Chances are, you probably haven’t played American McGee’s Alice. Set in a twisted, macabre rendition of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, it launched in late 2000 and would later become a cult classic. Praised for its creative premise and evocative visuals, the game ran using id Tech 3, the same engine that powered popular arena shooter Quake III. In fact, American McGee (yes, that’s his actual name) was one of the key members at id during its heyday in the mid-90s, working on both the Doom and Quake series. Although there are definite similarities, Alice was a massive departure for McGee and Dallas-based studio, Rogue Entertainment.
Alice would quickly fade into memory as the video game industry experienced one paradigm shift after the next. Although there had been rumors of a potential sequel, it wasn’t until 2009 that it was officially confirmed during an announcement by EA’s CEO John Riccitiello at that year’s D.I.C.E Summit. This was still a time when EA (and many other big publishers) would invest in smaller, singleplayer-focused experiences – a seemingly bygone era despite only being several years ago.
Alice: Madness Returns finally arrived in 2011 and garnered mostly positive reviews; that said, the game felt out of place and was ultimately overlooked by many. Picking up after the events of the original game, Alice Liddell has bested the Queen of Hearts and broken free from her catatonic state. Still scarred by the death of her family during a house fire (the trigger for her current mental state) she’s still a patient at the Rutledge Asylum and is about to suffer another relapse.
The Wonderland setting and its menagerie of creatures, characters, and bizarre vistas are a combination of superb art direction and very intentional metaphors that represent Alice’s loose grip on reality. Popular media is far more cautious nowadays in how it portrays mental illness though Madness Returns manages to sidestep many of the obvious pitfalls. However, having hysteria used a gameplay mechanic which has Alice doling out extra damage may now be seen as insensitive, as is some of the language used to describe Alice and other patients at the asylum.
Speaking of language, it can be a surprisingly crude game too and one that brandishes its mature rating in a weird yet compelling way. There’s the obvious splicing of Wonderland’s imaginative, Burton-esque imagery with the occasional bloody visuals. Then there are slightly more adult themes regarding the sexual exploitation of children – a subject that a minuscule number of game makers have ever touched upon in their work, though McGee’s own experiences are said to be a large influence. Even for a game that outwardly grabs your attention with its sinister looks, this sequel takes a surprisingly dark turn towards the end.
It’s easy to see why McGee wanted to return to Alice after all those years. id Tech 3 may have been cutting edge at the time though there were technical limitations, the enhanced power of the newer hardware allow him and his new team at Spicy Horse to realize their depiction of Wonderland in its full glory: an enchantingly twisted game world that looks completely alien yet with an eccentric flair that loops back into Carroll’s novels. There are entire areas made from floating teacups and dominoes that contrast the deliberately sludgy greys and browns of Alice’s real world.
Much like the original game, Madness Returns wasn’t immediately followed up with another sequel. Let’s face it, there’s probably zero chance of EA backing a third game to round out the trilogy. Still keen to expand on his brand of game-making, McGee took to Kickstarter in 2013 to fund an Oz-themed spin-off which failed though he found success with a crowdfunding campaign for Alice: Otherlands – a series of short films that continue the game’s story.
Since then, Spicy Horse has closed its doors but McGee continues to operate in his own quirky corner of the games industry. He’s currently looking to “crowd develop” a new project with his fan community titled “Alice: Asylum”. So, a sequel may be on the cards after all though it will be interesting to see how it takes shape with McGee’s new unorthodox approach.