For those of you who know me pretty well, you won’t be surprised about today’s topic. American McGee’s Alice and its sequel Alice: Madness Returns are two games that, upon my discovery of them, quickly turned me not only into a die-hard fan of the games themselves, but of Alice in Wonderland as a whole. With the exception of MMOs and long RPGs like the Mass Effect and Persona games, no other game series has eaten more of my time. And it’s the only game I’ve decided to play through a third time. Trust me, folks, that doesn’t happen often. Most games are lucky if they can make me play them twice.
So what is it about American McGee’s unique take on Alice’s adventures that has captured me so? Well, I’ll tell you. Hope you’re ready for a trip down the rabbit hole!
First things first then. What exactly is Alice and Alice: Madness Returns about? And what exactly does it have to do with the stories of old written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll? The answer? Everything and nothing. Obviously Mr. Dodgson had nothing to do with the games themselves, as he died long before they were in development. But I think you’ll find that games themselves take the surreal and dream-like qualities of Wonderland quite seriously (if such a thing were possible) and have crafted games that could very well be considered “spiritual successors” of the books. Albeit with a much darker tone and story then where we last left Alice in Through the Looking Glass…
The Plot: Soon after her “trips” to Wonderland, Alice and her family find themselves the unfortunate victims of a house fire. The fire consumes Alice’s family, burning them alive and leaving her the sole survivor of the Liddell family. (The Alice in the games draws from both the book version of Alice and the very real Alice Liddell that inspired them.) Badly burned with no family to take her in, Alice is sent to an asylum, where she stays for many years as the doctors try (unsuccessfully) to rouse her from the catatonic state the fire left her in. There Alice stays until one of the nurses fixes up Alice’s old stuffed rabbit and places it next to her…
Sucked into Wonderland once more, the now 18-year-old Alice discovers that Wonderland isn’t the place she remembers it once was as a girl. Twisted and dark, the Wonderland of her youth has fallen to pieces and it’s up to her to restore it to its former glory and defeat the tyrannical Red Queen that now rules it.
That is, simply put, the setup for the first Alice game. As you can see, the games put a rather dark twist on Alice’s story, but they do so in a manner that both reflects and respects the original material. Whereas the Wonderland of Alice’s youth was a place of oddities and child-like curiosities, the new Wonderland has been tainted and twisted by the madness and survivor’s guilt that now grips Alice’s mind.
Even the friends (and enemies) she once had in Wonderland have changed, and they aren’t quite the funny looking story-book characters they once were. On the contrary, they too have been touched by the madness that now infects Wonderland. The Mad Hatter has become obsessed with time, and has seen fit to construct a clock-work kingdom of his own no matter who he hurts in the process. The Duchess has let her gluttony rule, and would love nothing more then to eat every single delicious morsel that stumbles her way (including our dear Alice!). And of course, who can forget the Cheshire Cat?
Although he’s gotten rather mangy since Alice’s last visit, the feline’s grin still remains a comfort as he continues in his role of appearing and disappearing at-will to dole out riddles and advise. The Mock Turtle, Gryphon, Caterpillar, the Walrus and the Carpenter… pretty much every character from Alice’s first two trips into Wonderland makes an appearance at some point during the two games. It is just one of the many wonderful details hidden throughout the games that reference the books and add to the overall depth and quality of the gaming experience.
The Gameplay: Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that these games have revolutionary gameplay. Because they don’t. They are both pretty standard third person platformers that have you jumping and exploring while fighting off enemies that do their best to smear little miss Alice all over the floor. If you’ve played any of the God of War games or Mario 64, you have a pretty basic grasp of what’s going to be happening in Alice & Alice: Madness Returns.
Although both games essentially play the same, it should be noted that Madness Returns REALLY amps up the combat and even makes the platforming more entertaining by adding in triple jumping and gliding. You be surprised how much more entertaining it is to not be limited to single “hops” from one place to the other, when instead you can hop and float through the air like some sort of graceful, magical feather. This, when coupled with a pretty much non-existent death penalty for falling, allows the player to pretty much float and flut around to their heart’s desire as they explore the levels in Madness Returns.
And like I was saying, the combat — whoa boy, the combat! While I’d probably argue that the combat in the first Alice is probably its weakest link, what with the limited ability to dodge, limited ammo, generally ineffective weapons (Protip: Use the Jacks), and the anmoying nature of some of the enemies attacks… Madness Returns turns everything around and turns combat into one of the game’s strengths.
No longer forced to just hop out of the way, Madness Returns gives Alice all the abilities typical of action platformers of this day and age. A way to block incoming attacks (and even reflect them if timed correctly)? Yep, she’s got a Victorian umbrella for that. Need a way to dodge those pesky melee attacks and close the gap with enemies? Alice can do that too, by bursting into a cloud of brilliant blue butterflies and then reforming herself somewhere close by. As you can imagine, the increase in options leads to an increase in fun. Same goes for weapons.
Like I said before, most of the weapons in the first Alice were pretty lackluster. Except for the Jacks. Man, those things kick serious butt! But anyway… While the number of weapons technically decreases in Madness, you’ll find that each weapon now actually has a purpose and is *gasp* useful! Enemy has armor? Break through it with the mace-like Hobby Horse. Enemy can fly? Pepper it from a distance with the mini-gun-esque Pepper Grinder. Have you found their weak spot and want to go in for the kill? Then grab Alice’s signature Vorpal Blade and slash the living ba-jesus out of them…
Of course with combat being the “weakest” part of the series, I think it’s time I finally talk about what this series does absolutely, wonderfully right.
The Art: My. God. I could talk ages about what they do right with these games… But I won’t. Instead I’ll just post as many wonderful pieces of art from the games, the “Storybook“, and any other concept art that I can find. I think you’ll see what I mean when I say that the art is both beautiful and grim, twisted yet captivating…
Folks, that’s only a taste of the wonderful art and scenery that lies within these games. And this isn’t even factoring in the amazing soundtrack that both games have, featuring some of the most hauntingly beautiful ambient music around. There are a lot of games out there that can help make the claim that video games are art, but the Alice games are two of the strongest. The second game has even gone on to win quite a few awards in that regard.
Simply put, if all the evidence I’ve given you hasn’t persuaded you to at least try these two games, then I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you should go back to playing Madden or something. These games are works of art, borrowing from classic literature and adding a dark layer of psychosis to a genre of games typically left to meat-headed Spartans who simply run around trying to smash things. These games are surreal and surprisingly deep, unafraid to deal with very real issues that sadly affect the lives to all too many people out there. Abuse, the grief of loss and the consequences of trying to ignore the horrible things going on around you. This game doesn’t shy away from the damage that many people suffer every day, and you shouldn’t shy away from it either. As the Cheshire Cat would say,
“Forgetting pain is convenient. Remembering it, agonizing. But recovering the truth is worth the suffering…”
These games deserve to be played. So what are you waiting for? Go play them!