- Written by Christopher /
- Published: 21 July 2014
As a kid, I loved reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The characters and situations hidden in those pages were so magical and wondrously weird; almost too weird to be fiction. It felt like if I closed the book and started reading where I left off, the story would change somehow, and it would feel new again. As I grew up, I still enjoyed the stories, but I could sense the subtle darkness pervading the pages. There was magic all right, but also madness. Apparently, American McGee felt the same way, because he created an entire game that runs with the notion, ‘What if there was a mature, grim reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale?’ Enter American McGee’s Alice, a violent, unnerving vision of psychosis, imagination, and somewhat frustrating game design.
American McGee’s Alice was released in December of 2000, almost 14 years ago. You would be fair to think that, in this great gap in time filled with amazing advances in gaming technology, that the game has lost its edge. In some respects, you would be right. But American McGee’s Alice is all about atmosphere, and that holds up to this very day exceptionally well. The game’s pause screen says it all: Alice’s wild hair and vacant expression, sitting on some rusty bed, trapped in a dark, flickering room with god-knows-what going on in her head. This is a game born of madness. Strangely, the atmosphere is rarely oppressive or joyless. There’s always fun in finding out what’s lurking around the next distorted corner.
The somewhat dated graphics do nothing to diminish the unsettling nature of the game. If the Cheshire Cat’s glowing grin doesn’t send a chill slithering down your spine, nothing will. In a weird way, the simplistic graphics (by today’s standards) makes the game even eerier. Everything has a warped, hellish quality, like walking through a surrealist painting. The trippy visual effects also remain entrancing and mind-bending in their own right. The attention to detail in the environments is also impressive. There’s always something new and disconcerting to see, whether it be a decapitated card soldier or lobotomized child locked in a school. Leave it to Alice to really push the boundaries of that M-rating.
The fantastic music really sets the creep factor to eleven. Filled with howling screams, haunting bells, and ticking clocks, the world feels like it’s going to tear your mind apart. It’s the sounds of someone slowly going insane. It all adds up to my favourite kind of horror: the ominous, psychological kind. There’s no jump scares or axe-murderers running around, but that doesn’t mean the game lacks true terror. It’s a sick feeling that everything isn’t quite right that makes the story and world so morbidly intriguing.
The writing is wonderfully strange and the performances are deliriously entertaining. Alice herself is a stand-out character. Cold, brave, and witty, she has a true grit about her that doesn’t feel forced. The Lewis Carroll creations you love will all make appearances, but not exactly as you remember them. In fact, some, like the Mad Hatter, you may never see in the same light afterward. American McGee’s Alice can be a childhood-ruining experience, but in a good way. This is the version of Alice I always sensed, but never knew I wanted.
I could have done without the wonky platforming though. Yes, I have gripes with the gameplay of a 14 year old game. No, I don’t think that’s the equivalent of picking on someone’s 4th grade attempt at building a toy box. The controls are floaty. Alice feels like she has no weight to her. When she jumps, you often have to pray she goes where you want her to. Most of my deaths in the game were caused by Alice refusing to co-operate with my button commands and willfully flinging herself off a ledge.
Thankfully, while the platforming may lack the fidelity and pinpoint control of a 3D Super Mario title, the game never asks anything unfair of the player. I never felt like a jump was too ridiculous with the mechanics I had been given. There were definite frustrations, but nothing game-breaking or truly worthy of throwing a controller over. Just remember to manually save often, because the auto-save system is, to put it nicely, forgetful. In other terms, it’s pretty unforgiving. (Another hint that this game wasn’t made in the days when games held your hand). If you die, you’ll get sent pretty far back. That’s worth throwing a controller over.
There’s also a hefty amount of combat involved between those platforming sections. There are loads of unconventional weapons at Alice’s disposal, like croquet mallets for ranged attacks and thrown dice that spawn minions who will fight for you. The stronger the weapon, like the Jacks you can throw, for example, the more mana they consume. You can’t just spam your best weapons willy-nilly, or you’ll find yourself stuck against tough enemies with nothing but your knife to take them down. The AI always starts off very aggressive, but once you get their health down, they run away like scared children. That’s probably the biggest flaw with the combat: there’s a whole lot of chasing involved. Either you’re running after the enemies, or they’re running after you. The sight of a little girl with a large knife chasing after an ant dressed in an army outfit is probably a good simulation of taking LSD, and one of the stranger images I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Besides the atmosphere, the game’s greatest strength is in making the player feel like they are on an untold adventure. There’s no map or guidelines or instructions on how to get to the end. You have to rely on your wits to save you. For example, there’s lots of variety in terms of weapon selection and enemy design, but the game never tells you to use specific weapons for specific enemies. It’s up to the player to decide which is best for every encounter.
This freedom from rigid structure applies to the world itself. In another game, the seemingly random and nonsensical level design might be construed as a flaw, but here, it works perfectly. Wonderland isn’t supposed to have any cohesion behind its construction. It’s a dream and a nightmare crashing into one another inside a little girl’s disturbed imagination. An over-sized forest transitioning to a black-and-white maze-like town makes total sense! In fact, that’s part of the fun: guessing just what kind of twisted landscape will come next.
As a kid, I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As an adult, I now have American McGee’s Alice. Sure, when I revisit it I might swear loudly when Alice mistakenly jumps into a river of lava, but the power of the insidious story and sinister atmosphere will never waver. Going cuckoo has never been this much fun. Sign me up for the nearest insane asylum! Just make sure my cell is next to Alice.