People expect a lot from American McGee.
Perhaps it's because he used to work at id Software, the studio best known for being the father of the first-person shooter. Perhaps it's because he's been credited on the likes of Doom 2, Quake and Quake 2 — some of the best-selling and most-loved shooters. Or maybe it's because his contribution to Electronic Art's games was seen as so important his name was put on the front of every box. It wasn't EA's Alice or EA's Grimm — it was American McGee's Alice. American McGee's Grimm.
People expected him to stay at EA, where he no doubt enjoyed the security of working for one of the world's largest publishers. People expect, even twelve years after his departure from EA, that he's rolling in enough funds to start, finish and expand on as many games as he wishes.
People are often wrong.
McGee currently runs Spicy Horse, a modest independent studio based in China. Staffed with local and international developers, the studio stays funded through the games it makes and sells. There's no big publisher, no orders coming from the top and no promise of an endless stream of funds. It's a much more precarious position to be in. But it's also a position that allows the studio to make the kind of games it wants to make without higher-ups suggesting that a project might be too quirky, too niche or outright weird.
And that is how Akaneiro: Demon Hunters — a Japanese folklore meets Little Red Riding Hood in a Diablo-like action RPG — came to be.
FAIRY TALES AND THE HUMAN CONDITION
Akaneiro: Demon Hunters is a union of unlikely elements. There's the inspiration from The Lost Wolves of Japan; a non-fiction book that describes the decimation and eventual extinction of the indigenous wolves of Japan at the hands of American cattlemen. The wolves were demonized by foreigners and eventually wiped-out. There's Little Red Riding Hood, who has been brought into a mystical world of Japanese folklore and transformed into a fearless demon and wolf hunter. There's the way both Eastern and Western stories are carefully woven together in an action RPG that draws from Diablo and Torchlight. The world is rich, the battles frantic, and the demons demand much more from Red Riding Hood than most are used to seeing.
"It seems Western fairy tales either gave up on the creativity factor or they left all that stuff in the Bible."
"I think there's a lot more horror [in Asian fairy tales]," American McGee tells Polygon. "There's a lot more dealing with very screwed up, very creepy demons and monsters. It seems Western fairy tales either gave up on the creativity factor or they left all that stuff in the Bible. I'm not sure. But when you look at Western fairy tales, traditionally there's a lot of magic, but it's sort of mundane."
McGee gives examples of a wolf coming to life in a story or a princess who grows extremely long hair: these kinds of stories are creative and can evoke fear to a certain extent, but barely scratch the surface of the horror contained in some Asian fairy tales.
"When you look at Asian fairy tales, a lot of times they're dealing with demonic or satanic other-worldly or underworld-type characters that are really screwed up," he says. "So I think that is something where there is a lot of potential for terror in a lot of the stuff you read coming out of Asian mythologies."
Fairy tales aren't new territory for McGee, who worked on games inspired by Alice in Wonderland and an episodic series based on the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. In Akaneiro, he's managed to work one of the most well-known fairy tales into an already lush universe creeping with Japanese mysticism.
In a recent interview with the New York Post, McGee said the reason he explored so many fairy tales in his games was because he believes they capture facets of the human condition.
"I think there's a reason why the themes are so prevalent," McGee tells Polygon. For a story like Red Riding Hood, McGee says it goes back to oral tradition. The lineage of the origin of the story of a young girl going into the woods alone and having to be told by her parents or elders to watch out for 'fill in the blank' — the big bad wolf is what Westerners know — goes back tens of thousands of years.
"I think anytime you're tapping into core emotions, whether it be a love story or a revenge story, you're appealing to something that transcends boundaries."
McGee says while those different tribes may have split off from one another and ended up on different continents, they took with them those same stories, which are all about the same basic conditions of being human: of being afraid of the dark, afraid of being alone. By allowing storytellers to tap into these facets of the human condition, fairy tales can allow for more effective communication.
"I think anytime you're tapping into core emotions, whether it be a love story or a revenge story, you're appealing to something that transcends boundaries," McGee says. "It works across cultures around the globe, it works across mediums. And I think in games we benefit when we work with that kind of material because it can allow us to get to the point a little more quickly. We don't have to spend as much time building up the player's understanding of what the story is trying to be or who these characters are or what they're about."
TWISTED AND WONDERFUL
There's a recurring theme to McGee's fairy tale games. Alice in Wonderland, iconically wholesome and innocent in Disney's take on the character, is a psychopath institutionalized in an asylum in McGee's Alice. In Alice: Madness Returns, she grows up to have hallucinations and experiences hysteria. In Akaneiro, the Red Riding Hood that we know to be visiting her grandmother is a demon hunter. Characters and stories that are commonly known to represent innocence and naivety find themselves in strange, twisted situations where they themselves aren't quite sure who they're meant to be. It creates an interesting tension that's somewhat creepy, slightly morbid, and utterly captivating.
McGee believes that his personal narrative style was established when he was much younger, telling Polygon that the types of stories people like to tell tend to be formed during the earlier periods of their lives. In McGee's case, it was a conflicting childhood that led to his way of telling stories.
"...it was very much a fire and brimstone Texas tent revival kind of place with a lot of horror mixed in to keep the kids in line."
"I grew up in a family where on one side they were fundamentalist Christian — it was very much a fire and brimstone Texas tent revival kind of place with a lot of horror mixed in to keep the kids in line and to make sure we were all serving Jesus properly.
"And on the other side of that was another household in which it was very liberal to a fair extreme and a lot of hippy behavior going on, so you can imagine growing up as a child I was sort of torn between these two worlds of you're going to hell, fire and brimstone on one side, and anything goes on the other."
In Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, the fairy tale influence is more subtle than in previous games. It's still there, if you pay attention, but the influence of Japanese folklore is by far the defining feature of the game. Everything from the weapons to the armor to the setting and the tone of the story carries the influence of Japanese themes. It's wonderfully consistent, with the story fitting with the mechanics, the threat levels relating to the narrative, and the weapons, locations and enemy encounters tightly pulled together. The developers have worked hard to give the game a strong identity, and at no point does it forget what it's meant to be. Effortlessly weaving between all the moving parts is a story that is dark, twisted, captivating.
Akaneiro: Demon Hunters went into closed beta last November and open beta earlier this month. This week, it was greenlit on Steam. The game is complete. It is ready to be played. As of the time of writing, its open beta is being taken down while the development team works on final tweaks ahead of the game's release next week.
The game also happens to be on Kickstarter — a fact that has confused many players.
"We get that what we're doing is untraditional, so I think you might label this as a 'Kicklauncher'," McGee says. "We had the game done per our internal budget and schedule and we maintain that throughout development as we have with all our projects.
"But as we got closer to the end of development, we could see that there was still a long list of ideas we'd come up with that we hadn't yet found the time to implement."
In an attempt to implement these features at a faster pace, Spicy Horse has turned to Kickstarter. Being a small studio, if the Kickstarter funding goal of $200,000 isn't met, development will continue on Akaneiro, but most of the team will have to shift its focus to newer projects. If the funding goal is met, the current Akaneiro team will be able to continue dedicating its time to the project, allowing for quicker implementation of an iOS and Android version, a Linux version, co-op multiplayer, a crafting system and improved community support. The game is done. Spicy Horse just wants to do more.
At the time of writing the game has raised $84,000 with 16 days to go. Regardless of whether someone backs the Kickstarter campaign, Akaneiro will release, everyone will be able to access it and everyone will be able to play it for free. That, American McGee says, is something everyone can expect.