Monthly Archives: February 2012

American McGee’s Alice – Time to Die (Chris Vrenna)

Unique title, that seems to be always referenced with the creator name before it – “American McGee’s Alice”. It’s just a game about Alice, you know the girl from L. Carroll books. But this strange choice of putting the name into the title persisted and become one with the game. American James McGee is an american (you guessed it!) game designer, known mostly for his work in id Software. He helped coding both Doom’s and Quake I and Quake II. Actually, best Quake I deathmatch maps were made by him (dm2, dm4 anyone?). After leaving id software, American created his first adventure game, based on Quake III engine – and that game is Alice.

Now, when you think Alice, you probably remember the silly rabbit, hatter, red queen, cards, bizarre adventures involving shrinking and growing. Great material for a kid’s game, maybe with some twisted graphics, etc. This, more or less, was the expectation of an average game reviewer back then in 2000. Boy, were they wrong…

American McGee’s Alice story happens years after Alice book adventures. There’s no silliness and candy. At the very beginning you see Alice, being a poor, wretched creature in some kind of asylum, where she is clearly mad and thus being under constant observation. We learn that her parents died in a fire accident and their house burnt in it also. Alice is the only survivor and obviously the great trauma she suffered inflicted heavily on her mind. And here’s where “Wonderland” comes into play. Wonderland is no longer a dreamy bizarre land of a innocent bored girl. It’s now a nightmare, constructed in a tormented mind, trying to cope with the loss. All the characters look very grotesque, twisted. You will not recognize the rabbit, caterpillar or hatter. The game’s characters are roughly based on the inhabitants of original Wonderland, but they are “warped incarnations” of their conventional selves. It’s a place where “off with her head” order is being taken very seriously.

She’s not alone in this voyage. Her mysterious companion would be obviously the Cheshire Cat. He’s not that cuddle type you might think. Cheshire Cat looks more like a lampart, skinny, with an earring and tempting voice. And yes, he still grins as hell :). He will appear suddenly, to comment on what’s going on, give Alice some hints or just talk with Alice a bit:

– There may be more than one way to skin a cat, if you’ll pardon the expression.
– Most unpleasant metaphor, please avoid it in the future.

So, Alice, being sucked into this macabre reality, must find her way out. By completing several stages in different sceneries, she will strive to come back to her senses and to put back the shattered reality, regaining sanity and accepting what’s happened. As we further learn, some characters in Wonderland are projections of Alice’s fears, while some resemble positive, friendly forces. The game itself is pretty straightforward FPS game, where you steer Alice, jump a lot, shoot and hack/slash a lot, killing enemies and solving puzzles. You will gain few weapons, such as vorpal blade or deck of cards. It was quite an achievement back then, visually and atmospherically – and the game was praised for what it tried to be. I’m not sure if it led to a commercial success – not many people I’ve talked to actually knew the game.

The plot itself, however, is the strongest point of Alice. I don’t remeber the gameplay itself that much, but I remember the struggle Alice was undergoing, trying to not loose her marbles completely. Before each “boss” fight, there will be an interesting dialog, in which characters attempt to give Alice some hints about her past. There are also great dialogue lines. I definitely think this is not a game targeted for younger audience. You must not be teenager to appreciate all the dark tones and subtleties of the game. To give you an example of what you can expect:

– If ignorance is bliss, I must be ecstatic. (Alice)     
– If it’s my keen invention you’d like to destroy, I’ll withstand your best shot; I’ve got the right toy. (Alice)    
– Every adventure requires a first step. Trite, but true, even here. (Cheshire Cat)
– When the remarkable becomes bizarre, reason turns rancid. (Chesire Cat)       
– Even blurred vision is valued by the blind. If I were clever, would I cower in this slag heap? I’m not wise, girl. I’ve just … grown old. (Gnome)

What is most important about Alice, when it comes to contribution to the game genre, is that the game is a great proof that gaming industry can be a very creative business. Games don’t have to base on movies, comics, take their lore and characters. Games also don’t have to be blind followers of what’s already on the market. American McGee has shown here, that game creators also have balls to take a very popular story and provide a fresh, new, creative look, own radical vision. It’s no just for mere fun, but it also aims to be some kind of an artistic attempt. Game developers were very long ostracized and games were treated as “silly stuff”. Here you can see, that game can convey a very powerful and interesting story, that might never see the light without the help of the game it was part of.

The music of the game fits very well in the overall gloomy, bizarre world portrayed in the game. You will hear a lot of tick-tocking, tingling or toy instruments (triangle, xylophone), music boxes, door squeaking, cog rumble, machinery sounds. It reminds me the music of old horror movies, you know, where the music is quite steady, calm, but unnerving and eerie – and this drives you crazy, the anticipation. It’s like being into insane’s man mind – easy, easy, and all of sudden a weird outburst. It’s not exactly soundtrack you will listen to outside of the game (unless you’re looking for a theme for your rpg session), it’s too creepy and tied to the game atmosphere to stand on its own. But within the game, it’s exactly the music you want to hear.

Interesting bits – Chris Vrenna was a drummer for Nine Inch Nails. Also Marylin Manson was involved in creating of the music and the game itself. While I don’t know which music pieces would be influenced by him, articles reference him as a man who gave the Mad Hatter the look he has in the game (he was even considered as his voice).

More about American McGee’s Alice –’s_Alice