American McGee’s Alice has been a favorite of this site for some years, and our joy upon discovering that her adventures through Wonderland would soon continue was palpable. I’ve been thinking about Alice recently, meaning to write something long, pedantic, and boring about it, but hadn’t found the time until today. This is the perfect example of a game very few understood; possibly not even its creator. Alice has more to offer than platforming and odd locations, but despite the nuances there to appreciate, few could be bothered to find them. Let’s visit Wonderland again.
Said I this of Alice when describing it in my (woefully out of date) Required Reading list:
American McGee’s towering, unappreciated masterpiece of character-driven narrative went totally misunderstood by gamers and outsiders alike. People shortsightedly saw Alice as a twitch title, a 3rd person platformer with odd visuals, heavy on moodiness and lacking in depth. But the jumping puzzle-based play and lavish Quake 3 powered graphics were just a gilded and occasionally frustrating proscenium framing the game’s true strengths.
Alice is a patchwork nightmare that illuminates in glitteringly rich strokes the precarious constitution of sanity and the secret shape of guilt. Like some of the great novels, it is a story about regret, estrangement and loss; with the added layer of interactivity allowing the player to experience these emotions as no reader can. Set entirely in the catatonic mind of the former Wonderland explorer, now teenaged and institutionalized, Alice guides us through the deepest corners of a sexually maturing girl’s imaginings. Hers is a mind consumed by misery and doubt, by natural hormones and unnatural self-hatred, where impish companions of the past manifest in adolescence as horrifying allegories of guilt and loss. Alice’s old friends have reinvented themselves within her mind, using memories and traumas as grist from which their identities spring. From a deeply disturbed Cheshire Cat to a terrifying clockwork Jabberwock, they are now ghoulish, dementia-fueled metaphors for everything Alice has ever done wrong, everything she hates most about herself, and everything that drove her to madness.
Despite outdoing myself in pure absurd baroquishness of prose (“gilded proscenium?” I mean come on), I’ve always been fond of that little blurb because I think it sums up the experience of the game quite well. Alice is indeed a twitch title, a challenging Quake 3-powered platformer with significant emphasis on jumping puzzles and combat. Visually what set it apart were its heady environments, some drawn directly from Wonderland, others wholly unique.
But thematically, Alice existed on a whole other level than most games, particularly from what we tended to see in 2001. If you think gravel-voiced space marines with biceps like Christmas hams are commonplace now, travel back in time and get a load of the sort of crap we endured back then.
Beware the Jubjub Bird, and Shun the Frumious Bandersnatch
Alice gave us a protagonist who was female, teenaged, insane, sexually immature, completely unhooked from reality, and very possibly a parricide. Her family had been killed in a house fire while she supposedly dozed upstairs; a blaze that Alice herself may have set. That she feels guilt for the deaths of her loved ones is unquestioned, but one of the game’s villains is quick to point out her culpability in their demise even if she wasn’t the one who started the fire. “You were having tea with your friends while they burned,” sneers the Jabberwock, its hissing inflection all that’s necessary to drill home its cruel point: playing with matches or no, scatterbrained Alice was happily lost in Wonderland, hanging out with the Dormouse and the Rabbit and all her imaginary chums, too much involved in her phantasmagoric tea party to hear the screams of her real family as they died.
Themes like this pervade Alice. The girl is institutionalized after the fire; catatonic, either unable or unwilling to communicate with the real world. That she is now trapped in Wonderland, rather than a willing visitor, and that Wonderland has become something quite different and much more awful than the idyllic chess games and tea parties of the past, are something we discover as play begins. The Queen of Hearts has tightened her fist on the realm, enslaving some inhabitants while torturing and murdering others who stand against her. Many of Alice’s old playmates – the Mad Hatter, the Duchess, the Tweedles, and plenty of others – have gone over to the Queen’s side, while those few who remain to fight for freedom in Wonderland are either imprisoned and subject to ghastly experiments, on the run, or disconcertingly changed from their youthful incarnations. Of course, the key to remember here is that Wonderland, even this warped and twisted version of it, exists only in Alice’s head. The characters are like this because her mind made them that way; they are the gremlins of her id. The Jabberwock’s cruel accusation is, when laid bare, self-reproach.
The game begins, as one might imagine, by chasing the White Rabbit down a hole. Mr. Rabbit is definitely in quite a hurry to get somewhere, and Alice is intent on finding him, but navigation in Wonderland, never particularly easy, is more challenging now because of the Queen’s vicious Card Guards and similarly dangerous servants. We later learn that the White Rabbit is trying to lead Alice to the Caterpillar, but can’t communicate with her as directly as he’d like. The Caterpillar in turn has information necessary to destroy the Queen of Hearts, information without which Alice can’t possibly hope to repair her shattered mind.
As befits a gothic lolita who may have murdered her parents, Alice comes equipped with a bloody butcher knife that she can swing and hurl with deadly efficiency. This weapon is the most important one you’ll find throughout the game, though our heroine does come upon other ordnance, almost all of which are toys: jacks, playing cards, a flamingo in croquet mallet form. It’s one of the many subtle disjunctions you’ll see throughout your adventures in Alice. Children’s playthings tend to be the most dangerous items, and places such as schools represent some of the most menacing and hazardous environments. The juxtaposition of youthful follies and very horrible adult concepts such as torture and slavery are part of what make the game so disturbing.
Because Alice is not a child any more. She’s a teenager, with all the angst and raging hormones and general confusion associated with that species. One sublimely ignorant journalist dismissed this game as a designer’s sexual fantasy, claiming that popping Alice into a pair of S&M boots and clipping a skull onto her apron tie did not a quality game make. If that was all American McGee and his team had done, I might agree. But Alice’s costuming is just the outward manifestation of her inner ghoul. Her clothing and demeanor match the disordered and unhealthy nature of her mind. The game is so adept at conjuring the reality of Wonderland that it’s easy to forget that the whole thing is taking place in a mad person’s fever dream. The fundamental difference between sane people and insane people is that the former can manage the flow and organization of their thoughts, while the latter are in thrall to the same. So long as the Queen of Hearts rules Wonderland, Alice cannot – which means that her mind is not under her control. Boots or no, there’s nothing sexy about Alice, and I’m befuddled by this reviewer’s flip and dismissive attitude. She is a painfully broken individual; another interesting contradiction of Alice: typically, mature gamers are going to admire female characters who are strong, independent, and willful. Alice is certainly all of these, but I at least was not attracted to her even from a perspective of camaraderie. She’s not the kind of person you want to be around. “Crazy” in movies and TV is often presented as either blindly murderous or funny and inconvenient but not necessarily all that bad. Real crazy is tragedy and broken families, watching helplessly as someone you knew turns into something they weren’t; real crazy is cutting your fingertips with a knife and begging the voices to stop berating you or existing in a persistent nightmare… or burning down a house containing your family. Alice is real crazy, not cute crazy, and it’s frightening. But because we are in Wonderland, “real crazy” is on the outside, the environments and creatures, rather than internal to her. Alice herself is quite rational in the game, because she’s in her mind, and so what we see around us is what quantifies her insanity. Evil queens, enslaved gnomes, Mengele-like experiments performed on March Hares and Dormice, broken clocks and shifting floors. It is her relationships, and how the creatures and places in her mind have changed to reflect her madness, that define the themes of Alice.
If You’ve Gotta Go, Go with a Smile
The most important man in Alice’s life is the Cheshire Cat, that grinning feline who told her flat out long ago that she was mad (“How do you know I’m mad?” asked Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here”). He’s right, of course, though Alice didn’t go mad when Lewis Carroll seemed to think. That came later, and ironically enough, this time around the Cat never bothers (or maybe is too kind) to tell her the truth about her mental state.
The Cheshire Cat is useless throughout Alice’s entire adventure. Sure, there’s a hotkey that can summon him for worthless, plauditory suggestions that almost never apply to the challenge at hand. But he is with her almost until the bitter end; invisible most of the time, appearing only when you summon him to emit one of those pointless lozenges of advice, or in the ‘tween mission cutscenes, when he actually has information of some value to dispense.
I admit, during my first playthrough of Alice, I was fairly certain the Cheshire Cat would turn out to be a villain. After all, the Hatter – never really a friend to Alice in Carroll’s stories, but certainly no ally to the Queen of Hearts – quickly turned, as has Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and the entire Red side of the chessboard in Looking Glass Land. But despite his demonic countenance and attitude, despite his almost gleeful uselessness, the Cat is indeed your friend, and the one friend who survives almost – almost – to the very end of the game. Like a real cat he doesn’t actually contribute much besides companionship, but he is a good kitty.
The Cheshire Cat, though, is a remote figure of masculinity, and undefined by his gender. Since he’s one of the first creatures Alice encounters on this trip to Wonderland, his startlingly different appearance serves to give both Alice and the player a warning of what’s to come (“You’ve gone rather mangy, Cat,” she says, “But your grin’s a comfort”). His male-ness is insignificant to Alice’s growth; like the creature in the novels, he is nothing but a smile, more a talisman than a true character. It is only when she loses him that Alice realizes how much he’d meant to her.
Much more interesting from an Alice-as-maturing-teenage-girl perspective is Gryphon, who turns up about midway through the story, needing rescue from one of the Queen’s prisons. His role in Alice is as her staunchest, bravest ally, and the one most dedicated to helping her free Wonderland. While the White Rabbit flees, and the Cheshire Cat vanishes, and the Mock Turtle pleads for help, and Humpty Dumpty does nothing at all, Gryphon fights, he fights right alongside Alice. He is what little remains of her sanity and inherent goodness, returning again and again to save her when she seems doomed. Gryphon is very much the classic white knight of the tale (the actual White Knight, interestingly, doesn’t appear in Alice, though may of the other White pieces do), and he’s idealized by Alice in a very specific and natural way. Teenage girls dig personalities like this, and since Alice is all a mental exercise, Gryphon doesn’t need to have any of the flaws or weaknesses that human hero-figures inevitably do. His death at the claws of the Jabberwock is a blow to Alice for many reasons, not least of which because he sacrificed himself to save her; but more significant is the constant realization that the Jabberwock didn’t actually kill Gryphon… Alice did. She created this fearsome monster, this Jabberwock 2.0, with its clockwork innards and its laser beams and its scythelike talons, and she created a Gryphon too weak to defeat him.
You’re Nothing but a Pack of Cards
The death of loved ones is, obviously enough, such a pervasive current in Alice that by the end it’s become the core theme. One by one her friends are cut down, unexpectedly and often quite gruesomely. Alice has little time to grieve when Gryphon falls, because she must immediately deal with the Jabberwock or be killed herself in one of the most challenging boss battles ever coded into a game. But when the Queen finally manages to off-with-his-head the Cheshire Cat it becomes too much. There on the doorstep of the Queen’s throne room Alice finally breaks down, lamenting that all who’ve tried to help her have died, and that she must go on alone. This is very Hero’s Journey. I don’t really support overzealous application of Joseph Campbell’s theories to game experiences. First of all I think the entire concept of the Hero’s Journey is obvious, lacking subtlety or nuance, and qualifies as the sort of “well duh” knowledge that didn’t really need to be turned into a book to be validated. And I think that in order to validate it, Campbell inserted unnecessary specificity into something that should be much more fluid, creating an almost mathematical set of rules to define what is and is not an acceptable rite of passage for heroic growth. I also don’t like the vague sexism implicit in much of the monomyth philosophy – stuff like the “woman as temptress” and overall masculine bias of the hero. I am a modern dude who can accept the idea of female heroes, and can also accept that a person can be a hero without descending into the underworld, however figuratively, to gab with their parents. In any case, it works here largely for narratological reasons: like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker, Alice must eventually face the danger alone or risk cheapening the victory.
Alice, however, is as crazy as Republican policy, and she’s ill-equipped to face the Queen of Hearts even with all her friends on hand. It’s a pity that little of her backstory is presented in-game; the boxed editions (older ones, at least) include a doctor’s journal that describes her therapy sessions and the psychiatrist’s impressions of the young woman in his charge.
One thing that has always interested me about this game is the presentation of Wonderland as an individual’s private, fully-realized mental space, like the equivalent of Cylon visualization or a Buddhist monk’s meditative trance. It’s a place that Alice can enter, leaving this world behind. Of course, that this leads to tragedy is an important part of the game, but the concept of a completely immersive imaginary world has always appealed to me. Maybe this is why I play so many video games – after all, short of becoming a Cylon or a Buddhist monk, there’s really no better way to get out of this world and into another.
We’ve seen a handful of other games that take place inside people’s minds, either wholly or in part. Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts is one of the few to compete with Alice in sheer brilliance of presentation. Mechanically these two games are remarkably similar: platformers with emphasis on puzzle solving, important narrative, highly charismatic characters, and the depiction of inner thoughts and feelings. It’s funny that Alice is a study in nihilism, one of the bleakest and darkest games of the period, while Psychonauts is one of the greatest examples of working comedy in gaming. No game ever made me laugh as hard as Psychonauts did, and few games have disturbed me as much as Alice.
That Alice does eventually triumph over her demons and gets released from the asylum is a victory of sorts, but even as she encounters and apparently adopts a stray cat upon exiting the hospital during the only few seconds of the game that take place in the real world, there’s a sense of loss. Alice defeated the Queen and saved Wonderland, but in so doing she had to abandon it and certain aspects of herself. The child locked in a teenager’s body has been replaced with a mentally healthy young woman, and the ease with which she was able to shift into imaginary worlds has, with maturity, diminished. The price of that, of course, is the loss of those places and friends she once held dear. Though they always were just figments of her imagination, we get the sense that Alice is unable to resurrect the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Gryphon, and the others. We get the sense that Wonderland itself may be lost to her. Growing up doesn’t necessarily mean that we must sacrifice imagination, but recovering from trauma such as what Alice experienced requires that she reinvent herself in a way that demands she let go of certain once-cherished things.
Feed Your Head
Among its many themes, Alice is a rumination on insanity, and on the human capacity to use its own brain in odd ways to recover from terrible experiences. Dissociative memory disorders, fugue states, catatonia; these are the In Case Of Emergency Break Glass last-resort tools that a damaged mind can use to correct its course. Naturally, such tools are dangerous and don’t always work, but they’re better than nothing. It might be argued that being “driven mad” – versus suffering a documented illness like schizophrenia – is actually like having a fever. When the body is sick it turns up the furnace to weaken and kill the invader; sometimes it loses control of the thermostat and winds up doing more harm than good. Alice’s retreat into Wonderland was just a way to come to grips with the tragedies in her life.
The Wonderland of Alice reminds me of a similar concept presented in Sam Kieth’s The Maxx comics, which suggests that everyone has a private mental place called an Outback, literally in the back of your mind where it’s safest. You can go to your Outback to hide or recover from traumatic events, though in The Maxx it can be dangerous to stay too long. Those who linger in their Outback may have difficulty differentiating it from reality, a risky situation that can lead to all kinds of problems. In both Alice and The Maxx, these mental shelters are intensely real to their occupants, but bizarre and dreamlike to viewers, which can be off-putting if you go in not knowing what to expect.
It’s interesting, but back in 2001 publisher EA kind of expected that Alice would be a barrier-breaker for the industry, bringing in nongamers and vastly expanding the medium’s playership. I don’t know what planet they were on when they came up with this idea; presumably they figured that a tie-in to a popular children’s story would be enough to draw grandmas and cheerleaders into gaming. But setting this sort of goal and then handing creation of the game to a mind as blighted as American McGee’s is the gameic equivalent of hiring Terry Gilliam to direct a remake of Winnie-the-Pooh. If any nongamers did buy Alice, they were probably so horrified by what they saw that we’ve lost them forever.
McGee started at id Software, working on DOOM and Quake; he was fired (everyone gets fired there sooner or later), and Alice was his first post-id project. It was in this game that he firmly established his vision, and he’s been unable to recreate it since. His post-Alice work has ranged from merely bad to disastrous, leading many (self included) to wonder how much of Alice’s brilliance was actually McGee’s doing and how much was someone else’s. EA’s recent announcement that there’s to be a sequel at all, and that McGee will be helming it, is surprising, and cause for a little concern. Assuming American McGee wasn’t the creative steam shovel behind the original game, it’s very possible that any Alice sequel comes off more like Bad Day L.A. than the rich, moody, and layered experience we’re all hoping for.
Alice stands out in game design as an early attempt to build a character-driven narrative around a true rite of passage, and it succeeds because it is able to effectively evolve the protagonist and weave the mechanics of gameplay into its themes without either one overshadowing the other. Because it did little to engage the player in the narrative, preferring instead to allow the environments and characters to speak for themselves, a lot of people didn’t get it, seeing the game as just a fairy tale laced heavily with fear and loathing. To be honest I sometimes wonder if American McGee and his team saw in Alice what the actual game turned out to be: a thing of incredible delicacy and beauty, as much a cautionary tale about the fragility of the soul as it was a piece of entertainment.
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