I am not the most broad-minded gamer. I have my quirks; I have my foibles and my preferences. I do not, for instance, particularly enjoy most racing games. Even so, I pride myself in a small ability to find the good in most games, and I try to play games through to the end where others would have moved on long ago.
Even so, all men have their limits, a point at which they simply cannot continue upon their chosen path. Upon completion of the second full chapter of Alice: Madness Returns, I realized I had reached mine. I am calling a spade a spade: Alice: Madness Returns is not a good game. It is in many ways a very bad game. It is full of incomprehensible, pretentious writing, the story feels both derivative and meandering, and the gameplay gets so monotonous that any early promises of interesting or engaging gameplay are quickly beat down by a vast dull roar of tedium.
In other words: Fuck this game. I quit.
Creative Writing 101
Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll, and, as we all know, the book has proved to be an enduring classic. One of the reasons for Alice in Wonderland’s longevity may be the memorable characters: the Mad Hatter, the caterpillar, the March Hare, and so on. However, just as important to these characters as Carroll’s masterful use of nonsense verse in his writing.
Literary nonsense, especially as perfected by Carroll, is effective because it does not attempt to make sense. Carroll strung words and ideas together, or invented new words out of whole cloth, in order to be whimsically evocative. Carroll played with words, sounds and language and produced meaning where none previously existed. A very good example of this would be Carroll’s own “Jabberwocky,” which appeared in the 1871 sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass.
Here’s a quick exhibit for the class:
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe”
These are the opening words to Jabberwocky. They mean nothing. Carroll just made this shit up. However, it sounds like it should mean something, and in doing so, it is evocative. This takes creativity.
Unfortunately, creativity was not in Spicy Horse’s budget when they hired the writers for Alice: Madness Returns.
Admittedly, going toe to toe with one of modern history’s greatest wordsmiths is not an easy task, particularly for a game company based out of China. They had two reasonable choices here, the way I see it: they could have either quoted Carroll verbatim and attempted to put their own stylistic spin on the words, or they could have taken a different direction with the verse entirely, and thus avoid the direct comparison. Spicy Horse, and Mr. McGee, chose the worst possible option: They attempted to tell their own version of the Alice in Wonderland story using Carroll’s style, but had none of his effectiveness.
The writing in the game inexpertly attempts to ape Carroll’s writing and style, and in so doing misses the entire point.
It would not be so bad if the writing in McGee’s baby were not so damned pretentious. They were clearly impressed with their own story, and it comes through in every poorly crafted aside, whether it is a prostitute in a London whorehouse screaming at a pimp, or the Cheshire Cat telling Alice to “Shut up.”
I know! How on Earth could these things seem pretentious, seeing as how stupid they sound? The problem is that the game presents dialogue in situations like this with only the most deadpan seriousness.
Honestly, certain parts of the story read like it was written by a college freshman who was eager to impress his first year writing class by writing a darkly edgy and clever version of a classic story. I assure you, this game is neither edgy nor clever, though it sure as hell thinks it is.
A Story Better Left Untold
The actual story in Alice is almost as bad as the writing that tells it. The game is essentially Alice in Wonderland meets Sucker Punch, except without robo-nazi-samurai-dragons. Alice is a partially insane girl in Dickensian London who may or may not be responsible for her family’s death in a house fire many years ago. Alice went crazy in the fire and was committed to various mental institutions, where she invented Wonderland in her head. Well, at the end of the first game, I guess she got a little better, because some vague shit goes down in this game, with an older Alice, and don’t you know it: Madness Returns. Now Alice must go back into her autistic Wonderland, but things are even more messed up than before.
In the grand tradition of The Wizard of Oz, the game attempts to pull elements of Alice’s real life into the Wonderland setting, but most of it ends up being shoehorned voiceovers justifying some completely average gameplay mechanic. For example, Alice picks up a memory of her sister telling her about the big slide in Hyde Park. The next area has a big slide where you move side to side to collect crap on your way to the next room. That’s the sort of thing I am talking about.
The game lurches from one poorly constructive narrative to another, never giving any of the characters any real motivation or purpose. Alice finds herself in various parts of Wonderland for no particular reason, and though things certainly happen as levels are completed, none of it adds up to much. For a game that clearly is betting so much on your being enraptured by the trials and tribulations of poor crazy Alice, this is kind of a problem. Again, nothing makes sense, but it is not out of any sense of creativity or whimsy: the folks at Spicy Horse just clearly can’t tell a coherent story.
A Bataan Death March Through Wonderland
Even if the writing did not cause me physical pain, and even if the story did not make Super Mario Brothers seem like an epic poem, Alice: Madness Returns would be a bad game for committing the cardinal sin of videogames: it fails at being fun to play.
If you have played only 30 minutes of Alice, my opinion here may surprise you. The game controls well enough, the combat is quick, and some of the puzzles seem clever in an old-school platformer kind of way. There are various collectables, upgrades for your weapons, and a neat little shrinking mechanic that allows the player to access hidden areas and see black-light graffiti scrawled on the levels, for an effect that is markedly similar to Psychonauts.
Here’s the problem: once you have played 30 minutes of Alice, you have played the next five hours. Oh sure, the game will introduce the odd mechanic here and there, but the core gameplay remains the same. The game essentially has you do two things: 1) jump from platform to platform in large rooms, occasionally having to find hidden switches, and 2) fight various enemies who must be beaten using particular strategies. This works for 30 minutes. It does not work for five hours.
American McGee has clearly learned nothing about game design since the original Alice was released in 2000. Alice: Madness Returns would have been acceptable then, perhaps even good, but 11 years later the industry has moved on, and we have come to expect more from our games than endless boxes full of platform and switch puzzles.
The industry has embraced all sorts of new ideas when it comes to level design: companies have worked with better integration of gameplay into narrative; they have varied up gameplay mechanics to stop the loop from feeling boring. Hell, F.E.A.R., a game that would have been an otherwise terribly derivative corridor FPS, played around with the player’s perception to keep them on their toes. Any one of these choices would have been a great improvement for Alice.
I cannot stress this enough: the game’s insistence on placing you in room after room of either the same combat, the same sort of jumping puzzles, or a mixture of both, becomes so tedious that playing a videogame starts to feel like a chore. The player will jump the same sorts of gaps, fight the same sorts of enemies, will break the same variously shaped boxes for collectables, and will find the exact same sorts of hidden rooms over and over again.
Despite the lack of variety, this situation may have been alleviated somewhat if the game went along at a better clip. However, even a very competent player will face almost an hour or more of mediocre platforming and combat without any significant narrative. Considering that the level design is not creative, Spicy Horse clearly went with the philosophy of quantity over quality here.
Mashed potatoes can be a great side dish. If you are really hungry, they can even be a main dish. However, once you have had several hours worth of mashed potatoes, you are going to want something, anything else than more fucking mashed potatoes. Alice just keeps the spuds coming.
To quote the Bard: I am getting too old for this shit.
As if to add insult to injury, the folks at E.A. did something to stop you from trading in your game, as if they knew that gamers would soon get potato poisoning and seek more savory pastures. They tied the download of the original American McGee’s Alice to Alice: Madness Returns.
First and foremost, let’s be frank: the original Alice is not exactly a monument of great game design. However, it was creative for its day and it was a neat opportunity for contemporary gamers to play the game on a modern console. All purchasers of new copies of Alice: Madness Returns received a free code to download the original Alice for free, and buyers of used copies could pay $10 for the download.
However, here’s the rub: the game does not download as a separate title. This is not an XBLA release of Alice. Rather, the game downloads as an add-on to Alice: Madness Returns. The only way to play it is with the disc in your drive, and through the main menu of Alice: Madness Returns. By doing this, they are preventing anyone who trades in their copy of the game from accessing the downloaded original.
On the one hand, it’s a pretty clever trick for E.A. to do this. On the other hand, it just seems evil. I am not sure whether to say “Fuck you” or “Well done” here, but either way, the real point is that not being able to play American McGee’s Alice did not stop me, in any way, from ridding myself of this game. I doubt it will stop many others as well.
In the last five years, American McGee has brought us Bad Day L.A., Grimm, and this gem. The days of Doom and Quake are long behind him, and he clearly has not been able to replicate the success of the original Alice, or the creative design of the underappreciated Scrapland. I think it may be time for McGee and Spicy Horse to hang up their boots, or at the very least stick to making mobile games, where the market will tolerate this sort of laziness.