles—most of which aren’t as external or physical as we tend to think they are, but instead lie within our own psyches. Alice is a pretty pure expression of the “we are our own worst enemy” concept—though she, like us, ultimately holds the key to her own salvation.

There were a couple of fan made trailers that seemed to plead for a sequel. Was a sequel always in the plans, or did you plan it after the original gained a large following?
We knew when the narrative in the first game contained enough threads to allow for a follow-on (or two). And myself and RJ Berg [Executive Producer/Writer on both Alice games] had ideas we thought could fuel an entire “twisted fairytale” brand alongside development of many fairytale-inspired games, but EA had different plans for us. RJ was fired, I left EA to become and independent game producer and many years had to pass before we were back together again with a studio we felt could handle the development of a sequel.

There were plans for a movie based on the game. Is there still a chance we might see a movie?
Don’t really know. There’s a film producer in Hollywood still holding onto the rights and presumably trying to make something happen, but we don’t speak often. I’m not holding my breath. Being Hollywood, it’ll probably happen, but it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take.

What can gamers and fans of the original expect to be different in terms of both visuals and gameplay?
In many ways the core formula that made the original game has been maintained for the sequel. We felt we got something right the first time around and didn’t want to outsmart ourselves trying to change things radically just for the sake of change. That being said, there are many aspects of the game that have improved by virtue of 11 years worth of advances in game technology and development processes. We also had the benefit of 11 years feedback from fans around the world, which we used to improve things that needed improving and amp up things that people said they loved. Combat was one of those gameplay elements that many people felt was one-dimensional in the first game, so we completely rebuilt it with a wider range of gamers in mind.

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