“Wonderland’s Become Quite Strange” – American McGee’s Alice at 20
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“Wonderland’s Become Quite Strange” – American McGee’s Alice at 20

2000.

The beginning of the new millennium and the 21st century. It’s mind-boggling that just over 20 years—two whole decades—have passed in what felt like a heartbeat. The gaming industry has seen itself evolve in so many interesting and creative ways, strengthening its standing as an art form with every title and exploring themes as yet untouched by the medium—in particular, the subject of the mind and mental health. With an understanding of its importance and complexities becoming more widespread over the years, video games also began to examine it in various fashions; recent titles like Gris and Celeste made it their primary focus. But back in 2000, there was a game that paved the way for these titles and opened the door to exploring the effects of a fractured mind through the reimagining a childhood classic.

Released in December 2000, well before EA fell down their own questionable rabbit hole, American McGee’s Alice is an action adventure game taking place after the events of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Praised by critics for otherworldly and elaborate visuals way ahead of their time, it immersed players in a Wonderland that was at once familiar yet changed, so fluid was the melding of the source material and McGee’s vision. A childhood comfort had been drastically twisted. Bolstered by a fondness for Grimm’s Tales and gothic atmosphere, 10 year old me was caught hook, line, and sinker, and it remains one of my all-time favourites to this day.

Let’s descend into madness as we travel back to the turn of the century and look at the exquisitely dark American McGee’s Alice.

Alice opens with our young protagonist sleeping soundly as she dreams of her previous adventures in Wonderland. But tragedy strikes as a fire rips through Alice’s home, claiming the lives of her parents and leaving her as the sole survivor. This leads to her becoming a patient at Rutledge Asylum, where she has been in a near catatonic state for 5 years. One of the nurses reunites her with a lost toy in the hope that it will encourage improvement. This simple act triggers a descent back down the rabbit hole of Alice’s mind into Wonderland, now horrifically altered from her whimsical memories.

Even the opening levels of the game signal the beginnings of change in regards to the subject matter. Alice and her fractured mental state are handled with both respect and the utmost seriousness; it is not a humorous plot device or outrageous stereotype. Wonderland itself reflects and is shaped by her inner turmoil, as are its inhabitants. The Cheshire Cat, while still serving as her guide with advisory riddles, is now mangy and skeletal. The Torch Gnomes from the Village of the Doomed carry large glowing orbs chained to their backs, reflecting the weight of loss and anguish Alice herself bears. Even the majority of weapons Alice uses to fend off Card Guards and other sinister adversaries are twisted versions of Victorian children’s toys—bladed cards, an explosive jack-in-the-box, and razor sharp jacks, to name a few. Playthings that once would have given joy are now instruments of pain—reminders of a childhood lost.

While the levels are very linear (a valid criticism upon release that still stands), the amount of detail and creativity in the art design is impeccably consistent, particularly in areas like the Fortress of Doors and the Land of Fire and Brimstone. The interior of the Fortress is a twisted version of a school, with doors leading nowhere and students in various stages of their own mental trauma. Bookcases are abnormally large and serve as precarious slopes to the exit, while classrooms containing powerful tools have floors leading to bottomless pits of books and screaming boojums waiting to propel Alice towards them—an education cut short and lost. 

This is another aspect that gives insight to the workings of a mind affected by mental illness. Though there may be no outward signs, there is the suggestion of a heightened level of creativity and intelligence at work as the mind seeks to process emotions and right itself.

The Land of Fire and Brimstone, however, is a completely raw, all-consuming landscape; a volcanic wasteland of lava and charred rock. In the centre sits a warped replica of her burning home, her mind recreating that harrowing night, with the diabolical Jabberwock confronting her in the painful depths of her self-hatred and survivor’s guilt. It’s a prime example of Carroll’s stories and McGee’s creativity perfectly melded.

Like many games of the late 90s/early 00s, Alice’s main downfall was control, or lack thereof. Alice’s movement was very slippery and, at times, seemed to have no centre of gravity—less than ideal for a game with an abundance of platforming puzzles! But since we are exploring a world inverted, this may not be such a glaring error. Hear me out; yes, every game has its faults—and this could certainly be considered one—but in a strange, far-fetched sort of way, this also could also be a nod towards Alice’s inner struggles and how simply keeping herself moving is an ever-present struggle, something that is an all-too-common feeling among those with mental health issues. Or the movement could just suck; I’m probably looking too deep into it. Still, it’s an interesting thought to ponder and might help you get through the more taxing sections… might.

It would be criminal to let this article pass without mentioning the sound design. Susan Brann and Roger L. Jackson, voicing Alice and the Cheshire Cat, respectively, are genius casting choices. Susan’s cut-glass delivery captures Alice’s traditional upbringing, emotional discord, and disconnect wonderfully, and Roger’s Cheshire Cat drips with beguiling charm and flair—you can practically hear that toothy grin! The score is also extremely impressive and impactful, all written and performed by Chris Vrenna of Nine Inch Nails. As shown in a short making-of documentary, the majority of sounds on the tracks were made using antique toys, music boxes, clocks, and doors. When sampled together with the eerie vocals of Jessicka Addams (frontwoman of Jack Off Jill), they create superb, unnerving soundscapes that mimic adolescent comforts in twisted ways.

It’s been 20 years since American McGee’s Alice brought us through a shattered looking glass into a warped Wonderland. In my opinion, it’s still a magnificent dark adventure worth revisiting, despite its flaws. While the core gameplay was nothing new for the era, it showcased amazing feats of world-building and art design in video games, cementing itself as one of the first titles to explore the complex world of mental health with integrity; it neither glamourised, satirised, nor demonised. It was dark, bright, detailed, fantastical, unsettling, and poignant. The 2011 sequel Alice: Madness Returns was an entertaining return to the story, but for me it fell just short of capturing the unique, corrupted atmosphere and striking imagery at play here.

As the old adage goes: nothing beats the original. 20 years later, that original is still a darkly sumptuous experience your mind will not easily forget. And, as far as this die-hard fan is concerned, nor should it.

“Truth is always bitter to those who fear it.”

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