Q&A: American McGee on Grimm

The patriotically named American, currently living in Shanghai, discusses his latest twisted fairy-tale title and reveals that the game may well also be coming to Xbox Live.

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American McGee's Grimm
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American McGee is a master of dark storytelling, with credits that include American McGee's Alice, a third-person shooter starring the heroine of Alice in Wonderland who is all grown up and quite insane due to her traumatic childhood experiences. The artwork was one of the main draws of the game, with the troubled Alice fighting for her sanity inside the creepy wonderland of her own imagination.

Originally released in 2000 for the PC and also on the Mac, Alice introduced gamers to the twisted mind of American McGee, who had previously worked as a level designer and programming staff member on such games as Doom II, Quake, and Quake II at id Software. After id, he moved to Electronic Arts in 1998, where he created Alice.

In 2006, McGee moved lock, stock, and barrel to Hong Kong and then on to Shanghai, where he set up his development studio Spicy Horse. From there, he and his team have been working on Grimm, a retelling of some of the best-known children's fairy tales. Action adventure Grimm will be coming in 24 episodes, initially released for the PC on the GameTap digital distribution service and follow an episodic, TV-style format, complete with cliffhangers to keep gamers downloading. Fairy tales getting the McGee treatment will include Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White. The first episode is due in spring 2008.

The Jack and the Beanstalk episode of Grimm.
The Jack and the Beanstalk episode of Grimm.

After this, McGee says that the game may come to one of the online console platforms, and that once Grimm is done and dusted, he's thinking of getting his teeth into a large-scale project again.

GameSpot UK: How's the game coming along?

American McGee: We think it's looking great. The team has two episodes, Cinderella and Jack, in postproduction. And there are three more levels, Godfather Death, Red Riding Hood, and Pied Piper that are in the preproduction to alpha stage. Building episodic content has presented us with some unique challenges--but these changes to the normal way of building a game are refreshing. Watching people play, we can tell we're definitely creating something different.

GSUK: Why did you decide to go for a digital download-only release? And use the TV-episode-style model?

AM: I like the philosophy behind digital download--it is a disruptive model. And the concept of TV-episode-sized chunks of gameplay is something I've been keen to experiment with for a long time. I love "feature length" games as much as the next person, but I think there's a huge market being undeserved and ignored by traditional long-format games. It will be interesting to see how people react to 30-minute game episodes.

GSUK: Do you think that digital downloads will soon take over from the retail model?

AM: I wouldn't say "soon," but it isn't hard to see a world where all digital content is delivered directly to consumers either in their homes or from something akin to a vending machine in a mall.

GSUK: Any plans for a retail copy on store shelves at any point?

AM: Currently, we are set to have them debut exclusively on GameTap this spring. When we have a few more episodes finished, we'll start planning for alternate forms of release.

GSUK: What do you think is the attraction to fairy tales?

AM: They are timeless reflections on the human condition. We can immediately empathize with the characters and their situations because they often mirror situations in our own lives. And their narratives and morals help to form a sort of cultural shorthand for those who grew up on them.

GSUK: Fairy tales are meant for little kids, but if you actually read them properly, they're very dark and violent...

AM: That's a major theme in this game. The central mechanic focuses on "painting" the fairy tale world dark. Things start cute and then the player makes things grim. Our main character's perspective on the tales is that without their teeth, they lose all their value. So the game is about restoring lessons to fairy tales by restoring the darkness.

GSUK: How come you moved to Shanghai? How's that working out?

AM: A few years ago I was given the opportunity to move to Hong Kong and build a game title. I began fostering relationships in Shanghai and looking for ways to start a development company there. My love for Asia goes back many years, and I've always hoped to find a way to make a life here. Now three years into the adventure, I couldn't be happier. Every day brings new experiences, new lessons, and tremendous satisfaction.

GSUK: Will the game be similar to Alice?

AM: In that both games were based on fairy tales, there are similarities. Aside from that, Alice and Grimm are quite different. Alice was action adventure; Grimm is...well, we're not really sure what to call it. Where Katamari Damacy has "rolling" we have "transforming." Where Alice had "toys as weapons," Grimm has "painting with darkness." And Alice was a much more narrative experience for and about itself. Grimm creates a game fiction that explores stories outside of itself.

GSUK: Any news on the Oz game or the Alice film?

AM: Oz game died a quiet death when Atari/Infogrames had financial trouble years ago. There's almost no chance of the IP (in that particular form) being revived. It's a shame too because the game we had in development looked great and was quite fun. As for the Alice film, I've no idea anymore. I hear there's still something happening with it, but I'm inclined to believe it when I see it.

GSUK: Will Grimm be coming to PC only or are there plans to release it over the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live too?

AM: The game could be brought to both consoles pretty easily. We're developing the title using Unreal 3, which makes the port process relatively simple. The big issue will be finding the right home. I'm leaning toward XBLA, but we'll have to wait and see what happens.

GSUK: Where do you get your inspiration from?

AM: I try to draw inspiration from everywhere; films, music, books, history, and the world around me. Being in China is a daily source of inspiration. Life here is chaotic, energetic, and slightly dangerous (in a good way). And I go out of my way to surround myself with creative, talented people. Ultimately, I feel my inspirations and creative abilities are only as good as the people I share my inspirations with.

GSUK: What artists do you admire/are you influenced by?

AM: Our internal team of artists: Ken Wong, Ben Kerstlake, Tyler Lockett, Yuan Xiao Fen, and Nako provide me with all the inspiration I need. These guys are really the heart and soul of our endeavour here in Shanghai. Without them to give life to the team's vision, we'd be lost.

GSUK: Which fairy tales will you be featuring in the game? Was it a hard choice to decide which to choose and which to lose?

AM: We have a list of 24 that we're working from. We chose them based on three criteria: popularity (awareness), content (location/characters), and contrast (ability to skew light/dark). The last two points made the decision-making process pretty simple. Many tales are too simple in setting and story to adapt into something worthwhile.

GSUK: What are you currently playing and what do you think of it?

AM: I just finished playing Portal and BioShock. I was highly impressed with both and wished in both cases that the play experience wouldn't end. BioShock convinced me that I could enjoy an action adventure game on a console (360 in this case), and Portal revived my faith in the PC (and downloadable content) as a place for radically new and interesting designs.

GSUK: Thanks for your time.

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