Jason Tai Interview: Directing the Sound of Alice: Madness Returns (June 2011)
American McGee's Alice caused a sensation eleven years ago with its twisted incarnation of Lewis Carroll's fantasy protagonist. Alice: Madness Returns revisits the macabre character as she travels to Wonderland to escape her nightmares. Developed by American McGee's Spicy Horse Studio in Shanghai, the game is due to be released on June 14 for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.
In this interview, the sound director and lead composer of Alice: Madness Returns, Jason Tai, exclusively talks to us about the audio for the game. He reflects on how the music, sound effects, and dialogue for the game combine to complement the visual direction. He also discusses his experiences working with Nine Inch Nails' Chris Vrenna on the project and what to expect from the soundtrack release.
Interview Subject: Jason Tai
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Sara Black
Chris: Jason Tai, we greatly appreciate you talking to us today about the audio of Alice: Madness Returns. Eleven years have passed since American McGee's Alice was released and the game's scenario reflects this. How did this shift in setting influence your direction of the music and sound?
Jason Tai: Thanks for having me. Alice: Madness Returns is a new game and we approached it with new ideas and new sounds. The best way I can put it is the music and sounds are more mature with a hint of the past.
Chris: In terms of production values, much has changed in eleven years too. How did you ensure the music and sound of Alice: Madness Returns stands out in the current era? What are the major creative and technological developments since the first game?
Jason Tai: The instrument palettes and the unique arrangements are what will probably stand out most. There are a lot more sound effects and dialogue than the first game. Players will hear a lot of incidental sounds throughout — blending music. The Unreal engine allowed us to achieve this easily.
Chris: Of course, Alice: Madness Returns reimagines the characters and settings of Lewis Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Are you also a fan of this fantasy novel? To what extent was it an inspiration to you during the score production?
Jason Tai: I like the story and its characters. As for inspiration, not much to be honest. Alice: Madness Return's artwork and visuals spoke to me more when composing the score.
Chris: While you weren't part of the original American McGee's Alice, you were closely involved with the audio production for the episodic fairytale adaptation American McGee's Grimm. How did this title, despite its more childish style, prepare you for the role of sound director on Alice: Madness Returns?
Jason Tai: I think Grimm's production helped me click with the rest of the team — most of whom formed the core development team in Alice: Madness Returns — more than anything. It also helped us as a team in familiarizing ourselves with the development process. Grimm was my first ever project with the Unreal Engine so it was sort of a training ground if you will.
Chris: Nine Inch Nails' Chris Vrenna created the highly recognised score for American McGee's Alice and this was presumably an influence too. What was it like to step in Vrenna's shoes for the score for Alice: Madness Returns? Was it inspiring or intimidating?
Jason Tai: It was a little intimidating at first, but as the development of the game progressed, I became more comfortable and confident in composing the score. I realised I wasn't trying to fill Chris' shoes, rather producing my best work for the game. A lot of it had to do with how the game was shaping up; the look, feel and general vibe of it helped in terms of inspiration and ideas.
Chris: Nevertheless, Chris Vrenna was involved in the early stages of Alice: Madness Returns and one of his pieces is featured on the soundtrack release. Could you elaborate more on Vrenna's contribution to the score? Did his music serve as a prototype for you?
Jason Tai: Chris came out to our development team in Shanghai in the early stages and we discussed ideas, music styles, instrument palettes, things he learned from the first Alice. He sent us a couple of tracks, some of which are used in Alice: Madness Returns.
Chris: Another guest contributor for Alice: Madness Returns was Marshall Crutcher. What inspired the decision to recruit him to create the classically-oriented main themes of the score? What do these tracks bring to the experience?
Jason Tai: Marshall was introduced to us by RJ Berg. We decided early on that the main theme will be Victorian inspired, and the majority of the London music is based off of the main theme. It balances out the Wonderland tracks nicely.
Chris: Ambient scores tend to blur the boundaries between music and sound design. Do you think this is also true for Alice: Madness Returns? Does much of the music blend with the in-game environments and scenery?
Jason Tai: My approach was to always look at audio as a whole, i.e. music, sound effects, and dialogue, and 'compose' them as one. The objective was to have these three components sit well with and lean on one another. Our sound designer Roland and I worked well together to achieve this balance.
Chris: Much ambient music can nevertheless be appreciated on a stand-alone level. Was this a significant consideration for you when scoring Alice: Madness Returns or was functionality more important? Do you think the soundtrack release for the title will be a satisfying one?
Jason Tai: Some tracks have more of a conventional song structure to them while others are more soundscapey and ambient. The main focus was definitely what works well in-game, in cinematics, and in combat.
Chris: Beyond composing music, you put considerable effort into sound design, voice recording, and audio programming on Alice: Madness Returns. Could you tell us a little more about how you ensured these various elements complemented the game's vision?
Jason Tai: As I mentioned earlier, these three components were treated as a whole. Roland Shaw, our Sound Designer, did an amazing job with the sound effects and mixing. Both of us worked really well together and we had coders help out with the audio programming. A lot of our time was also spent play testing the game. There is no substitute for hearing your work in-game.
Chris: Indeed, it is becoming increasingly rare for in-house sound directors to compose the music for titles. What do you feel were the advantages of this approach, as opposed to hiring an external composer? Did it help to ensure a more detailed and cohesive audio experience?
Jason Tai: Being able to instantly hear the score in-game is a huge advantage. I could make little edits here and there and create new stems, stingers, and transitions on the spot. Roland and I often send each other sub mixes to test and we would talk about changes. We could implement those changes immediately and have it in the daily build.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Jason Tai. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Alice: Madness Returns? Thank you.
Jason Tai: My pleasure. The Alice: Madness Returns team did an excellent job and I hope everyone will enjoy the game.