Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Now & Then: American McGee’s Alice

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Now & Then is a series where we dissect the culture of a specific series or genre or compare an influential game from the past and how it holds up today.


It’s a bit wierd that American McGee (yes, that’s his real name as far as I know) was given an opportunity to be a Creative Director on this ambitious project, even moreso as an early project with EA.  He began his career at idworking mostly in level design for many of the first person shooter series that I grew up playing: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.  He was fired from id for reasons not known and eventually ended up at Electronic Arts, where after a few sound design and writing projects he was given a large budget and the role of Creative Director for Alice.  Why EA back then agreed to put his name as part of the title or allowed him to create such a vivid project (in the Quake III engine, for irony’s sake) is beyond me, but it was a solid and pivotal decision.  American McGee’s Alice is one of the darkest, most twisted games I’ve ever played and takes the story begun by Lewis Carroll more than a century prior and turns it on its head.  To be fair, Wonderland has never been a “normal” place, begot mostly of fantasy concepts and mind-altered states, but I never felt that violence, murder, and insanity were heavy themes.  While the gameplay wasn’t spectacular even at the time, the imagery and graphics impressed gamers enough to sell more than 1.5 million copies.

As you play through the game, the previous history of a shooter level designer is more than clear: Alice is a clunky character and each level has tons of wasted real estate that I found in many shooters of the time.  Interestingly enough, you don’t seem to notice or care as the sinister tale of Alice’s dead family in the hands of a house fire unfold and you travel deeper and deeper into her insanity.  Along the way you will be greeted by evil versions of characters you probably grew up reading about or enjoying in Disney’s animated take.  I also need to amend my “wasted real estate” description by stating that although no enemies or interaction happens in large parts of the level, they are definitely brought to life with plenty of detail.  Couple that with a handful of so-so boss battles and you’ve got a game.  American McGee’s Alice was the game every PC player had in the year 2000, but rarely did anyone beat it.  I don’t recall cheat codes being in the game, and thanks to some wacky platforming it wouldn’t really matter anyway, not to mention the crazy mazes and extended final levels as you approach the queen.  In fact, the final two areas are easily just as long as the rest of the game, so just when you think you’re at the Queen of Heart’s front gate, you’re only really halfway there.  Alice’s mix of a strong story, gorgeous graphics, and violent world continue to make it a well-remembered game for the time, even if you have to adjust for the nostalgia factor.


A lot has changed since American McGee’s Alice premiered, although it doesn’t seem McGee has learned his lesson with the sequel – I almost wonder if he designs a few levels first and then tries to build a game around them.  Putting aside his newest release, Alice does not hold up all that well.  Like it or not, today’s gamers (even the ones who grew up with these titles) do not easily tolerate a limiting camera and the platforming delays and small ledges are aggravating.  Fortunately the game allows you to save whenever you want at the touch of a button, which means you can literally save before each jump or turning the next corner, and in truth you may actually have to do at times.  The down side to this is you become more focused on saving than you do with the actual game and it soon feels like you’re playing Mega Man 2 or Castlevania on an emulator – sure, you may beat the game, but you feel like you cheated to get there.

Not only that, the game is still freaking hard even if you do save with every move you make and cheat codes have definitely gone the way of the dodo, so regardless of whether you’re on PC or console, your online achievement provider will force you to beat it legit.  If somehow none of these things I’ve mentioned discouraged you, perhaps the various maze levels and the fact that you can wander around utterly lost for hours may do the trick.  There are plenty of walkthroughs for this game and although the 8 hour campaign may feel like a tiresome journey, realize that for $10 you’re getting a decent deal.  In addition, plenty of those gamers that never finished it as a child may want to go back and prove they can best the Queen once and for all, which was definitely my draw.  I also have to completement the music, which I never noticed before but I’m keenly aware of this time around.  Most of the music is made up of percussion-like sounds from children’s toys, which I recently found out was written and performed by Chris Vrenna, better known for being the former drummer of Trent Reznor’s band Nine Inc Nails.  It’s best to go into this game with an open mind and realize that by the time you want to quit, you’ll be just far enough along that you should proceed onward to the eventual end.

There is a charm to Alice: Madness Returns and it does an excellent job of taking a dated concept into the contemporary gaming space, but you appreciate it even more when you play the original Alice and see where these concepts were born.  Sure, the big draws from more than 10 years ago have all gone from positive aspects to negative ones, but this title is far from unplayable.  It just stands to show that while you may remember American McGee’s Alice as this creative masterpiece from your teenage (or in my case college) years, perhaps you glossed over some of the finer points that deterred you before.  Keep in mind though, we rarely completed any of the games we played back then.

Alice is available on Steam, XBLA, and PSN for $10 or free with new copies of Alice: Madness Returns. Please note that it requires you to own Alice: Madness Returns and is accessible through that game’s menu.

Written by Fred Rojas

June 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Now & Then, PC/Mac, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,

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