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Fun Zone | Game Design

There's a Dark Method Behind Creator's Madness

February 01, 2001|SCOTT STEINBERG | steinbergs@hotmail.com

After designing freaky levels for Id Software's award-winning "Quake" series, American McGee moved on to developing twisted fairy tales. But there's more to Electronic Arts' "Alice," McGee's disturbing creation, than meets the eye. He discussed the method to his madness.

Q: Isn't corrupting a children's tale bound to cause a stir?

A: Actually, I don't think we're corrupting it as much as people think we are. The transition between what Lewis Carroll did and what we ended up with was a lot smaller than what, say, Disney did with the cartoon, which was really, really far removed from the original version. I don't think it'll upset that many people. A lot of fans have seen it and said it was the truest form of "Alice in Wonderland" they'd seen to date. That's come from a lot of people in Hollywood, who were really happy to see what we'd done with it and weren't offended at all.

Q: So the author wouldn't have a problem with it?

A: Nah. Nothing we've done so far has been so gratuitous or out of sync with the original story that it would bother anyone.

Q: Why do dark versions of fairy tales seem so demented?

A: It probably has something to do with how children are very fearful of everything in the world around them. You could scare a child a lot easier than you could an adult. By the time you become an adult, you've got this jaded outlook on the world. So maybe these stories speak to the childish part of your psyche. When you twist them a little bit, it's taking something that was familiar to you back then--and maybe even then had some dark undertones--and tapping back into it.

Q: Did any personal happenstance influence the game's design?

A: A lot of parts in the game are heavily influenced by the way I grew up and have a lot to do with who I turned into as an adult. For example, my fashion aesthetic, a penchant for certain types of music, and definitely an eye toward things that are sort of darker in nature. All of that had an effect on it.

Q: Was it tough selling the idea to the suits?

A: It actually wasn't tough to do, since it was easy for them to understand. We phrased it as doing "Alice in Wonderland" in a Tim Burton-esque style, and they got that immediately. A lot of times reducing the idea to that one-sentence form, in its simplest concept, that's enough to make them want to do a game.

Q: How did you re-create the workings of an insane girl's mind?

A: For me, it wasn't difficult. She's definitely a dark character, and a lot of her personality comes out of my personality. So it's a little bit of me inside the game. And everybody who was involved with it has a slightly dark side. It's not like we had to stretch all that far.

Q: Were team members required to read the story?

A: Well, everyone read it voluntarily. But the movie, which we requested, I actually didn't watch until a couple of months ago. While working on the game I didn't want anybody watching the Disney version because I was afraid they might subconsciously steal something from the movie and get us in trouble.

Q: What's your personal vision of Wonderland?

A: Our Wonderland is the interior of Alice's mind. It's her thinking, and there's bits and pieces of it that are related to the real world, like how Oz was for Dorothy. Everything there is something that's a part of Alice's subconscious. Since her mind has been corrupted and she's gone wacko, it all amounts to the same thing.

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Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.

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