I’ve already spoken about two of my favourite games of all time, Psychonauts and Bioshock. But, I can’t continue this series any further without mentioning the game that started it all for me. In this post, we’re falling down the rabbit hole as I explain why American McGee’s Alice is a game everyone should play at least once.
American McGee’s Alice is the oldest game in my little series, releasing back in the ye olde year of 2000. It was designed by, you guessed it, American McGee. McGee is a video game designer who’s had an incredible career, involved in some iconic games like Quake and Doom. After leaving id Software, he went on to join EA and become the creative Director on American McGee’s Alice. The story is based on the Alice in Wonderland series by Lewis Carroll. You play as Alice, whose family dies before the start of the game in a horrific fire. Wracked with survivors’ guilt, Alice spends years in an asylum before returning to Wonderland to fix her shattered mind.
When you begin the game, one of the first things you are greeted with is the map. At the beginning, it’s mostly empty aside from the single area you are in. But, as you progress through the game the map of Wonderland fills out, revealing its twisted nature. This clever piece of design is a great indicator for how genius this game is. Each level feels incredibly unique, borrowing heavily from Lewis Carrolls’ work. But twisting it in a way that makes it feel fresh and reflective of Alice’s mind-state. Some stand out levels for me are: The Fortress of Doors, Looking Glass Land, and Queen of Heartsland.
In addition to the level design, there are other design elements that really stand out. The main of which, being the characters themselves. Each character has undergone a solid amount of twisting. From Alice herself wearing an apron constantly stained with blood, to the Cheshire cat. Your feline companion makes regular appearance throughout the game, with a skeletal form and earrings dangling off his battered ears. Some of the other stand out character designs for me have to be the Duchess, who is now a cannibalistic antagonist, the Jabberwock, who is just plain terrifying, and the Mad Hatter. Another fantastic character deign has to be the main antagonist of the game, The Queen of Hearts herself. But I won’t go too into that, as it does get into spoiler territory.
Overall, every element of the design feels incredibly well thought out. Taking heavy inspiration from the original work of course, but twisting it in a way that is both fitting, and original.
Composed by Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna, the music of American McGee’s Alice sets the tone impeccably. The game honestly wouldn’t be the same without it. I absolutely adore the OST and have listened to it on numerous occasions outside playing the game. In fact, I’m listening to it right now while writing this piece! Each track perfectly encapsulates the area it’s played in, from the eerie violin sounds in The Pool of Tears, to the looming bell chimes in Late to the Jabberwocky. Each track feels so different from the last, and yet they all fit together incredibly perfectly at the same time.
A bunch of tracks also utilise rather unlikely sounds, like the twinkling, robotic sounds of a jewellery box, seconds before loud, explosive drums. The chaotic nature of the tracks add to the great visuals that show this conflict between childhood wonder, and the tragic experiences that have affected Alice’s mind. Playing this game with the music turned off would honestly be a crime, as unlike other titles, the music is almost like another character in-and-of-itself.
Let’s be honest, this is a game from 2000. It looks dated. But the gameplay more than makes up for that. With an arsenal of unique, and varied weapons, there are so many ways to hack and slash your way through Wonderland. Whether you’re a fan of getting up close and personal with the Vorpal Blade, or you prefer the raw power of the Jabberwock’s eye staff, each weapon is viable. This is very unlike other titles, where as you progress the earlier weapons become kinda useless. Each weapon feels unique and again, heavily inspired by the source material, from a pair of demon dice to a stack of cards you can use to slice enemies in half.
Aside from the weapons, another main gameplay element is the platforming. As someone who is a little lacking in skills when it comes to platforming, American McGee’s Alice is incredibly kind to you. If you hover your mouse over where you want to jump small footprints will appear showing you where you will land. On top of this, Alice’s dress sometimes inflates, allowing for you to float higher and further, giving you a bit if leeway if you misjudge a jump.
And finally, the boss battles. Anyone who has read this blog knows how much I hate boss battles. But this game is a prime example of how to do them correctly. The boss battles feel logical and have weight to them, instead of just existing to stretch out game time. From the wicked Duchess to the Mad Hatter, each boss battle is varied, and requires a different tactic to face. None of them are ridiculously difficult (maybe aside from the Centipede), and all come at a time that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game itself.
WE’RE ALL MAD HERE
American McGee’s Alice is one of the first narrative games I ever played, and I attribute it to beginning my love of video games. It holds an incredibly special place in my heart, and always will. Additionally, it’s sequel Alice Madness Returns brought me back into gaming after a few years hiatus as a teenager. I 100% owe the genius of American McGee a lot, and will cherish his amazing games for the rest of my life.
Well it looks like it’s time for tea, but before you run off with the white rabbit why not read my previous gaming dedication post to Psychonauts right here, or check out some of our other content over on our YouTube Channel.