How returning to much-loved games with new perspectives can change our relationship with the familiar.
With the recent onslaught of rebooted and remastered titles, it seems the games industry has figured out how many of us can be tempted back to the experiences we fell in love with when we were younger. Nowadays, many of us have Steam libraries with hundreds of games that we bought in sales and have yet to open, which is in stark contrast to the handful of titles we owned and replayed ad nauseam a decade ago; those games that I know better than any other are like old friends, familiar and comforting, and I enjoy returning to them.
But replaying old games isn’t always something I do just to relive past experiences; sometimes it’s a way to gain new perspectives. When I was young, I was only a consumer of games, but now I am a developer, a journalist, and a teacher - with this new experience comes new ways of seeing game worlds I once explored.
I’ve recently started replaying Alice: Madness Returns, refreshing my memory of the title now that American McGee has announced that Alice 3 might be on the horizon. I first picked up Madness Returns when I was 17. Fresh out of high school and trying to figure out who I was, the game took me on an adventure about self-discovery and empowerment, the cruelty that can be found in the world, and navigating the chaos inside your own mind. Returning to it six years after its release - and that first experience - has been enlightening.
The game feels different to me now, and not just because I’ve since become experienced in creating and critiquing games - rather than just playing them. During a recent trip to Melbourne, I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Ken Wong and Ben Kerslake, the art director and creative director respectively on Madness Returns. We chatted about the game for more than an hour, exploring the ins and outs of the various creative decisions made by the team - particularly the level design, the team’s artistic inspirations, and the ways this sequel differs from the original American McGee’s Alice.
Returning to the game after this conversation helped me linger on details, acknowledging the stories attached to them. Knowing who was responsible for placing the individual lights in the buildings of the Hatter’s Domain, or the stories behind the adorable giant snails or the beautiful dresses Alice wears in each level, gives each of these elements of the game greater significance than before.
It’s the same reason we play games (or watch films) with commentary from the team that made them, who tell us about the decisions they made, the way scenes or characters changed, and the funny stories from the creation process. Or why people queue for hours to hear from their favourite developers at conventions, desperately seeking the answers to long-harboured questions about the worlds we love.
Often, in this world where agency and player freedom is held up like the ultimate success, it feels like consumers are asking that developers hide their influence on a game world, instead preferring to believe that they are making their own decisions rather than negotiating a space with designers and writers and programmers and artists and so on. Perhaps that’s why people have reacted so angrily to the recent Twitter thread about the magic of game development - encouraged by a question asked by Melbourne developer Jennifer Scheurle. Developers indulged in the opportunity to pull back the curtain and reveal their secrets, and people felt like they had been deceived and betrayed.
But honestly, I think understanding these aspects of game design makes us all better consumers. Knowing who is pouring their time and effort into these games, and tossing and turning over their decisions, makes these artefacts even more valuable. Returning to games with these secrets revealed creates new experiences, and it feels like you are no longer player alone - instead, you’re playing alongside all of the amazing people who worked on the game originally.
The team who worked on Alice: Madness Returns will be continuing to chat with me about the secrets of this phenomenal game at PAX Australia, which is being held in Melbourne on 27-29th October, 2017. Join us to find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the game, and understand the joy of returning to the games you once loved with more than just rose-tinted glasses.