Alice: Madness Returns | Down the rabbit hole of insanity
Alice in Wonderland is and has always been the perfect story from which to find inspiration. Written in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s story about a little girl named Alice has hidden meanings and a dark side that many filmmakers and authors used to bring unique worlds alive.
The video game designer American McGee took every single piece of it with his work Alice: Madness Returns, the second chapter of the American McGee’s Alice series. McGee’s team used the novel as the only reference material with no attachment to other works.
Alice’s mad Wonderland
Set in 1800s London, the story revolves around Alice Liddell. She is a seven-year-old girl living in an asylum after her family died in a house fire. The darkest side of this story is that she feels responsible for it.
The setting is Wonderland but in a twisted and dark version of it. The player sees from Alice’s eyes, and through them can sense, since the beginning, that Wonderland is in fact a projection of Alice’s mind.
Alice has to save this place. She fights off enemies such as the Duchess (the corrupted version of the Red Queen), uses several different weapons (such as the Vorpal Blade, a decorated kitchen knife) and collects flower petals to restore her health.
Alice: Madness Returns is by definition a psychological horror action video game; it messes with the player’s mind up until the end. In fact, players won’t know about Wonderland and what it represents until the end of the game. Alice’s journey to the truth is also the player’s journey to knowledge.
In the sequel, Alice is 19 years old and lives in an orphanage after leaving the asylum. Here players learn about Dr. Angus Bumby, a psychiatrist who helps children recover through hypnosis.
Despite thinking she is finally out of her insane past, hallucinations of Wonderland struck Alice once again. This time a new villain seems to be taking over Wonderland: the Dollmaker.
The Dollmaker and other dolls
Going back to her memories, the player can finally see the truth: the Dollmaker is Dr. Bumby’s counterpart, who is responsible for her family’s death. Dr. Bumby has the precise mission of erasing children’s memory to make blank dolls out of them; dolls that he can easily sell to abusive masters and molesters.
The image of a blank doll can be found in another great work of the same year (2011): the movie Sucker Punch by Zack Snyder. Stories are pretty similar; a girl loses her family and is sent to an asylum to be treated to keep her from knowing and telling the truth.
Funnily enough, the main character’s name in Sucker Punch is Babydoll.
Babydoll can escape reality with visions of a fantasy world in which everyone has an evil and twisted counterpart. In the vision, she can defeat enemies, just like Alice, and save herself. Babydoll doesn’t fight, she dances on a soundtrack of classics like White Rabbit by the American band Jefferson Airplane.
And if you go chasing rabbitsWhite Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Both Sucker Punch and Alice: Madness Returns display a steampunk-inspired aesthetic. The dark setting helps viewers and players share the characters’ moods and follow their path to and through the madness.
Alice: a Madness trilogy and more
McGee’s plan was to make Alice’s series a trilogy, with one last episode that adds up the insane story. Alice: Asylum was announced in 2017 and has been a work-in-progress ever since. However, the Alice project goes all the way out of the videogame field to become a series of short films.
In 2015 McGee released Alice: Otherlands on various streaming platforms. The short film series shows Alice who enters the minds of famous cultural figures, Richard Wagner and Jules Verne, to discover and display the horrors lurking in the human subconscious. Because no matter how far the story goes from the original Alice in Wonderland, she will always follow some rabbit into a hole of obscurity, madness, and despair.