#61: American McGee’s Alice
“A dark interpretation of Alice In Wonderland” is not a phrase anyone wants to hear, but this game’s alright regardless
Initial release: 2000
Developer: Rogue Entertainment
Late 90s pop culture is perhaps best defined as “for people who took Johnny the Homicidal Maniac seriously.” There’s an aesthetic to stuff marketed to edgy kids in their teens and early twenties at the time that’s instantly recognizable, and American McGee’s Alice is no different. While I don’t think it’s accurate to call American McGee the Tim Burton of video games, there’s no denying a direct stylistic influence from the likes of Nightmare Before Christmas to American McGee’s Alice, and the success of Alice meant that McGee has tried to replicate the style occasionally. American McGee’s Alice (yes, that’s the whole title) is a monument to the millennial mallgoth zeitgeist: themes of mental illness, violence and despair in a twisted, sinister take on the classic Alice in Wonderland stories. It’s honestly a surprise that Tim Burton didn’t just rip this game off for his own Alice film.
Taking the motto of “we’re all mad here” literally, the game presents a shattered Wonderland as symbolic of Alice’s psyche after being the only survivor of a fire that killed her family. She spends a decade in an asylum completely shut down while fighting a battle in her mind. When the game begins, she’s nearly an adult, and has pulled together just enough of her identity to wander through Wonderland again, but it’s now a twisted, oppressive dictatorship under the rule of the Red Queen, who has seemingly merged with the Queen of Hearts.
What follows is a middling third person platformer, with design conventions common to FPS games of the era (American McGee got his start with id Software after all) and slathered in junior high goth crap.
Okay, that’s a little unfair. This kind of aesthetic has not aged well at all and I find it incredibly cringey, but I’ll cop to the fact that it’s a relatively unique look for games of the time, and unlike many FPS games of the era, the aesthetic stayed consistent throughout. The level design is mostly linear, but it reminds me quite a bit of the two Castlevania games for the Nintendo 64 in that there’s a bit of a different gameplay conceit in most of the stages. The latter half of the game, however, eventually chucks out all pretense and reverts to a more straightforward approach as you’re assaulting the queen’s castle. It’s also really obvious that this game was designed by people who cut their teeth on the likes of Doom and Quake. Like Iikka Keränen, for example — many of the later levels had detailing that reminded me of the Doom deathmatch mod Gothic DM, which he had previously worked on. If I had to pick out the worst level, it’s probably “Pool of Tears,” which is a teeth-gritting mess of having to ride a leaf down a stream while annoying little fish bastards attack you constantly. There’s also a later level where the mirror maze gimmick, initially interesting, quickly wears out its welcome.
Also like traditional FPS games, you’re armed with a full hyperspace arsenal of weaponry inspired by Lewis Carroll’s writings that uses a single source of ammo, “willpower.” On lower difficulties willpower will refill, which helps.
The controls will take some getting used to. Late 90s FPS engines were not really suited to platforming (hello, Xen from Half-Life) and the floatiness of the Quake III Arena engine means you’ll often just walk right off ledges without meaning to. While the HD release that’s included in copies of Alice: Madness Returns comes with full controller support, if you’re playing on PC it’s probably still better to just stick to mouse and keyboard for that reason. Though be warned: while if you own Alice: Madness Returns on XBox 360 or PlayStation 3, the HD version of American McGee’s Alice is already bundled with it, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to get the game on PC anymore through legal means. Previously you could get it if you bought the Alice Complete Collection on Origin, but even that seems to no longer exist.
The real treat of this game (aside from Chris Vrenna’s sinister-playroom-of-doom soundtrack) is the voice acting. None of the voice cast are well known, except possibly Roger Jackson, the voice of the Cheshire Cat (and Mojo Jojo on Powerpuff Girls.) I can’t really say enough how great the voice acting is. At a time when voice acting was still mostly considered an afterthought, American McGee’s Alice is on par with the likes of Thief or Metal Gear Solid. It really is an unsung gem in that regard.
All in all, while I can’t really say the game has aged well in aesthetic or gameplay, it’s not a BAD game — it’s a relatively amusing 8–10 hours with some fun levels and great voice acting. Maybe next time we’ll get that Strawberry Shortcake game.