Interview with American McGee

Tale of Tales interviews

American McGee

It was just a matter of time before we had a chat with American McGee, creator of Alice. And what better timing than on the eve of the official announcement of his next big fairy tale project, entitled “Grimm”, scheduled for release on GameTap in spring of 2008? Not only do we share a love for fairy tales and a focus on art and storytelling in games, with “Grimm”, American also embraces the format of the short episodic game, which rings a lot of bells with our own production.
We didn’t know quite what to expect from a man who put a bloody knife in the hands of a Alice in Wonderland and who seems to take delight in subverting the characters and situations Disney had taught us to be blissfully innocent. But instead of an airhead on a trip to shock the uninitiated, we found a smart and confident designer with very clear ideas about what he wants to express and how to do it.

Fairy tales and sacrifice

Tale of Tales (ToT): You seem to have a deep interest in fairy tales. What is it that attracts you in them?

American McGee (AM): I’m attracted to fairy tales on a number of creative and business levels.

American McGee’s Alice
Screenshot from American McGee’s Alice.

From a business perspective, the attraction is simple: Pre-sold awareness. You don’t have to work as hard to sell “Red Riding Hood” – even if you’ve worked a creative twist into the classic story. People all over the world know these stories, and are happy to revisit them.
From the creative perspective, these stories are appealing because of their core themes – which have been told and re-told since before recorded history. There is something intrinsically appealing – and very primal, even “pre-human”, contained in fairy tales. Everyone instinctively understands morals like “don’t talk to strangers”. And I think fairy tales – in their original forms – are more needed in today’s entitled, soft-edged world than ever before.

ToT: What do you mean by that?

AM: A lot of people are born into the world with an unfounded (perhaps I also mean unearned) sense of entitlement – to security, health, happiness, etc. Life has been made too easy. All the sharp edges have been padded. I think this leaves a lot of people unaware of what it means to struggle, to worry, or to even “hurt” in any true sense. Fairy tales are often about sacrifice – or characters who need to learn the true meaning of sacrifice. When true sacrifice is removed from fairy tales it adds yet another layer of padding to the world and takes away another small lesson about life.

ToT: So you recreate in fiction, aspects of life that have disappeared as facts? That’s an interesting concept. But to what end? What does learning about sacrifice teach to somebody who will never be required to sacrifice anything in life?

AM: Depends on how optimistic (or pessimistic) you are… I’d like to think that history can actually teach us something. As for trying to teach someone about sacrifice… that’s the power and beauty of fiction, films, and even games. We are transported into situations we’d rather not face in real life (perhaps situations we wouldn’t survive) – and we ask ourselves, “What would I do in that place?” I think that a lot of self exploration happens when we consume media – especially media that challenges us.

Hack, slash, art and narrative

ToT: You tend to refer to some of your work as “twisted fairy tales”. In “American McGee’s Alice”, you turned Lewis Caroll’s naive heroine into a murdering psychopath. The title of your new project, “American McGee’s Grimm”, obviously refers to the Grimm brothers who, in the early 19th century, collected traditional fairy tales and cleaned them up to make them suitable for children. Will you be looking beyond the Grimm brothers for the often disturbing older versions of these stories? Or do you intend to put a new “twist” on the Grimms’ clean versions?

AM: Our goal is to put the teeth back into the collection of tales commonly referred to as “Grimm’s”. There are older, darker versions of these stories which gruesomely illustrate the fate awaiting those who choose not to heed their lessons. In fact, our initial “twist” is to remove ALL darkness from these tales. We then allow the player to bring the tale back to its darkest form. How dark is left to the player, but a “minimum dark” is required to finish each mission.

ToT: Fairy tales are often about growing up and learning how to live with others. As a result, they deal with sexual maturing and relationships (family, friends, lovers). It is a modern misconception that fairy tales are innocent stories with not much relevance. Do you intend to explore this depth in “Grimm”? Or does the fairy tale material only provide the setting for good old hack and slash?

AM: Hack and slash is one aspect of our game – by necessity.

ToT: Commercial necessity or design necessity?

AM: I say it is “one aspect of” – not a prime focus. And it’s there because of the format of our game. We’ll present game play in 5 minute chunks. Large-scale, strategic play becomes impossible with the sort of simple goals and simple game mechanics that we’re dealing with. If you’ve played any of the fast-paced Wario games on the Nintendo systems, then you might have a basic idea of what we’re doing… although we will give the player a little more breathing room than those ~5 second bits! Some missions will focus on hack and slash, others won’t have any at all. We’re trying to present a mixed bag of game styles and mechanics – all dependant on the narrative driver for a particular mission.

Our areas of focus, in order, are: art, narrative, game play.

We’re building a casual game which is to be presented in very short format. While I’d love to fully explore all the themes and messages contained in the classic tales, we have to maintain a focused approach to the kind of game we’re building. My hope is that a lot of the themes you mention can be hinted at and accessible for those who read between the lines.

ToT: Aren’t you worried that the people who would read between the lines, might not be attracted to a traditional game mechanic?

AM: Our areas of focus, in order, are: art, narrative, game play. We’re surrounding the player in a beautiful and evocative artistically rendered world. Narrative introduces and rewards every mission, in the form of in-game cinematics. Finally, the game play is being built to (hopefully) be accessible and entertaining to a wide audience. Alice was built in a similar fashion, and with the writing being done by the same guy who’s lead writer on Grimm [R.J. Berg]- and the result was pleasing to a broad audience. I think it’s safe to say Alice was true “hack and slash” whereas Grimm will only feature a little of that dynamic.

ToT: I’m very happy that you put art and narrative before game play. Too many game designers put too much focus on gameplay, in my opinion, while indeed, it is only one aspect of games, and as you point out, not necessarily the most important one. So would you say you design games as a means to an end, as a way for presenting beauty and telling a story?

AM: There is something appealing about all three aspects. I don’t think we can minimize the importance of good game design – but I also feel that modern games are often too complicated, difficult, and realistic. They go beyond “games” into what should probably be called “simulation”.
Given a choice between playing a “war game” (Risk for example) and a “graphic and realistic simulation of combat in Vietnam” – I’d have to say that on most days I’d rather play the “war game”. More than a few times when I’ve finished a long session of “Desert Combat” or “Medal of Honor” I walk away feeling like I have mild PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

Design and beauty, bazookas and flies

ToT: How do you design? Do you sit down and imagine the whole game at once? Or do you work in a more iterative fashion, building prototypes and then exploring their potential?

AM: For me the design process starts with story. From written sketches about the main character and the world he/she inhabits I start to get a sense about where the game play might go. Very quickly the process goes from solo to collaborative. Working with concept artists in the early stages, then to a larger team as we enter production – my goal is to provide general guidance and let everyone do what they do best.

ToT: You seem to have a strong interest in aesthetics. Alice features some amazingly beautiful scenes. And Bad Day LA has a very original graphical style. You surround yourself with extremely talented concept artists like Ken Wong and Lin Ran. How do you feel about beauty in realtime 3D? Do you have a certain method or specific approach?

AM: Not sure I understand the question about “…feel about beauty…”

As for method to art in games, this is something I leave up to people like Ken Wong. But the main idea is to ignore what everyone else is doing… which isn’t that hard since most everyone seems to focus on recreating reality.

ToT: Indeed. I admire that you are developing a stylized aesthetic without turning completely cartoony. But for me the “art” of a game should be in the game itself, though, not just in its concepts. Very often, the concept art is a lot more interesting, aesthetically, than the game itself. This is most often caused by the limitations of the technology. How do you deal with that?

AM: I don’t feel like the technology is limiting us in any way. In fact, you could say we’re using a bazooka to kill a fly. We haven’t announced what engine technology we’re using – but when we do that metaphor will make sense :)

Taking back the industry…

ToT: Next Generation consoles push developers to make games that cost many millions of Dollars. But the general criticism is that the money is often not spend on making the games better, but just on keeping up with the norms for graphic polish. How do you feel about the “Hollywoodification” of the games industry?

AM: I think it sucks. For too long game production has been at the mercy of marketing departments and executives modeling their business on “box product distribution” à la shaving razors. Spending huge sums of money on game development – and propagating the myth that this is the only way to make “real” games – has, in my opinion, hindered the advancement of game theory. And it’s cut off a huge potential audience who can’t ramp into hard-core games.

The success of the Wii gives me hope that this trend can be reversed.

ToT: GameTap offers a very interesting digital distribution model for games. Was it a deliberate decision of yours to turn to digital distribution?

For too long game production has been at the mercy of marketing departments and executives.

AM: I love the GameTap model and the flexibility it offers our development in terms of game format, mechanics, and distribution. Digital distribution is something I’ve long been a fan of – so when GameTap approached me to work on Grimm I jumped at the chance. It’s funny to me that so many game industry powerhouses were built on downloadable content – but then flocked to box product. Now that boxed product has “boxed in” people’s thinking about what constitutes a game, the trend is reversing.

ToT: “American McGee’s Grimm” will be released in 24 episodes. That strikes me as especially ambitious! Will the episodes be self contained or will the whole series form one continuous story? How long will the project take? How frequently will the episodes be released?

AM: Episodes are planned to be self-contained and independently downloadable and playable. The idea is to create a TV series feel – small, predictable chunks of entertainment for the masses. Each episode will weigh in around :30 minutes.

We’re not talking about delivery schedule specifics yet – but the idea is to get as close to the TV episodic model as possible. I don’t think we’ll fully understand the potential of episodic gaming until that’s done. Our production will take 24 months, but we’ll be delivering our first episodes around halfway into production.

ToT: So would you consider this an experiment, then?

AM: I think any game format that hasn’t been tried could be considered an experiment. And the big failing of our industry (namely the people funding game development) is that not enough is being spent on “experiments”. “The Sims” is a beautiful example of an experiment gone right. Of course, there are plenty of examples of trying to create something new – and having it go wrong. We just hope that we’re combining enough of what we know people like with a fair amount of pure innovation to make this work.

Red Ridinghood and China

ToT: Our newest project here at Tale of Tales, “The Path“, is inspired by Little Red Ridinghood. At some point, there was talk about a game of yours based on the same story. Will your “Red” project be absorbed by “American McGee’s Grimm” or do you still intend to produce it as a seperate title?

American McGee’s Red Ridhinghood
Concept art by Ken Wong
for American McGee’s Red.

AM: The version of “Red” that I wrote isn’t something I can talk about openly right now. And it isn’t the same as the version of the story that we’ll be integrating into Grimm. This other “Red” is something I’d like to see made into a stand-alone game and film at some point.

ToT: And to conclude, have you read any books, seen any movies or played any games lately that made a particular impression on you? I was wondering if you do like we do: read books and watch movies and play games that are related to the project we’re working on. For research.

AM: The only new thing I’ve been watching that I’d call research is “24” – just because of the pure episodic nature of it. But “South Park” has been a major influence on our thinking about the Grimm project since the beginning. Those guys crank out an episode in a week – impressive! In general I don’t watch a lot of TV or play a lot of games. If I’m not working I’m trying to do something as far from work as possible – cooking, exploring China, learning Chinese, etc.

ToT: Why are you in China anyway? A lover? Business opportunities? Curiosity? Political asylum?

AM: Many years ago EA offered me a chance to move to Japan – something that I’d been telling myself I really wanted to do for a long time. But I chickened out, and decided that I couldn’t move so far from everyone and everything I knew. Afterwards I realized I’d cheated myself out of an amazing experience. When the chance to move to Hong Kong was presented I jumped on it – almost without thinking. It helped that I’d been traveling to HK a bit, had friends there, and that I had the opportunity to build a unique game there.

That’s what got me out here. Once here I realized that there were many reasons to stay. But I think the main reason I love life here is that it’s challenging and interesting. When I lived in the US I’d go on “auto pilot” a lot – driving to work, I’d arrive but not remember how I got there – that sort of thing. Here, every day is a new experience. In fact, if you tried “auto pilot” here you’d probably get hit by a bus.

Ok, I really need to focus on work. Thanks for the interview.

ToT: Thank you, Mr. McGee. And good luck!

Interview conducted via email by Michaël Samyn in May 2007. The order of the original text has been rearranged to improve legibility.

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