A distinctive impression was left on me after playing Alice: Madness Returns
. While some games are memorable for getting my adrenaline pumping in the midst of a particularly narrow fight, the memory I will retain from playing Alice was predominantly about getting inside her head. Alice is a morbid twist on the original 19th century fantasy novel. American McGee’s take on the story takes artistic liberties in creating the dark world of Wonderland, a representation of Alice’s slowly crumbling psyche.
The gameplay isn’t particularly unique. It’s a third-person action game with an abundance of platforming involved. What makes it stand out, however, is the unique take on these mechanics. Platforming goes (literally) beyond what the eye can see. After our protagonist comes across the mysterious “Drink Me” liquid, Alice is able to shrink, revealing a purple-coated lens through which she can see Wonderland. On command, shrinking Alice will reveal new platforms and pathways where she can find hidden treasures.
The third-person action is beautifully detailed with bursts of butterflies as Alice jumps or floats, a touch that grounded the initial impression of Wonderland as dream-like. Alice’s health bar is a vine of roses, and you’ll lose fragments of them as you get hurt. Even her weapons, however standard in terms of the purposes they serve - melee, long-range, defense, etc. - are defined by their quirky artistic interpretations of the quintessential weapons used in this style of fighting. Your always-bloody Vorpal Blade serves quick slices against your enemies while your Pepper Grinder and Teapot Cannon shoot across long distances. Alice’s uses an umbrella as her shield to defend herself. The artistic choices in not just Alice’s eclectic clothing, but also these forms of weapons is what makes taking up the role of Alice Liddell so intriguing. Spicy Horse developers really grasped the idea of Wonderland in a very dark and imaginative way.
Alice: Madness Returns is composed of two separate narrative experiences. In one, you’ll be wandering the streets of London, interacting with characters that have had a long standing history in your life. You uncover secrets about your life and family, and the mystery of the fire that caused their death. London is grim, and as Alice wanders through it she always seems to be chasing after the truth with barely a touch at its tail. She’s clearly greatly confused and struggling to maintain a grip on reality. She will almost immediately dip back into her own psyche, back down into the strange and rapidly deteriorating world of Wonderland, the dominant location in storyline in the game.
Alice has been so crippled by her experiences that she has lost her memory of the trauma she endured. Her psychiatric treatment didn’t prove to be a help either. Exploring some of her past memories, players will see flashbacks of what that trauma entailed as Alice recalls her experiences. It is a harrowing walk through Alice’s memories, and these are all new discoveries for Alice herself, as well. Alice doesn’t get much support from her caretakers, either. Everyone she interacts with in London feels a sense of selfish entitlement without really caring for her well being.
Part of why this game felt like such a journey-like experience is because it resonates with a greater level of creativity. The designers clearly attempted to break out of those ideas that form rigid boundaries, and in effect produced a visually-dependent, somber story.
This story is told to you via two forms of cut scenes. Occasionally, you’ll witness in-game scenes as Alice attempts to interrogate the inhabitants of Wonderland who are apparently intent on keeping information from her. Alice discovers that each of them have their own agenda, and that they are as equally mentally tormented as she is.
Cutout animations compose the other cut scenes. Most of the action of Madness Returns is represented in this format: a train - the manifestation of Alice’s creeping insanity - comes crashing into Wonderland, or a theater set up for a play becomes the feasting grounds for a gluttonous fiend. I’m conflicted as to my feelings towards this style of cinematic. On the one hand, it’s beautifully drawn and certainly unique but, on the other hand, it also distinctly draws a line through my experience with the game, separating the gameplay from the in-depth narrative. I’m reminded that the action taking place within these cut scenes is outside of my hands, almost as if a wedge was being pushed between myself and the game, inhibiting my ability to bond or relate with it.
Cut scenes aren’t the only tool Spicy Horse uses to tell Alice’s story. Each level represents a theme that often connects the real world to Alice’s Wonderland. After Alice confronts her old doctor at the asylum, for instance, she will enter the Oriental Grove level in which her doctor’s fascination with Eastern art and culture are reflected in both her dress and the environment itself. After some time, Alice becomes so enveloped in the destruction of Wonderland that it begins to seep into her reality, where the London streets slowly dip into the Queen of Hearts’ lair, etc. There is an elegant choreography within even the smallest of details in this game. Alice’s long hair and various dresses flow gracefully in the wind, adding a level of noticeably powerful realism.
My complaint with Alice: Madness Returns, however, is how much of a grueling process it can feel to finish each level. While playing the game, my estimate on the status of my progress did not translate equally to where I actually was. I expected levels to be finished at any upcoming minute, only for it to drag on further. Madness Returns definitely could have benefited from some fat being trimmed. Regardless, the grim and quirky art, as well as the exploration of Alice’s twisted mind makes up for this serious drawback.